Tina Roth Eisenberg is a Swiss designer gone NYC and is often referred to as swissmiss, also the name of her popular design blog. Besides running swissmiss, she organizes a monthly lecture/breakfast series called CreativeMornings, manages the collaborative workspace, Studiomates, in DUMBO, is the co-force behind the simple, browser-based to-do app called TeuxDeux and just recently launched Tattly, a designy temporary tattoo shop.
We had such a blast talking with Tina—it’s no wonder her Studiomates space is bursting at the seams. Who wouldn’t want to be working next to this incredible woman? She’s smart; she’s passionate; she’s energetic and fun! Though we chatted early in the morning, Tina was lively and animated as she shared with us about her life then and now and her journey from the Swiss countryside to the buzzing streets of New York city. She also talked about her many entrepreneurial ventures and weighed in on taking risks, why side projects are key, and the value of community. It’s true; you can believe the hype. This swissmiss—and unofficial “Ambassador of Brooklyn”—is making things happen. We can’t wait to see what’s next!
Interview date: February 6, 2012
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How did you get started as a designer and how did that evolve into all the things you do now?
I grew up in Switzerland with parents who were entrepreneurs, but totally not in a creative field. I got my creative inspiration through my slightly eccentric Aunt Hugi who is a fashion designer and overall creative spirit. She’s been a huge influence on me. When I was maybe eight or nine, I watched her life partner, a graphic designer, working on a poster and drawing type. Completely fascinated, I asked him:
“What are you doing?”
He replied, “I’m working.”
I said, “You’re making money doing this?”
He said, “Yeah.”
That was it. I was like, “Hell, yeah. I can draw and make a living?”
I knew right then that I wanted to become a designer. During my high school and college days, I was really active in our student organization, but I think that was mostly because it allowed me to design posters and work on the student newspaper. I was known as that girl that makes the posters. And imagine, this was before computers. I was the queen of hand-drawn type and hand-kerning. I had it down to a science—type and layouts were always a passion of mine!
It was hard to convince my parents that graphic design as a profession was a career choice worth pursuing. I am a strong-willed Capricorn, so I forced my way through it. I studied business and languages until I was 20—the school system is a little different in Switzerland—and then I felt like I’d paid my dues and I went on to study design and my parents couldn’t refuse anymore.
So you went on to study design after you studied business?
Yes, it was a combination of business and languages that I studied in pre-university, but I eventually studied communication design in Geneva and Munich and graduated when I was 26.
After I earned my graphic design degree, I convinced my parents that I wanted to go to New York for three months to do an internship. They supported my idea, but mostly because I had a job and an apartment lined up in Zurich, so they felt like I was definitely coming back. I never thought I’d stay longer than 3 months. I arrived in New York on a Monday night and had an interview lined up the next morning. Within the first five minutes of that interview, Matthew Waldman, the CEO of a small, now defunct design studio, looked at me and said, “You’re going to stay in NYC—forever; you have that personality!” Then he pointed at an empty desk and said, “You just got yourself an internship!” I started working right away and a few weeks later, they offered me a full-time job and a visa. It was time to tell my parents that I wasn’t coming home after all.
How old were you when you came over here?
I was 26. Oh man! I was so naive, so cute; I was such a puppy (laughing). That was 12 years ago. I’m still here and now married to a New Yorker.
Nice. So you did the agency thing for a while before going out on your own?
Yes, my first job was at that small design studio I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, when the towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, so did our studio. They closed shop.
Even though all signs pointed to doing the right thing, which meant moving back to Switzerland, I refused. I wasn’t done with New York yet and there were more chapters to be written. Then, after a stressful year of keeping myself above water with freelance jobs at various NYC agencies, I landed a really fantastic job at a company called PlumbDesign. At the time, it was one of the most well respected web agencies in town. That job put my name on the map and kickstarted my career. While I worked there as their Design Director, they ditched services and changed their name to Thinkmap. That is also the name of their visualization software that most people know from The Visual Thesaurus. I got to brand The Visual Thesaurus, shape the user interface of the actual app, do the first version of their site, and work on all marketing material. It was my last big project before I left and went out on my own and also one of the most exciting projects I have ever worked on in my career!
How long have you been out on your own?
Have you been blogging since then?
