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Grace Bonney has a digital footprint that many bloggers dream of, but few achieve. Starting her site, Design*Sponge, in 2004, Bonney has became one of the most popular decor bloggers on the Internet, going from a few thousand hits to around 907,000 views per day from social media alone.
Bonney started the blog as a hobby, but it was only after two magazines she freelanced for went under that she realized she could turn her talent into a career. 480,000 Twitter followers and one book deal later, her blog has morphed into a publication of its own, with a full masthead and even a scholarship. Bloggers like The Sartorialist have cited her as early inspiration and the New York Times dubbed Bonney's loyal following of interior design lovers as "Martha Stewart Living for the Millenials."
Bonney spoke with Racked recently about the early days of Design*Sponge, her thoughts on inauthentic bloggers, which interior design trends she hates, sharing her personal life with her audience, and how she deals with blogs and magazines ripping off her content.
A home in Corsica highlighted on Design*Sponge.
What were you doing before Design*Sponge?
"I wasn't doing much. I graduated from college in 2003, and started the blog in 2004. In between I worked for a tiny indie record label in Brooklyn. Then I worked briefly in PR and left to run the site."
Why did you start the blog?
"Now we are used to seeing hundreds of blogs, but back in 2004 there were only two interior design blogs: Apartment Therapy and Moco Loco. I looked at them because I loved interior design but I wasn't seeing anything that looked like stuff I liked, there was nothing that looked like Brooklyn. Magazines weren't talking about the DIY stuff that was happening in Brooklyn, and I would walk around Williamsburg with my camera and take pictures. This was during the beginning of what is now Brooklyn design. It was happening before 2003 but no one was writing about it and I was surprised."
Did you immediately start seeing success?
"Within the first six months, I had 10,000 readers a day. That is larger than normal because we were part of the first three blogs [to write about interior design] and we got scooped up in a New York Times article, so we benefited from earlier adopter status."
Well-lit space in a San Diego home.
How did you make your blog stand out?
"It was different back then, I didn't have to do a lot. The biggest thing to draw attention was to be different and have a strong voice, there weren't 100 girls with similar aesthetics talking about design. I focused on offering content that was unique. I talked a lot about Brooklyn because that wasn't being talked about. I had to be different because there was no way to promote, there was no social media. It's a different community today but if someone wanted to look at how to make a headboard online, there were only a few sites."
Were you always a crafty person?
"No, definitely not. When I was younger, I was really into composition and was always collaging. I got a degree in print making and was obsessed with woodblock but I knew since the beginning that I had no business being an artist. I thought about being an art critic but that was too serious and academic so I was fortunate to come about [during the time of blogging]."
Did you have to spend a lot of money on the blog to get it off its feet?
"It was incredibly affordable, until 2007 when I hired people. I paid a minimal amount [for site hosting], it was just the cost of my time."
How is the DIY community different now than it was back then?
"It was drastically different. In the early 2000s it was a bit craftier, people were much more interested in working with stuff around the house, it was purely decorative. Now it's more about the "hack" than it used to be. You have people going into stores and tearing apart pieces of furniture, that wasn't something people were willing to do as much in the early 2000s."
A DIY idea.
How did you make your blog profitable?
"It happened naturally. I was asked about ad placements in an email in 2005, and I first put them up for small amounts of money and didn't even think anything of it because I knew the shop owners [advertising]. I thought it was a nice way to pay for my groceries. I was running the House & Garden blog and I thought I'd work in magazines forever, but they closed down in 2007. I went to Domino [which also shuttered], and I didn't see any of that coming. I realized that print was not the end-all and be-all, that websites seemed like a reliable source of income and were the only place that was growing. I thought I should invest in my site and not rely on working for other people. I took my savings in 2007 and moved off blogspot to a dotcom, hired someone to design the whole thing, hired editors and financed a cross-country tour to start our Biz Ladies series. I decided it was my full-time job and invested in it across the board and took it really seriously."
How do you decide what to feature on the blog?
"I always focus on original stuff that is innovative and grabs readers' eyes, whether it's color or pattern that makes me look at things in a different way. It's hard to quantify, but I try to avoid things that are everywhere, like those "Keep Calm" posters and the antler trend. Anything that we think our community has seen enough of, we stay away from."
How do you deal with other blogs or magazines stealing your content?
"With straightforward copying, I have to decide whether it's worth the time and effort—most of the time it's not. But it happens a lot, especially with magazines. Magazines feel like blogs are the Wikipedia of the internet, and they can pull content like it's free and doesn't belong to anyone. They are starting to learn about us now because I'm not afraid to speak up. The idea of copying [between blogs] is almost irrelevant, because we are all working from the same set of influences. We're all using Pinterest and social media, so it's less copying and more finding inspiration from the same well."
