Design Leader Insights - Tommy Geoco on Taking the Content Creator Leap

February 27, 2024


Alex Smith: Design Leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a leading UX research, strategy, and design consultancy. Hey Tommy, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Tommy Geoco: Alex, thanks for having me. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, no doubt. And to get started, can you give the audience a little bit of context into your journey in design?  

Tommy Geoco:Yeah, I'm an accidental designer. I jumped into this because I wanted to build my own stuff. I worked at the agency for a few years and then eventually one of the things I built took off. StreamPro, we sold it in 2015 and then I spent a few years in Silicon Valley leading design teams, working as a designer, the first design hire. And now I'm working on trying to change education for design cause there's a lot of holes to fill. 

Alex Smith: That is for sure. Yeah. Tell me, I know you, you have a new business now, a new product. Tell me about that.

Tommy Geoco: Yeah. You know April, 2022, I was laid off and I had a little bit of an audience that I had been working with mentoring on the side. I decided to go full time into that and so I called myself Designer Tom and I was just teaching people. But I wanted to formalize that more. And so going into 2024, I've got and they've been around for a while. They've got a really great survey that they put out every year that just gives you a pulse on what teams and designers are using for their tooling. And we're going to take that a step further and really introduce different types of educational content, both free and some paid stuff to help people kind of fill that gap. I'm an online, I'm a self taught online learner. That curriculum, that type of going out and seeking knowledge really worked for me. And it, and it really changed my life. And I think that boot camps were well meaning. But I feel like what's tough about bootcamps is you have a lot of instructors who kind of aren't in the business, and so the curriculums quickly get dated. And we kind of teach like cookie cutter stuff. In a perfect world design has like apprenticeship models where you're learning from people working in the field, you're staying up to date on, 'cause this place changes. The tools change, the trends change. The talent stack is changing right now that we're seeing. And it's like, how do you keep up with that? Well, UX tools can't be an apprenticeship model. There's a lot of things that need to happen for that to be industry wide. But this is essentially my answer in that direction. Come learn from someone who's in the business. Come learn from someone who's been around on the production line. And more importantly, a lot of these online courses have terrible completion rates, people start them and then they stop. And not so much that UX tools will be the place where you come and learn design soup to nuts, zero to one. But it is a place where you can come and sharpen a skill about a specific tool or a process.

Alex Smith: No, that makes a ton of sense. What’s an example of like just one of those specific courses that, you know, a designer might get hung up on and say, Oh, actually, like, let me go build this part up. 

Tommy Geoco: You know what? The thing that always kicked my butt that I had to kind of go through the fire on was being the first design hire at a company.

Alex Smith: Yeah. 

Tommy Geoco: And dysfunction is everywhere. Everyone dreams of Airbnb, this ideal workplace scenario. And that's just not as common as we wish it was. But then the only other answers that have been out there is like, well, if you're in a dysfunctional environment, you should quit and it's like, well, you can be successful and you can actually drive change and you can launch really cool products in those environments, but no one's really talked a lot about how. And so one of the big priorities for me is to, to put together different modules for people who are those design teams of one, the other side of it is freelancing has changed a ton. And you know, this from the agency side, and we're seeing a lot of different models, seeing that sub services, a subscription model but just freelancers, that's a, there's a lot that can be said for people. And we're even, you know, we're seeing the market kind of shift where a lot of designers are riding the benefit and the value of going freelance. And a lot of companies are seeing the value of hiring these term contracts. So those are two modules that I'm really going to focus on in the first half of this year.

Alex Smith: We were talking about designers starting their own business. Which I think is a great idea, right? Like we in theory, know a lot about validating doing the research and how a design led product can crush existing products or potentially create a whole new space. How do you encourage or tell designers thinking about starting their own business, like to take that first step, what should they think about?