I started swissmiss in 2005—so it’s been seven years. I started my blog because I needed a personal visual archive. I’m Swiss; I’m neat and organized, but I can’t remember a name for the life of me. I needed something visual, with lots of images. You have to understand that this was pre-Tumblr and all of those other visual bookmarking sites we have today.
I know. I gotta stop. And I have two little kids on top of that. And a husband. There was no strategy behind this explosion of businesses; it all just happened very organically.
Having my own design studio was always my dream. When you set goals like that, you sometimes forget that when you reach them, you might be in a different place of your life and actually not be as happy as expected. That’s exactly what happened. So, there I was, with a buzzing studio and I realized that I wasn’t happy.
In a talk that Jim Coudal gave, he referenced a quote from Dan Gilbert that says, “The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals—not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them—we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.” That was an epiphany for me when I realized that I didn’t want to have clients or a design studio. I realized I needed to work my way toward being independent and having my own products. TeuxDeux, the to-do app I created with my studio mates Cameron Kozcon and Evan Haas, was the first step in that direction of creating my own products.
And then, I happened to accidentally create the ideal environment and breeding ground for new startup ideas: Studiomates, the co-working space I opened in 2006. Studiomates keeps me on my toes and inspired. I am surrounded by incredibly smart, entrepreneurial minded designers, developers, and writers that fuel my “maker gene”. Studiomates is definitely my happy place.
“I am surrounded by incredibly smart, entrepreneurial minded designers, developers, and writers that fuel my ‘maker gene’. Studiomates is definitely my happy place.”
You talked about when you were younger and having an “aha” moment when you realized that you aunt’s partner got paid to draw for a living. Have you had any other “aha” moments along the way?
The day I started attending art school it felt like somebody turned my creative dial up to 11; I felt energized and so profoundly happy. I had found my path and felt like I was home. And sure enough, things kept falling into place.
I’m a firm believer that if you’re on your right track—not to get all spiritual, although it kind of is—things fall into place because it’s meant to be. There have been phases in my life when I’ve tried to force something and it just wouldn’t happen. I had to tell myself, “It’s probably not meant to be; just veer left a little bit.”
I am pretty sure I was driving my teachers and peers crazy with my enthusiasm and hunger to learn and make. Early on, I developed an interest in all things web, but nobody offered web design classes—I took matters into my own hands and declared to my professor, Mr. Keller, that instead of doing a print project, I would be designing and coding a website. I was determined and he realized that and didn’t fight it. I did my own thing and taught myself everything about the web. It was such an exciting time. Oh, and I was the queen of animated GIFs!
Did you have any mentors along the way?
I didn’t. I get so envious when I see young people that do have strong mentors in their lives. I guess in some way, it was my crazy aunt because she was a fashion designer and artist.
I wish the concept of a mentor would have been more apparent to me. Now that I am more advanced in my career, I feel I have a lot to give to people just starting out. I have a really smart, fun, and young team working with me and I try to give them as much independence and sense of ownership as I can, but also try to subtly teach them as much as I can. I would never use the word mentor with them, but I feel like I can give them a lot early on in their careers and I wish I would have had that myself. The impact that one can have on a young person’s life by simply asking the right questions or making someone feel empowered is tremendous.
Did you guys have mentors?
Never formally. We’ve had people that we’ve been around and learned from—when you’re around someone and picking up on what they’re doing, you learn a lot from that.
If I would have had the mindset of thinking about it that way, I would have asked more. If I would have recognized someone as being a mentor to me, I would have asked a few more questions or asked the person if they wanted to take on a role as my mentor. If someone were to ask me this, I would step up a bit and teach them more because they really want to know. I think it’s something you need to put into a student’s head—try to find the person you really look up to and ask them if they would consider being your mentor. I think it needs to be actively pursued. Does that make sense?
That definitely makes sense. Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
When I lost my job, my parents were freaking out back in Switzerland. For a year, I had to figure things out and prove to my parents that I could handle it.
The other moment when I took a risk was when I decided to take a one year sabbatical from client work right after my son was born. I actually consider my kids as catalysts in my career because I took big leaps of faith after I had each of them. I started my own studio right after my daughter was born. I would not recommend this—do it earlier—but having a kid made me realize that I want to push the envelope and create the kind of lifestyle I want for my family. Luckily, that worked out and I had more clients than I could handle. As I got more and more pregnant with my my son, who is my second kid, I realized I needed a break from doing client work. I decided that I would take a two month maternity leave after I had my son and then I would not take on any clients for a year. I wanted to try to shift my focus and work on my own products. This was only possible thanks to the income I generated through my blog. It was a risky year, but my husband was very supportive of my decision. It’s been two years now and my client sabbatical has been extended indefinitely; I am very happy client-less.