Are there any interior design trends you wish would die?
"I'm tired of people painting everything gold. I love gold and brass, they are timeless and classic, but if you're spray-painting everything gold, it looks plastic and cheap. Laying low on metallics is a good idea."
What was your worst interior design mistake?
"No specific thing, but any room I've tried to recreate from a magazines always fails because it works for that specific place and layout. I tried recreating my old kitchen to a Domino kitchen I saw in 2009, two of them, actually. The first was dark blue and the second, crazy red. I wasn't paying attention to the light and the colors looked deep and dark. You can take something from what you like and translate it, but otherwise it's a disaster."
How do you manage your comments section and keep the dialogue so positive?
"Since day one, I've monitored every comment because [the site grew] really quickly. It went from people who liked the site to people who left comments that didn't know us. I don't edit people's comments, if I censor them, I email them to tell them why. I think it's important to answer every single one [of the negative ones], unless they are being blatantly belligerent. If they cross a line, I email them and say, 'hey, can we talk about what's going on?' It takes a lot to put your house out there on the internet, so why are you talking about their income or relationships, or whatever? I feel like if people are kind enough to share their homes, they should not be attacked. The comments have gotten inherently positive because people don't talk as much, and the comments have moved to Instagram. I'm loving that because it's a fresh place for people to say whatever the heck they want. But nine out of ten times, people respond, 'sorry, I've had a bad day, can you take it down.'"
Wallpaper inside a Brooklyn bakery.
Are there any preconceived notions people have about you/your job/design blogging in general that you find peeving?
"Most people assume all design bloggers are (A) women, (B) blond, (C) wealthy and (D) married and/or straight. And that is not true. There's nothing wrong with all that but those assumptions aren't accurate. In the last couple of years, we spent time diversifying our community because often, it's [often misunderstood as] a lot of wealthy women who don't have other jobs except blogging."
Why did you decide to come out to your blog readers?
"I think a lot of bloggers over the last few years have gotten divorced, or had babies or came out. All that stuff happens when people turn 30 or 40 or with anyone working in a field for that long. Things change, whether it's personal or aesthetic. There's pressure from social media to always put your best foot forward and to show happy, shiny things, but behind the scenes, bloggers talk about how that's not natural. I didn't feel like I needed to talk about every difficult part of my life because there's a line between sharing and connecting. I waited two years. But then I thought, 'I've always talked about my life on this site and this is something I can't talk about publicly?' I'm really glad I did. It helped me connect with audience in a real way and let me show them who I am. I like my readers because they are funny and tell me their problems and it felt like a natural thing to share when I felt ready to do that."
From a Portland city guide.
Do you think it's harder for people to start a blog now than it was back when you started?
"I think it's harder to get the large numbers that older bloggers have—not that we are better but earlier adoptions status is key to larger numbers. It's difficult in that sense but easier than ever because there's no longer any pressure to offer 20 types of content. Your blog can be a place to collect, the site can be a home of different streams. We create content just for Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook. Tiny, bite-size information is great for social media, and so then the stuff that's posted on the site is much more sacred."
What were some challenges you first faced with the blog?
"The hardest thing was figuring out the schedule for original content. At one point, we had 12 posts a day and those took weeks to coordinate. We were headed directly for burnout so that was a tough but good lesson to learn. Also, trying to manage people is difficult. I like to be a part of the team and one of the voices talking but it's difficult to step forward and tell [employees] what they need to change. It's not a comfortable place, especially when they are the same age. Learning not to be a team member was hard for most bloggers because we were all coming from the same place [as our employees]."
What about now?
"The biggest challenge now is how to stand out in a sea of information and people every day. People don't go to home pages, they go to social media, RSS feeds to get their information. Even our niche in the blog world has thousands of sites that talk about the same thing. How do you stand out? It takes a lot of work. We put in just the same work promoting the content as creating it. Six years ago, we'd do a home tour it would go out to everyone but now it can go unnoticed. So we Instagram, Twitter, Pin, and just put a lot of work into getting noticed."
A hotel in Morocco.
What advice would you give to new bloggers?
"From a business perspective, the smartest thing you can do is to have a plan of profitability. Every blog started out with passion, we all share that in common, so what sets people apart is not having one source of income, which is why magazines failed—we all relied on ad income. Immediately diversify. The quicker you can diversify what is organic to who you are, and do that early, you can have much more success. Focusing on profit doesn't make you overly capitalist, it means you're investing in the future of your business."
· Design Sponge [Official Site]
· How Molly Guy Went From Office Drone to Boho Bridal Magnate [Racked]
· Cupcakes and Cashmere on the Ups and Downs of Blogging [Racked]