Tina Roth Eisenberg on successful side projects

This article first appeared in the November 2012 issue (#234) of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Leaving client work to focus on personal projects is a dream for many designers – and it’s something Tina Roth Eisenberg has turned into reality seemingly by accident.

“I definitely did not imagine that my career would turn out the way it has,” she admits. “I thought I would work in some different studios, which I did, then run my own studio and be incredibly happy doing that. But sometimes when we make our goals, we make them for the person we are at that moment, not for the person we’re going to be when we get there. I had more clients than I could handle, and very prestigious clients, but once I’d been running my studio for two years I realised I was not happy and I had to re-evaluate some things and work out why.

“I realised that after doing client services and solving other people’s problems for 12 years I didn’t find it satisfying to jump into a problem, solve it for the client and hand it off. I think the moment you hand it off is when the real work starts, and I found it really unsatisfying to have to walk away and not be able to grow something, to own something over a longer period of time and really be a part of what that thing becomes. I think the service industry as it is now is flawed in that sense. So when I reached that point in my career, I did some soul searching and realised the things that make me happy are my side projects: CreativeMornings, my to-do app, my blog. I needed to pivot a bit and focus on those projects, which actually started to create income in an accidental way.”

CreativeMornings is a lecture series that invites a single speaker to deliver a talk with breakfast; it’s now hosted in 34 cities. The swissmiss blog attracts over a million users every month, and Eisenberg’s latest venture, temporary tattoo shop Tattly, has also been a big hit with fellow designers. It looks like she’s an astute businesswoman with a good sense of what people want, but Eisenberg claims this isn’t so.

Problem solver

Tina Roth Eisenberg

“It’s not about knowing what people want – I just know what I want! I have a tendency to fix things that I see are broken, and often when you have a problem you’re not the only one. I firmly believe that if you fix things for yourself, you do a good job and you do it with enthusiasm, people will notice and be convinced.

“I also think it’s easier for me to make something successful because of my blog: I have a loyal readership of people who will use the things I make because I already have their trust. I set up CreativeMornings because going to conferences wasn’t doing it for me. I wanted to meet my local community and have something accessible. I wanted one talk before work, not 10 in one day. It struck a nerve because I wasn’t the only one who had the desire for a different type of event. Similarly with my to-do app, TeuxDeux, a lot of people found to-do apps too bloated so my streamlined app was a success. With Tattly, I was annoyed that my daughter was wearing ugly temporary tattoos – I wanted her to have cool ones. I wasn’t the only parent who thought that, and people who love design picked up on it. I don’t start out to make something hoping that it will be a huge success, I really start out fixing something for myself.”

As well as creating useful outcomes for people, Eisenberg’s projects seem to have magic community-building powers. Perhaps most notable is Studiomates, the shared workspace she started in 2008 that’s inhabited by some of the biggest names in the business. Does she set out to bring people together?

“I think I have some kind of community-building gene, I’ve always had that from early on. People think I’m very strategic about all the things I do but I absolutely am not. I’m very much a gut person: if something feels right and I’m excited about it I just go ahead and do it, and afterwards it’s pointed out to me that I’ve created another community, and I didn’t really notice.

“I just follow what feels right, and I truly believe people sense that. Sometimes I see people starting something and I sense it’s done for the wrong reasons, and people really pick up on that. For example, I went to a conference last year organised by someone I respect, but it felt like a money-maker the minute you walked in. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while I love to make money, I never put it at the forefront and people are very sensitive to that. They can see a certain honesty. CreativeMornings, which is this very fragile, innocent, volunteer-based organisation has exploded, right? There’s an innocence that comes with it, whereas the conference world is all about money. I feel that whatever you start, you have to do it for the right reasons and people will pick up on that.”

I have a community-building gene – people think I’m strategic but I’m a gut person really.

Eisenberg tells us that going to work at Studiomates, where she sits among the likes of Jason Santa Maria, Frank Chimero and Maria Popova, is her biggest source of inspiration.

“I have moments where I cannot believe that I’m sharing workspace and having lunch with all these amazing, incredibly smart people. It’s so different to being in a company where you all work on the same thing. Everyone is working on their own entrepreneurial projects, so when we come together at lunch to talk about what we’re doing you get all these different inputs. We’re an extremely smart and respectful bunch of creative people, and I really believe the more you’re surrounded by smart people, the smarter you get, and the better your work gets.”

Desks at Studiomates are hot property. How do they decide who gets in? “You’ve got to love what you do and be somewhat entrepreneurial and have the right spirit to be part of us. I’ve heard the criticism that we’re an elitist club, which makes me a little sad. But that’s when I point people to my ‘haters gonna hate’ Tattly!”

Open access

It might be tough to get into Studiomates, but Eisenberg tells us the design scene in Brooklyn is extremely open and accessible. “I wish I was a student now, because today it’s so easy to access designers who are established in the industry. When I started out I couldn’t just tweet Michael Bierut, let alone find out his email address. But I am convinced that things will become more closed off, and I kind of hope that happens because I find it overwhelming as it is now.

“I have created a very friendly and approachable personality in the web industry – and I want to be that – but I get approached by so many people. I want to be able to respond but I just can’t – there are only so many hours in the day. So I’m hoping we start to move into more closed-off communities, although I don’t know what that will look like. But while everything is so extremely open, I tell young people to take advantage of it while it still exists. Take CreativeMornings, for example. Most of my Studiomates are there every time, and anyone can come to that for free and reach out to these amazing, smart people.”

People understand that a well-designed user interface makes the product better

Eisenberg also advises young designers to make sure they work on real briefs. “School problems where you don’t have the constraints of a real assignment give you too much freedom. Do as many side projects and little assignments from friends and family as you can because the more you solve real life problems, the faster you develop.”

Much has been said recently about how now is a special time for design. Eisenberg agrees: “It is part of the collective consciousness that design is important, and it’s a huge breakthrough that the average person [without] a design education is starting to understand that. Thanks to companies like Apple, people understand that a well-designed user interface makes the product better. People starting businesses know it’s important to have a good online presence and logo. Society recognises that we add value to products and services, so this is an amazing time to be a designer.”

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