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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Victoria Smith, blogger / designer

Victoria Smith, blogger / designer

Meet Victoria Smith, creator and editor of sfgirlbybay, one of the most successful design blogs in the world. Half a million readers visit her site each month, and the same number of people follow her on Pinterest. Read on to learn how she turned a hobby into her career, and follow her on twitter @sfgirlbybay.

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up? 


VS: Probably an artist. I can’t recall entirely, but art was always a big thing in my life and I took classes constantly, inside and outside of the regular school curriculum.


PPF: How long did that dream last?  


VS: It’s still a dream, or part of my life. I think I just make ‘art’ a bit more unconventionally I suppose through the blog. But I always take care to make it beautiful and to inspire myself as much as the readers.


PPF: You are one of the most creative, talented people I know. Which begs the question, is it in the genes? Was your family a particularly creative one? Did they encourage that in you? 


VS: Thank you! My mother is an interior designer, so yes, that kind of aesthetic and design around my home has always been important to me. My parents did encourage me – to a point. They always sent me to art workshops after school and during the summer. And then, I think my dad really wanted me to be a lawyer for some reason. Maybe because he didn’t go to college, but worked really hard all his life. I think he thought that would be a very respectable profession, but one that I would be horrid at!


PPF: What led you to San Francisco? 


VS: My family used to come here every summer – we’d head to Carmel, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco as part of a two week road trip in our VW Beetle. I just always loved it here. It was the late 60′s and very hippie-ville. I thought it was great! So, when I grew tired of living in Los Angeles I moved up here. It’s the kind of place I feel really at home and happy, and very content.


PPF: We’re always known for our food, but I’m also constantly inspired by the aesthetics of so many top-notch (and tiny, unknown) SF eateries. I’m curious—what restaurants in San Francisco inspire you aesthetically?


VS: There are a few restaurants that really stand out to me. One of my favorites is Outerlands in the Outer Sunset. It’s a tiny spot that’s always jammed, and they’ve got this great reclaimed driftwood counter, and all the walls are driftwood, too. It’s pretty special.

PPF: Five things you love about this city of San Francisco. . .the things you’d miss most if you ever left. 



1. My friends. I’ve found some lifelong, wonderful friends here.

2. The weather. While I do grow tired of the fog in summer, and the wind, I try to remember that’s what keeps everything so green and the air clean.

3. The proximity to nature. It’s a big city, but there are green parks and great hikes everywhere, within the city and really close by.

4. The charm of the architecture and the uniqueness of each neighborhood. I love the old Victorians and the hills. There’s no place really like it.

5. Diversity – of people, food, atmosphere. You can head to any part of the city and feel a completely different vibe. Chinatown, the Mission, Japantown…it goes on and on. I love it having so many cultures all in one place.


PPF; Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you along the way, and gave you a chance? I love hearing about the people who help open doors.


VS: I’d definitely say Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge. We didn’t know each other well and she came out to San Francisco and stayed with me. She had been running her very (hugely) successful blog for a few years before I started and she gave me great advice about adding original content, editorial calendars, and keeping unique to my own voice. Grace was really generous with her advice and support.


PPF: You started sfgirlbybay in 2006—when there were far fewer bloggers out there. How’d you come up with your name? 


VS: Blogging was totally accidental. I didn’t know what a blog even was when I started in 2006, nor did I read blogs. The ‘blog’ started out simply as a place to store photos that I wanted to present to Apartment Therapy in the hopes of becoming one of their home tours. I knew I could upload photos to share there. So I did that one night, just using an old email account name I had. I would not have chosen ‘sfgirlbybay’ for a blog name, but hopefully something that fit more appropriately.


PPF: How did your former jobs affect or prepare you for what you do now? 


VS: I think my experience as an ad agency Art Buyer helps me significantly when it comes to knowing what images to curate for a post.  My old boss, a creative director was always giving me these crazy-challenging photo searches. He hated ‘stock’ photography so he would challenge me to find just the right images to use to present concepts to our clients. There’s a certain look a photograph takes on which can either be really kind of relaxed and natural, and one that is very staged and over-styled. I aim for the most authentic images I can find–or photograph–and that experience taught me a lot about photography.


PPF: You’re known for your ‘modern bohemian’ style. Do you remember the day you coined that phrase in your head?


VS: I don’t think I coined it per se -  it’s really more a tagline to explain my aesthetic. There’s a book called Bohemian Modern: Living in Silverlake, by Barbara Bestor and when I opened it many years ago, I thought, ‘This style really resonates with me.’ I think of bohemian modern as a really eclectic, but well-curated collection of objects and decor, a mix of vintage and new.


PPF: Do you like the writing part of your job as much as the design part? 


