It was 2010, and Emily Henderson’s star was rising. After kicking around as a stylist for years, she got her big break after being cast as a contestant on HGTV’s hit competition show Design Star. Henderson had auditioned on a whim, so it took her by surprise when she won the whole shebang. From there, her own show, sponsorship deals and design world celebrity followed. But despite the glitz and glam, Henderson’s biggest takeaway from that era is fairly down to earth.
“The best thing I did and have ever done is start the blog,” she tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. Henderson kicked off her career as a blogger a few months before Design Star. From the beginning, she took an approach to blogging that was both ambitious—she hired her own photographer to capture her TV projects—and casual, often dashing off daily posts while getting her makeup done. At first, it was crickets. But over time, Henderson built a loyal fan base for her eponymous site by not just posting regularly but offering up a version of herself that was open, honest and occasionally messy. It was authentic, before “authentic” became a marketing buzzword.
“I think one of the reasons the blog was successful was the sheer amount of posts that I created,” she says. “It became a daily read for everybody, whereas a lot of people that are more perfectionist—which I’m not—would take three days to write a post, putting out two to three posts a week. [Those were] probably better than mine, but there wasn’t that consistency that people seemed to need and want. I’ve blogged five days a week since then.”
As Henderson grew her own audience, she began to pull back on TV appearances (tons of work, low pay) and eventually stopped taking on private design clients (OK pay, tons of stress) in favor of creating content and partnering with brands—including a major contract with Target. Almost by accident, Henderson had become a design influencer.
Her strategy was working, and she grew her team to take on more projects and more partnerships. But over time, burnout reared its head. “Where it all changed was Insta Stories,” says Henderson. “Stories made it so content you created only lasted 24 hours, so you felt you always had to stay on top of it or the algorithm would make you unseen … That’s where the burnout happens for a lot of people. It happened for me. I was trying to chase likes and follows to stay growing.”
While she was busy battling with the algorithms, Henderson’s business hit a snag. She had grown too fast, was spending too much on projects (one of the biggest misconceptions about the influencer economy is that it’s cheap to make content—it’s not) and had to let some employees go. That, coupled with the disruption of the pandemic, was a wake-up call. Henderson has since scaled back her team, and is kicking off a new phase of her career that finds her focused more on delivering value to her fans than growing her audience at all costs.
“Ultimately, I know I’m better with a small team—less of everything. Less money. Less partnerships. Less staff. Less work,” she says. “If you’re out there thinking, ‘Should I scale up or down?’ not everyone is meant to grow in the way we are told in our society that we should—that we should have more people, more employees, bigger offices. It’s OK to not want that.”
Elsewhere in the episode, Henderson shares an inside look at how the influencer economy operates, discusses the inspirations behind her new book, The New Design Rules, and shares some insight on hustle culture—including when designers should and shouldn’t work for free.
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Emily Henderson