Tommy Geoco: The first thing I will say is a lot of designers, especially if you've worked in larger organizations, you get caught up in activities that are like earning political goodwill because you're winning a lot of you're winning a lot of I don't want to say fights, but you know, you're, you're kind of advocating for different directions. You're working cross functionally with people to kind of build alliances. And sometimes you get caught in the weeds of what I call performance theater, you know, where it's like we're doing all these activities and look at the outcome it had. And, and, listen, that's necessary sometimes, but when you go and build your own thing, and it can be something as like, I'm leaving the company to start a SAAS, or maybe I'm just creating a side project. The one thing you're going to learn very quickly is the difference between real value creation and performance activities. And that is probably so on one side, what I'll say to designers is doing your own thing, taking something of your own to market, no matter how big or small it is. It's really beneficial if you need a sanity check on like what is actually creating value for customers and what are things that like are just warm and fuzzy stuff that probably I don't need to invest my time into. But the other side I would say is designers who are thinking about this. We have so many skills, right? Like we're so used to looking and thinking about the customer and the user and what's valuable to them. And if we can pair both of those things, knowing how to differentiate between performance activities and value add activities, and then take the kind of skill. Since we already have good taste, the ability to bring ideas to life and the ability to to measure whether or not those are actually working in the market. We make really good builders, we make really good business people, and we can combine those two things. The last thing I'll say is if you've got an idea, go just start it, try it out. Have a little time out on the weekend. I know that hustle culture is kind of a bad word, or hustling is kind of a bad word, and for good reason. I've burned myself out before, and I've learned today a healthy way to grind. And that way is this. It's okay to go into monk mode, where you kind of tune things out for a weekend. A week, maybe two weeks max. And you're like, I'm gonna build this thing, I'm gonna put a lot of energy into this. I'm not gonna go hang out with this friend group or do this thing for a weekend. But then you, you get that time back. Next weekend, or the following week, that's me again. That's the thing that isn't work related, that's, that's me. So what I would say to people is, Be willing to sacrifice a little bit of hard work, hard work's not bad. What's bad is when you don't balance it, when you don't give yourself time, when you don't carve that time out for other things. 

Alex Smith: 100%. I know you've touched on some of this, but  what other advice do you have for those new designers starting out today?

Tommy Geoco: This is a tough one and it's a little controversial, especially in the market today. This is a tough business to get into, even when we weren't dealing with kind of the economic pullback. This business has always been tough. You've had to prove it. It's merit based. And so I don't advocate for free work. I don't love when companies say, hey, we want to give you a take home assignment and you need to go spend three, four hours to do that just to see if I can come and join our circus acts of evaluating talent. But what I will say is that there's nothing wrong if you have the ability to take on a project that is maybe what you think is beneath you, it's paying a lot less than what you eventually want to be paid. Maybe it's a free charity project, something like that. The difference between getting a spec project on your portfolio and real work where you had to add real value to someone, that gap is huge. And when you can actually talk about how you navigated the hairy problems that came between zero and one, that's the kind of content that's gonna get you in that next stage of interviews. So you're going to hear a lot of design leaders. You're going to hear a lot of seniors who've been at this for a long time say, don't do free work. Well, they're very fortunate to be able to say things like that because they're not fighting the same fight you have. So do what's right for you. But don't immediately write off the value you get from getting real work experience. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, it's one way to get in the door. I agree. I want to switch gears to content creation. How should people think about, maybe they are doing content creation, how should they grow that? What's the benefit there?

Tommy Geoco: So I, my startup in 2015 was, I was the design co-founder of a tool for Twitch streamers. And this was back when everyone said, Oh, Twitch, live streaming video games, that's a fad. It's going to go away. And it obviously hasn't. And when I saw that, I realized, oh, this is going to be a new way people interact on the internet forever. And it's become that. And Amazon's validated that and we see what it is today. But I started to see the same thing with short form media. And really what has happened in the last maybe five years, social media is not new, but there is an intersection now where the number of people in the global population who have access to a smartphone with a camera and all these capabilities, the number of social media platforms out there that are now incentivized to compete, to add discovery engines and to make it easier for creators to create content. And then obviously the way the economy and the market has kind of pushed a lot of loyal laborers out and said, hey, like we've got to fire you. That's created this, this created this perfect storm where what we realized today is it's so easy to distribute your ideas. Record labels used to exist for musicians. They're on the decline, you know? Book publishers, same thing. There always used to be a middleman involved, and the deal was never that great for the creator. Now, all you need is that smartphone, and then the ability to practice repetitions of getting your ideas out there and packaged, and you can have easy distribution. That's huge. I view content creation today as kind of an indie, independent activity. It's just, it's the new small business. It's an indie movement. And so what comes with that is there is a lower barrier to entry. So the quality of content is obviously much lower, but there's also very big, high quality pieces of content out there. And for anyone thinking about content creation, one, don't be cynical about it. Right, because early critics are late adopters. This stuff is impactful, and if you view it through the lens of where is the value here, you will get so much out of it. But the second thing I would say is, if you ever have an idea, if your work is asking you to do all this knowledge transfer to the new hires, and across functional partners, but they're not paying you for it, why wouldn't you do this in a way that would also benefit you on the internet? For all the people that have ever considered content creation, it is scary. Your first post is going to suck. Mine did, and that's okay. But your hundredth post is going to be pretty decent. But the only way you get there is to push through the first. 

Alex Smith: Thanks so much. And where, where can everyone go to find you? 

Tommy Geoco: Well, I'm really trying to put together this weekly newsletter on We've got some really exciting things coming out. We've got 60,000 folks who read this newsletter. Please come check it out. If you send me a DM, if you reply to the email, I respond to everything. Come say what's up. 

Alex Smith: Nice. Hell yeah. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Thanks, man.