VS: Yes! I was a journalism major in college, and studied photography in high school and then attended the Interior Designers Guild in Los Angeles. So all three of my passions are encompassed in the blog. I really hoped to be more of a writer, so being able to write a little bit for the blog definitely scratches that itch.


PPF: When did things start to really pick up? Do you remember a year when the traffic began to increase and make advertisers grow interested? 


VS: I think my traffic started to pick up significantly after my home appeared in a few magazines. I was featured in an Australian magazine, Real Living, and also in Sunset magazine. I also guest-blogged for Design*Sponge and that drove a lot of traffic my way. It’s always been very slow and steady, though. Not just an overnight huge number of readers. I started taking on ads in 2008 – at first I invited friends with small businesses to have an ad on the blog in the hopes that potential advertisers would see I had taken on ads, and approach me. I also created a digital media kit and pitched a few mid-sized brands who gave me a chance. From there it just grew pretty organically.


PPF: I think a lot of people underestimate the work that goes into blogging, when it’s your full-time gig. Can you explain a little bit about the ‘work’ behind the blog? What does a typical day look like for you? 


VS: Well, I live in pajamas an awful lot! I get up most days around 7:30, check the email for anything urgent, and delete a bazillion junk mails. Then, I take my dog to the park for an hour or so. I’m usually back home by 9:30 and jump in with a cup of coffee and check email again. Sometimes I work at the creative co-working space I helped create, Makeshift Society, or I work from home. If I don’t have any photo shoots or calls scheduled, I usually head to Makeshift. From there, I write my posts for the next day and manage on-going projects. In an ideal world, I’m caught up a week or at least a few days in advance with posts, but lately it’s been so busy, I’m posting for the following day. So I am either editing my own photos and adding graphics, or rounding up images from the Internet and putting curations together. That could go on all day and I’m sometimes up until 10 or 11 doing posts. Of course, there’s time for tweeting and posting on Facebook in-between. And answering important emails as they pop up. Somewhere in there, I eat. Not very well. I’m working on that.


Some days, I go out and photograph a house, or a new shop in the city. Sometimes, and it’s rare, I go out for lunch.


PPF: What was the lowest point in your career? 


VS: Oh, that’s tough. My career, as I mentioned, has been slow and steady; I haven’t had any real ‘dips’ in traffic. But I’d say when my father died a few years ago, it was a very sad time for me, so it was difficult to be creative and post in an upbeat way. It just didn’t feel right to me. But I powered through it, after taking a small break with the help of some guest bloggers who filled in for me.


PPF: How about the highest point? 


VS: I actually think it might be right now. I’ve finally hired an assistant which has taken much of the pressure off. Rachelle Dunn is my amazing sidekick and in addition to managing my email, she writes great posts and takes beautiful photographs – all which have added great content to the blog. It allows me to be much more creative and not feel pressured to be always addressing my inbox.  So, I’m having fun and not feeling too overwhelmed – which is the goal!


PPF: What is the greatest praise or validation you’ve ever received? 


VS: I think it was when Ben Silbermann, one of the founders of Pinterest was giving the keynote speech at Altitude Design Summit, among all my peers. He thanked me and credited me for helping to introduce Pinterest to bloggers and for helping get Pinterest off the ground through a joint promotion, ‘Pin it Forward,’ we did together. I was surprised and quite honored.


PPF: Can you tell me a bit about that partnership, Pin it Forward, and how you helped make it go viral? It was, by the way, brilliant. 


VS: I met Ben Silbermann, one of the Pinterest founders, at the Altitude Design Summit two years ago, and he told me about this “little” site he was developing. He was one of those people with so much joy and enthusiasm for life, I just felt compelled to check it out. And when I did, I could instantly see what a unique tool it was, a great device for sharing, and for me, an insanely helpful blogging tool. I use it to pin things I want to share later on the blog, and I design “rooms” or pinboards for myself from pieces that inspire me and that I might like to try down the road. It’s the perfect tool for me, because I can never remember my traditional bookmarks, and this is a visual bookmarking tool, so it’s all right there in front of me and it links back to the original site where I discovered it. Hard to forget this way.

So we talked some more about introducing other bloggers to Pinterest, and came up with a twist on Blog it Forward, a previous event I’d hosted, and we created Pin it Forward as a way to introduce a whole community of bloggers to this great visual bookmarking tool.  For my part of the collaboration, I had a readership to share that was perfectly suited to benefit from what Pinterest had to offer. And Ben had a great platform for bloggers. So, we invited 300 bloggers to each create a Pinboard of what inspired them most, post it on their blogs and then link to, and virtually pass the torch on to the next blogger. Kind of like a blogging chain letter, which also turned out to be the perfect collaboration for new bloggers hoping to gain more readership and connect with other bloggers.  I love the sense of community and inspiration that comes from Pinterest, and I love seeing them succeed.

