Grace Bonney: Design Sponge
Grace Bonney is a woman who needs no introduction. In fact, over the past sixty-five interviews we’ve conducted for Bossladies, more than a quarter of the women have attributed some degree of their success to Grace. Her company, Design*Sponge, is one of the most-read blogs on the web, featuring a range of content from home tours and profiles to recipes, DIYs, and business advice (e.g. 10 Tips for Licensing Your Art.)
Grace started Design*Sponge in 2004 as a side project while she was working at a design PR firm. At the time, she was living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Each day on her walk to the subway she noticed interesting types of design and art emerging, yet magazines and newspapers weren’t covering any of it. So during her lunch breaks, Grace wrote about the art she had seen, assuming that someday she’d use the blog as a resume to apply to a magazine.
A year later, House & Garden magazine asked Grace to create their website. It was exactly what she had wanted. But only two years later, the magazine closed. Grace moved to Domino magazine and worked for their website until they too closed. She realized that working at a magazine wasn’t going to be the secure job she had imagined it would be. “I always thought print was the safest place you could go. You could get healthcare, a reliable paycheck…”
There may have been a time when that was true, but it clearly wasn’t the case any longer. It was 2008, and most industries were unstable. Rather than seek out another position, Grace decided to make Design*Sponge full time. She got an accountant and a lawyer, made her first hires, and did competitive research to learn the best practices for managing a happy, productive team.
It will come as no surprise that our favorite content on Design*Sponge is Biz Ladies: a column with business advice and profiles on business owners. But we hadn’t realized that Biz Ladies began as a live event. Grace first had the idea when she was attending a wine and cheese night at a friend’s home. The guests were talking through some of their questions about taxes, and suddenly one woman, who ran an Etsy store said, “I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about all these tax things because I don’t have to pay taxes on my Etsy account.”
Grace was shocked. She realized many business owners lacked an understanding of fundamental aspects of running a business. (Years before, she had made a tax error herself that almost caused her to go bankrupt.) So Grace embarked on an eight city event series to help women across the country learn business skills. In each city she assembled a panel of five experts, herself included, who taught guests, pro-bono, about publicity and marketing, wholesale pricing, hiring and firing, and legal. Eventually, Biz Ladies morphed into a column on the blog with articles on business-related topics like: 10 Golden Rules About Getting Paid As A Creative.
Last year, Grace published In The Company of Women, a collection of Q+As by a diverse group of female makers, artists, and entrepreneurs that seems, in some ways, the culmination of Biz Ladies. It was supposed to be another DIY book, or at least that’s the book her publisher had bought, but for a year and a half, Grace avoided the project. Her heart wasn’t in it, and she knew that a book on diverse women business owners would be so much more impactful. “I went in [to my publisher] and said, ‘You can have your money back OR, here’s this totally different idea.’ ” They agreed to let her switch topics and gave her a 2-month deadline to write and photograph the whole collection.
Over the past year, Grace has become increasingly more vocal about politics, social justice, and the need for activism. Some have told her to “stay in her lane” and “keep writing about houses,” but she refuses. “It doesn’t just feel lame to not talk about it. It feels irresponsible…It’s not the job of the people who are directly affected by this stuff to do all the work.”
What is the inspiration behind your business?
My business mission is constantly evolving. In the beginning I simply wanted to have a place to talk about things I loved that weren’t being given the attention they deserved. Then I realized how few people were supporting handmade work, so I dedicated myself to raising support and awareness for handmade artists. As I got to know those makers better, I realized how many of them didn’t have the basic business information or education they needed, so I began to weave business advice and in-person events into my business structure. These days, I’m most inspired by finding and celebrating the connection between creativity and business—how they inform each other and how we can support people trying to do both.
What was one of the hardest things you encountered as you brought your idea to fruition?
I almost always choose my ethics and desire to do good over a desire to make money, but over the years that has limited—and hurt—my business. These days I try to make passion projects profitable, so they’ll have a greater chance of succeeding and aren’t just flash-in-the-pan ideas.
How would you describe your working dynamic with other women? Easier than working with men? More challenging?
I personally don’t notice a huge difference in working dynamics when it comes to genders, except when it comes to pricing. I’ve found that, across the board, men are more comfortable asking for more money, and both men and women tend to accept men’s demands without question. I try to make sure the women I work with know to ask for what they’re worth and aren’t afraid to stand by that number when they’re questioned.
Where do you see yourself, and your business, in ten years? Do you think that far ahead?
The blogging industry and ad market are changing constantly, so at this point, the only thing I can picture is my personal life. In ten years, I hope to have one or two children with my wife and to be an involved member of our community, wherever that may be. I hope I’m still doing work that includes face-to-face time with women in business and using the skills I’ve learned from blogging in ways that help serve the greater good.
What advice do you have for women who want to start their own businesses?
Never be afraid to ask the questions you need to ask. I spent too much time not asking questions because I thought I should already know the answers. But admitting what you don’t know and actually learning will always serve your business. Also, make sure you read every contract at least three times—and then hire a lawyer to read it too.
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