That’s awesome. You touched on this a little bit in that last question, but are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
My mom was always supportive of me pursuing a creative career. Once I had a job in New York and paid my own rent, my dad realized I could do this.
My husband, who is also an entrepreneur, is just amazingly supportive. From the time we met, I’ve gone from being an employee to doing all the things I’m doing now. It’s been crazy at times with me having to work late or go to conferences or fly to a kickoff of CreativeMornings. I don’t think I could have done all of this without his help. Because he is also self-employed and can make his own schedule, it gives both of us a lot of flexibility. My recommendation is that if you want to have kids and and also run your own business, don’t marry someone with crazy, intense work hours (laughing)!
Is your husband also in a creative field?
He’s a kitchen designer. And yes, we have a nice kitchen.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Yeah, every day. In some way, I’m trying to be a digital version of my eccentric Aunt Hugi. With my blog and CreativeMornings I am able to have an impact on people’s lives. I get daily emails from readers that say I’ve inspired them to start a new business or change something in their lives. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Are you satisfied creatively?
Yes! What a great question—no one has ever asked me that! Come on, it doesn’t get better than blogging about stuff you love and running a business like Tattly.
You have a lot of different ventures going on. Is there anything you’d like to be doing in the next 5 to 10 years?
I am not good at planning too far ahead. I love it when people think I had a strategy with building the swissmiss empire; that is not the case. I’m a gut reaction person. If something feels right and looks like fun, I go for it.
I’m determined that this Tattly business is going to pay for my kids’ college—I hope. It would be such a cool story if my daughter could write in her college essay that she inspired her mom to sell temporary tattoos and now it’s paying for her tuition. Tattly’s growing fast, but it’s not quite there yet.
My big goal, besides growing Tattly, is CreativeMornings—we’ve grown from having four chapters last July to currently having 22. There’s such an amazing response. This has been in large part thanks to the involvement of Craig Shapiro from the Collaborative Fund. We’ve also been fortunate to have amazingly talented volunteer organizers running each chapter because they believe in what we’re doing. However, in order to continue, it’ll need to be able to sustain itself and it’s not very clear how to build a business model around CreativeMornings while maintaining the honest, innocent nature that’s such a big part of it. That’s going to be the big challenge for the next five years: to keep it growing while staying true to those same values.
[Ryan] I really appreciate that about your blog and all the things you do—that you don’t clutter stuff with ads and that things are kept as pure as possible.
That makes me so happy to hear. I wonder how many people really do appreciate and see that. I never want to come across as someone who is selling out. I really care about my readers and about my integrity as a blogger.
If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
I would have started my company earlier. I knew I wanted to start my own studio, but was always waiting for that right moment. Since then, I have learned that “the right moment” is NOW.
Also, if I would do things over, I’d start my company before I had kids. I didn’t realize how little time I would have once I had kids, or how little I’d sleep.
How do you balance family and work and do you ever have time for yourself?
There’s no time for myself (laughing). I’m lucky that I don’t have a boss breathing down my neck. I can make my own schedule. In that case, if I just want to sit here and stare at the wall for an hour, I can. I wonder how people who are in a high pressure job do it. That and kids I could not do.
The good thing about having kids for me is that I love what I do so much that, before I had kids, I didn’t stop working. I’m blessed in that I love what I do, but still, you need to find a balance. My kids force me to go home, sit on the floor, and play with trucks. That’s a good thing for me.
If you could give advice to another designer or entrepreneur starting out, what would it be?
Believe in side projects. Tattly was a side project; swissmiss was a side project; CreativeMornings was a side project; TeuxDeux was a side project. These are all things that turned into revenue streams for me and made it possible to not have clients. I would never hire anyone who doesn’t have side projects. To me, that shows that someone has ideas, self-initiative, and can make things happen.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
A LOT! I don’t want to live anywhere else. You just need to walk down a street and you go—whoa, there’s a blog post, there’s a drawing. I love New York for its craziness.
