As I head into my 12th year of blogging and business at Design*Sponge, I find myself craving more “real talk” in business.
I want to hear from people about when things didn’t go as planned, or when they found themselves up against an unexpected challenge. I want to know about the nitty-gritty and the times they fell down and what they learned from it all. I learn best from my own failures and have always shared them here in hopes that others can learn from them (or avoid them altogether).
But being vulnerable isn’t easy, and it’s not something that comes naturally to most of us, especially when the current online trend is to present a nearly perfect facade of branding and business. But we all know that at the end of the day, we’re all real people and we all make mistakes and there are topics that even the boldest of business gurus don’t want to tackle publicly.
So today I want to talk about what some of those are for me — the things I’m uncomfortable talking about and the topics no one wants to touch with a 10-foot pole. Things like firing people, working with friends, dealing with money and how to know when to walk away. Those aren’t things that have a one-size-fits-all answer, but they’re topics that get easier (and feel more universal) when we share them openly.
I’m going to go into more detail about all of these in future posts, but today I’m sharing 10 of the biggest issues I’ve faced in business that I wish people talked about more.
Hiring is as important as firing (and both are hard):
The topic I’m always most afraid of, more than money or taxes or competition, is dealing with hiring and firing.
First, hiring anyone is a huge deal. Not only are you committing to paying someone for a set amount of time, but you’re signing up for managing them and both setting expectations and holding someone to them. And when those two things don’t go well, you may find yourself in the situation where hiring turns into firing. I have never fired anyone and felt good about how it went.
A huge part of that is my struggle to speak up clearly when warning signs pop up. I try to assume the best of people and have, in the past, been prone to both avoiding difficult discussions and letting people walk over me. I want to run a business where the boss is compassionate and understanding, but I also know that worrying about that too much has led me down a path of very difficult situations that end with negative financial impacts.
What do I wish I knew earlier? It’s simple: I wish I had remembered that as soon as you hire someone, you sign yourself up for the possibility of having to fire them. So you need to imagine both and get a good contract in place to deal with both. Speaking of which…
Tough contracts are your best friend:
I just made a huge mistake this summer with contracts, proving that after 12 years, I still haven’t quite learned from all the earlier blunders I’ve made by not reading, or writing, contracts closely enough. I have lamented spending a lot of money on lawyers for contracts but when things get sticky, boy am I glad that I did.
Like good fences, good contracts make for good working relationships (or neighbors, in the case of fences). Defining clearly what each party expects from the working relationship, and in return, is absolutely a necessity. Sure, handshake deals work out sometimes, but when they don’t, they can end badly — in a way that could have been avoided.
So always (always) take the time to make a contract you feel comfortable with, that both parties understand, and that has a clear “out” clause you both agree to.
What do I wish I knew earlier? To speak up and be patient when a part of a contract makes me uncomfortable. That has always come back to haunt me, so when you feel nervous about something, listen to your gut and consult a lawyer.
Being friends with employees is a challenge (and it’s okay not to be):
One of the greatest joys of my life has been working alongside some of the most incredible people in our community. From full-time editors to part-time writers to our incredible in-house advertising/business team, the people I spend most of my day talking to online are the people I often feel the closest to.
But that can be a tricky line to walk. I’ve made the mistake before of letting personal issues cloud my business judgment (and the other way around) and it was a hard reminder that boundaries have to be set.
There will always be a part of me that believes there are exceptions to this rule (I consider some of our long-term team members to be my family and that will never change), but overall, it’s been hard for me to remember that as much as I want to be BFFs with all the amazing people we work with, sometimes you have to be the boss and that comes with decisions that won’t make people “like” you. And that’s okay.
What do I wish I knew earlier? You can’t make everyone like you. But you can treat everyone with respect and care. The latter won’t ensure the former, but it will ensure that you feel good about the working experience your team members have.
Tell, don’t ask, people what you want:
Speaking of decisions that may make people not “like” you… I spent the first 11 years of Design*Sponge politely (with way too many smiley-faces and question marks) asking IF people wanted to do the assignment I needed them to do. It led to confusion for our writers and team and to the idea that there was no real system in place.
It wasn’t until I had a real wake-up call about how that was affecting our team and their understanding of what was expected of them that I realized I had to start telling people what I needed, rather than dancing around that request like a question.
What do I wish I knew earlier? That what I saw as “asking nicely” and “being open minded” was really just confusing my team, who needed clear, strong guidance and vision.
People who do the same thing aren’t automatically competition:
Too often women in particular are told that we’re competing with each other. It wasn’t until a good friend encouraged me to run toward the feeling of jealousy and fear, rather than away from it, that I started seeing that people who did exactly what I did, or things I wanted to do, weren’t people to avoid, but instead people to vocally and passionately support and stand up for.
The wonderful thing about the Internet is that there is room for all of us, and even advertisers like to spread their money around, so the idea that there can only be ONE person succeeding in each field is just silly. People who do what you do and do it well should be admired, appreciated and looked to for inspiration — not as a source of competition.
What do I wish I knew earlier? Not to assume that because someone’s life/business looks “perfect,” it must be. Everyone is human, everyone could use another friend or support system, and no one is too “big” to approach to consider a new partnership or friendship.