PPF: It seems like you’d have to have some measure of ambition and self-confidence to start a blog and keep at it for all these years. Would you describe yourself as a self-confident or ambitious person? 

VS: No and no. Ha! I am actually kind of shy in person; I’ve been called an introverted extrovert. And I’m not really that ambitious. I love what I do for a living – it’s pretty much fun every day and that’s what keeps me going. I make a good living, but I don’t think I’ll ever be wealthy. I like being my own boss, whether that means working 14 hour days, or sleeping in a little. I get it all done at my own pace and get to share creativity all day long – that’s the reward.

PPF: What do you think it is that makes some blogs, such as yours, which has some half a million readers, get so popular? There are hundreds of thousands of bloggers hoping they could reach the kind of success you have. 


VS: You know, I don’t really know. It still surprises me that so many people read the blog. But I think perhaps the readers resonate with me somehow. I also think it’s possible for anyone who’s willing to work hard (it’s a full time job for sure!) on their blog to succeed. I work very hard – and I work a lot. Usually seven days a week – although it doesn’t feel like work, which is probably the key to why I don’t mind working so much.


I think you need to have a very clear vision of who your audience is, and share what you’re most passionate about, and perhaps most importantly speak from your heart and in your own voice. People like authenticity, so I think you need to find a creative way to share your point of view and be as unique as you can. I don’t take on sponsored posts that I don’t think will engage the readers and I just write about things that I hope will inspire people to create a unique space for themselves. I think a blog’s voice should be ‘as true as you,’ if that makes any sense. If you write about what you love, other people who share your same aesthetic and sense of style will find you — since there’s only one you.


PPF: What do you love most about the ‘community’ of bloggers? You seem to be right in the middle of that wide net and so admired by so many. 


VS: I really love how generous they are with their support of each other. In some ways, it’s surprising that it’s not more competitive, but instead a really great group of good friends who help each other succeed. I love that real sense of community.


PPF: What were a few of the very first blogs you started following? 


VS: Design*Sponge, Poppytalk, Oh Joy!, Apartment Therapy, Decor8, Oh Happy Day!, and Door Sixteen.


PPF: What are a few of your favorite new blogs?


VS: I’m not sure how ‘new’ they are – but newer to me: I love Weekday Carnival, This is Paper, DesignLoveFest,  Emma’s Design Blogg , Old Brand New and Manhattan Nest.


PPF: You obviously have quite the design eye—who are some designers you really admire? 


VS: Thank you! I admire Abigail Ahern’s work very much. I like Kelly Wearstler - she’s unique and over the top. And I like Sheila Bridges a lot.


PPF: What (or who) most inspires you and why?


VS: It might be easier to tell you what doesn’t inspire me. I’m a pretty visual person, so wherever I go it’s likely I’m taking photos either with my iPhone (I’m addicted to Instagram) or with my camera. The city of San Francisco is nonstop inspiring to me, and everywhere I look, there’s something beautiful and colorful. My friends are very creative and they inspire me endlessly. I love art and photography and books. Great stories and films inspire me. My very favorite film is Amelié - I’ve watched it probably 6-7 times. I love the story, but the set design is perfection.


PPF: If you weren’t doing  sfgirlbybay, what would you want to be doing? 


VS: I’d probably love to be a full-time photographer.


PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were? 


VS: Hooker? Sorry, but probably true. I think working at any government office would break me.


PPF: When have you been most daring in your life? 


VS: Probably when I moved to San Francisco. I didn’t know anyone here and didn’t have a job. Well, I knew one person and she moved to Chicago that week.


PPF: When have you been most afraid? 


VS: September 11, 2001.


PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?  


VS: I heard this Zig Ziglar quote recently that really resonated with me from Jordan Ferney of Oh Happy Day!: “The chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what you want most for what you want right now.”


PPF: If you could choose it ahead of time, what do you want your last meal on earth to be? 


VS: My mum’s prime rib, mashed potatoes and Yorkshire Pudding.


These are everyone’s questions:


PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?


VS: A Tale for The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.


PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day? 


VS: I’d love to drive cross country in a VW Bus with my dog Lucy and maybe a few friends, stopping along the way to visit small towns, eat in diners, seek out flea markets and take tons and tons of photographs. One day!


PPF: First concert you ever went to? 


VS: The Beach Boys at the Los Angeles Forum.


PPF: Best concert you ever went to? 


VS: I think I’d say David Bowie and the Go-Go’s at Anaheim Stadium.


PPF: Best meal you ever had?


VS: I keep eating this same one that a group of us share on a regular basis: Roast Chicken at Zuni Cafe, starting with fresh oysters on the half shell, Caesar Salad, pom frites and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.


PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?  


VS: Oh my gosh – I have no idea. I surprised myself by taking surfing lessons and getting up on the first try – that was a shocker. I’d love to surf more.


PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?


VS: Bill Murray.



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