How Design Star Emily Henderson Really Feels About Working for Free

NAME: Emily Henderson 

OCCUPATION: Designer, Stylist, Boss

ONE DEGREE OF C&C SEPARATION: She designed panelist Oh Joy’s studio!

HOURS SHE’S CLOCKING: Probably six during the day and three most nights, with shopping/writing on the weekends. So maybe 50? With kids taking priority of daytime hours. 

SOCIAL PLATFORM OF CHOICE: Instagram for the business, but FB for myself because it’s the best way to keep up on good articles/current events.

PHOTOS SHE’S HEARTING ON IG:  I heart what I try to create myself - anything that is both personal and beautiful. Ultimately - if it makes me smile, I double tap that shit.

"If it makes me smile, I double tap that shit."

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Emily Henderson, the HGTV host and designer, stylist, writer and editor of Style By Emily Henderson, thinks perfection is boring. In fact, it’s part of her design philosophy: "I believe that a perfect house is like a perfect person; no one really wants to be around them and everyone secretly hates them."

We tend to agree.

It's this kind of candor that has propelled Emily's career from dog walker to winner of HGTV's Design Star to Target Home spokesperson. Hers wasn't a straight shot to success (because it never is), but from clocking long days, spending time with her 5-month-old baby girl, and son, Charlie, while continually growing her taste and brand, it's success that is hard-won.  

We checked in with the incredibly frank entrepreneur to get the scoop on creating a brand, changing her mind about the color brown, and the only time she'll work for free nowadays. 

How do you create a brand that stands out? How do you come to understand what your “brand” is? 

You need to have a product that is both unique and universal. There are too many people doing interesting things these days, you have to make a product that stands out, BUT at the same time it has to have enough universal appeal that you aren’t selling to 10 niche customers. I always think about Jennifer Lawson. Sure, she is a person, but she is someone that everyone likes and yet she is totally unique (which is why everyone likes her). This is extremely hard to do, but the people I know who are successful have done a pretty good job at it. Give your product a personality and ask yourself everyday, “Do I want to hang out with that person??” If the answer is no, then tweak it because if you are feeling that way, then everyone else is too.  

"Give your product a personality and ask yourself everyday, 'Do I want to hang out with that person??'" 

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How do you create a “voice”with an image? 

It’s all storytelling. You need think about what overall story you are trying to tell every time you produce any content - it's basic marketing. But most of us (small brands) don't have a marketing person or team controlling all platforms. It’s our job to weave in elements of our story through all brands. I am by no means saying that I am queen at this and I think I could be doing a WAY better job. However, here is what I try to do: Show a happy, colorful image (whether it's an interior or my life) with copy that feels personal, informational OR inspirational. If I’m funny I get literally twice the likes, but I’m so busy that it's hard to produce good, funny, beautiful content all day. But that is the goal - pretty and entertaining.

You’ve called it the best marketing tool. But what else about the blog platform was attractive to you? 

It’s all mine. Sure we have sponsors, but even they know it's all mine. And sure I have three people that work just on the blog, but there is still a sense of autonomy that we have with the blog that we don’t have with our design clients or my major partnership work. It has such a large audience now, so we really feel like our work is heard, and we have an influence. I know you can have an influence on many platforms, but with a blog you have more real estate to write and share than on social media so your audience is more engaged and reads and listens so much more. 

Part of having a successful brand is fluidity. How do you go about introducing new styles to your audience when they’ve come to know and love your style? 

It’s hard and people call me out all the time saying ‘but you said you don’t like brown!’ And sure, I didn’t like it, five years ago. But luckily most people are on the zeitgeist train with you and sense the trends and shifts too, and are happy to see someone they know embracing them and showing them how to use them. I started the blog when I was 29 and broke. I’m 36 now so my life has changed - I have two kids, and frankly I kinda want nicer things than I used to. That combo can be resisted by some people who want me to be thrifty and eclectic like I used to be. I’m still the same person, but I've grown up, which is now embraced by an entirely different community. 

Have there been times when you’ve done something and thought, that was off-brand? But, you really liked it? 

When your brand is yourself then in a way anything that you like is on brand. WAIT. YES. I recently did a sponsored post for a pre-owned luxury handbag website. My mantra has always been - don’t promote anything you wouldn’t buy yourself. I’m from a coastal town in Oregon. My parents are both teachers. In other words I’m not buying $3k handbags both on principal and the money. But before I said ‘no’ to it, I polled my staff and friends and sure enough a lot of people are into handbags - at least the idea of them. So I figured I’d style some outfits with some bags and if nothing else people could see what I’m into fashion-wise these days. I wrote about the brand/bags very honestly - saying it’s a luxury, it’s certainly not for everyone, while letting them know that this site exists if they happen to be handbag people. I really liked the post, the brand got a ton of traffic and purchases and ultimately the readers (even those who had sticker shock) liked the post. So yes, I guess I do things that are technically off brand but still work. It’s a risk though and you have to be very careful because trust is #1. Well, staying in business is #1, trust is #2. 

"Trust is #1. Well, staying in business is #1, trust is #2."

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What would you say sets your work apart from others?

I know I’m not the best designer or writer, certainly, but I do think that I write about design and style in a digestible, approachable, and entertaining way. The site feels small even though it’s big, and people know that they are getting real opinions from a real person who is out in the field designing every day. 

You’ve said “work for free” when you’re just starting. Do you still agree with that statement? 

Hmm. Regarding working for free … I think i’d like to edit that and say ‘collaborate for free’. A large company should not be asking you ever to work for free - no matter how big or small you are. The only time I do work for free now is for magazines. Their model is simply to not pay you for makeover or design content because you will get notoriety and press out of it. But otherwise, I don’t “work” for free. 

I also collaborate with other influencers and do their homes for press/portfolio and exposure to a new audience, but I definitely see it more as a collaboration and I make sure that everyone is clear on social media expectations. Most of the time I try to not go out of pocket and get all my assistants’ time paid for - so iIm just volunteering my time but they are covering all costs. 

You have to weigh the amount of labor versus compensation and make sure you are being compensated somehow - whether it’s exposure, customers, high res photos of your work and press. IF someone has reached out to you and asked you for your work then they should offer to cover your out of pocket costs. 

In short -If you are starting out, think about whether or not the exposure is worth it to you (ask for social stats and get all social requests on paper). If you are already established make sure they aren’t benefiting more from you than you are from the exposure. 

Five years from now, where do you see your business? 

Digital media is too fluid these days to know what is going to happen next, so we just try to work our asses off, be flexible, and keep our eyes open.  

"We just try to work our asses off, be flexible, and keep our eyes open."  

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We could go in the brick and mortar direction, we could go licensing lines all over the place direction, and when the kids are a little older I do want to go back into the TV (design show) world. Or maybe it's all of them. I know I want the blog to be both a personal documentation as well as a much larger resource for interior design.

Photos by Mike Garten for Good Housekeeping Magazine. 

Arianna Schioldager is Create & Cultivate's editorial director. You can find her on IG @ariannawrotethis and more about her at