I think you either love it or hate it; there’s nothing in between. I had friends come visit and they were like deer in headlights. They just wanted to leave. I grew up in the Swiss countryside—literally cows in front of my door, 3,000 people, farmers everywhere. To this day, my parents wonder why I love living here.
The other great thing about NY is that everybody leaves you alone. You can walk around as crazy as you want and nobody will even turn around. I remember when my husband and I got married—he’s a New Yorker. We got married on a Swiss mountaintop and for the people who couldn’t come, we had another party here in the city. I got dressed in my wedding gown and he was in his tuxedo and we took the subway so my photographer friend could come along and shoot us. Not one person even flinched at us on the subway—so cool.
You were young when you came over here. Was the shift from Swiss to American culture a challenge?
Yes, but I like challenges. Moving to a different country when you’re young is the best way to broaden your horizons. It’s powerful to see the different ways a society can work. Moving here has allowed me to redefine myself and there is nothing more powerful than reinventing who you want to be.
I remember spending my first trips to the supermarket being fascinated by all these products and brands that I wasn’t familiar with. In some sense, I was a neutral consumer. What butter, yogurt, or laundry detergent do you end up buying if you have have not been influenced by advertising or family traditions?
My problem now is that I want to combine the best of both worlds. There are things from Switzerland that I would like to bring here and things from America that I would like to bring to Switzerland. For example, you’re allowed to fail in America. You just get back up, try something new, and people will still support you—and if you manage to make a comeback, everyone is excited. That’s fantastic. In Switzerland, when you run a business into the ground, you’re known as that guy and then you’re not trustworthy anymore, which is horrible. That makes you not want to risk anything.
There’s also an ability to redefine yourself here. I remember when I worked at PlumbDesign. I would look at the resumés of people who would apply and then I would look at my boss because these people had no experience in the field. My boss would say, “We think that’s super awesome. That’s why we’re hiring them.” In Switzerland, I doubt that would ever happen. I grew up being reminded that I always had to think about my resumé and that it had to be as stream-lined and goal oriented as possible.
It’s also interesting for me as a parent because my husband is a New Yorker and there are these two cultures and views of the world playing a part in the upbringing of our kids. I guess our kids are sort of a social experiment.
I’m sure this is the case because of all that you’re involved in with Studiomates and CreativeMornings, but is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
YES! I would die if I wasn’t. People that work from home alone—I don’t know how they do it. Like I said before, Studiomates is my happy place. Even though it can get crazy and sometimes I need to stay at home and hide in order to get work done, being here keeps me tuned in to what’s going on. We have everything from developers to copywriters to start-up people. It’s a really good mix of worlds that you can tap into.
“I love it when people think I had a strategy with building the swissmiss empire; that is not the case. I’m a gut reaction person. If something feels right and looks like fun, I go for it.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
I usually get to the studio at 9am and blog for an hour or two. Then I look at my inbox and have a heart attack (laughing). I write some emails and then check in with my Tattly crew. At this point, I divide my day between blogging, Tattly, and CreativeMornings. It’s very fluid; whatever fire I need to help put out, I put out. I usually leave around 6pm and then hang out with my kids.
[Tina] Your kids are so cute. I follow you on Instagram and see all the pictures you post of them.
Thank you! I think I’m torturing my husband with sharing images of our children. He is a very private person and I am obviously not. You might have noticed that I only mention him as “G” on my blog. We just recently moved into a 250 unit apartment building and a person in the elevator looked at us and said: “You’re swissmiss!” Then she looked at my husband and said, “And you’re ‘G’.” We all laughed. Then, of course, she wanted to know what his real name was.
Current album on repeat?
James Blake’s self-titled album.
Favorite movie or television show?
I don’t own a TV. Favorite movie? Oh, I think it’s Jacques Tati Play Time.
Any favorite books?
Yes! Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance; Wisdom by Andrew Zuckerman; I LEGO NYC by Christoph Niemann; ABC3D by Marion Bataille; and The Big Rabbit’s Bad Mood.
Do you have a favorite food?
My winter answer is cheese fondue. In the summer, I like roasted brussels sprouts.
Didn’t Chris Glass say brussels sprouts?
I love Chris Glass. I didn’t know that Chris and I had a love for brussels sprouts in common. I’ll have to remember that.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
That’s such a deep question. I want to be remembered as a person who wasn’t afraid to start things.
We think you’re well on your way to that.