Learn from and run toward the things that make you scared:
One of the things that gets spread around online in the interest of “pep talks” is the idea that you should stick to what you love, what you do best and forget the rest. But the rest includes a lot of important things that will help your business go far.
If you’re not good at something, try a new way of learning about it that forces you to at least get a bit more comfortable with it. If you’re not great at photography, take a new class! If you’re like me and were terrified of public speaking and interviews, start a podcast or event series where you have to get used to those things.
Too often we’re told to stay in our comfort zone (or “in our lane”) in a way that keeps us from learning new things and growing at people and businesses. Run toward what makes you nervous — you’ll be glad you did.
What do I wish I knew earlier? That I will continue to fall on my face and make mistakes well into my career. I thought that after a few years that would stop, so I became more and more cautious with my risk taking. But risk taking is what sets you apart and helps your business grow and learn and change. So accepting that mistakes happen, but that growth and learning comes from them, has been huge for me.
There is no such thing as work/life balance:
You know that whole “she’s got it all” idea? That doesn’t actually exist. No one has found that “perfect balance” because it doesn’t actually exist.
After interviewing 107 women at the top of their game for my new book, I realized that whether you’re new to your business or have been doing it for 40 years, there will always be a see-saw effect with life and work. There will be days when your personal life suffers, and days when you need to choose life over work and your business suffers.
But you know what? You will always be there to redirect when you need to and if you stay in touch with yourself and the heartbeat of your business, you’ll know when you need to put more time and energy into either.
What do I wish I knew earlier? That evvvveryone feels like they’re out of balance. It was so refreshing to know that even the people who have the finances to have nannies and assistants and huge teams still feel like they’re not getting to spend 100% of the time they want on work or life. And that’s okay. It’s impossible to be in both places at once, but both of them will understand as long as you check in and keep checking in to see how both are doing.
It’s never too late to say you’re sorry:
I did an entire radio show on this topic and the idea that women are often taught it’s better to try to be “perfect” than to learn to say you’re sorry and admit something went wrong. But I am over that.
Why don’t people ever talk about the times they truly messed up and had to eat crow? Or the times that they made a mistake that hurt their business? Those things happen a lot, and understandably, they’re hard to admit. But admitting them and airing them out lets you take the sting out of them and realize that everyone does this.
What do I wish I knew earlier? That a sincere apology goes a long way. It was hard for me to get used to the idea that I couldn’t make everyone happy (or make everyone like me) all the time. And accepting that idea meant accepting that I would need to give some sincere apologies when things didn’t work out the way I hoped. And learning to apologize (not unnecessarily, but when truly called for) has been an important part of my personal and business growth.
Sometimes when your company grows, you grow away from the part you originally loved:
I hear this talked about in the food industry all the time, because the more successful you are, the more you’re pulled out of the kitchen to be on shows, podcasts, do special events, books and promotions that take you away from your passion and into the business/marketing/promotion part of your business.
And you know what? That’s okay. Most small business owners (including myself) take great pride in having a hand in, or total control over, every aspect of the day-to-day life of our business. But at a certain point, that stunts the (even slow and gradual) growth of your company. Your business needs you to take time to step away, think big-picture, meet with people who can help you scale and grow and take your company to the next level.
Even if your goal isn’t to sell your business or turn into a household name, you will need to spend time away from the original “passion” part of that project to focus on the business end. I felt so much guilt about this for years until I realized that anyone who would truly be angry and walk away from my company because I couldn’t answer every email personally within two days wasn’t someone I needed to win over.
What do I wish I knew earlier? That delegating and focusing on the overall direction of my company was just as important as answering emails in a way that spoke to what I felt was the heart of my brand. You can teach someone to share and project your brand’s way of communicating (it will take time, though), but it can be done. It’s much harder to teach someone to share your brain and come up with the long-term vision for your company. So delegate those emails and social media if you need to make room for working on the long-term health of your business.
It’s okay to walk away:
Okay, this is my final topic for a reason. No one wants to talk about when to end something. We all hear about people selling companies for huge amounts of money, or taking on investment funds and then sitting back to collect a salary, but the truth is, most businesses usually end or are handed over quietly. Not everything ends with a fanfare and not everything ends the way your audience — or even you — may suspect.
But most importantly, no one can tell you when it’s the right time to close your business. I’ve seen friends take businesses from the brink of bankruptcy to profitability on sheer drive and grit alone and I’ve seen friends walk away from profitable businesses because their heart wasn’t in it. I’ve seen friends walk away from businesses because their interests changed, they had a new health challenge, or they wanted to focus on raising a family and doing something else closer to home.
There is no right or wrong answer and if you feel it’s right to close the book and move on, that is 100% okay.
What do I wish I knew earlier? Very few people will encourage you to end something if it’s still making money or has the potential to sell. And I understand why. But at the end of the day, the most important decision is what makes you, your family and your health the best. Everything in life has a time and a season and when you feel that you’re ready to move on and try something new, know that you’re not alone and that your life can have many different stages, phases and identities. Embrace them all with love and respect and you will go far.
Grace Bonney is the founder of Design*Sponge, a daily website dedicated to the creative community that reaches over 2 million readers a day. Her most recent book, “In the Company of Women,” is now a New York Times Best Seller.