Q&A: Tobias van Schneider
Tobias is the co-founder of Semplice, a portfolio system by designers for designers. He was formerly lead product designer and art director at Spotify, and served on the AIGA Board of Directors in New York. He's had the privilege of working with companies like Red Bull, NASA, BMW, Google, Wacom, Sony, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, Bwin and more.
Randy: We would like to welcome Tobias van Schneider to The Innovation Series. You describe yourself as a multidisciplinary maker of useful, curious and beautiful things. So tell us a little about what useful, curious and beautiful things are you making currently?
Tobias: Right now I’m focusing on Semplice, my portfolio system for designers. We just launched Semplice 4 after working on the new features for over a year, and I’m excited to see what designers do with it. I’m also writing a lot about design and productivity on my blog, DESK. Then there are a couple side projects like my sweatshirt collaboration with Unsplash and some fun interface work I can’t share just yet. I’m always working on too many things at once and I like it that way.
Randy: I know through following you for the past few years that you are a big believer in keeping busy. In More Work, Worse Outcome, Jason Fried has said that doing the right thing at the right time is the difference maker. Not brute force. Do you agree and how do you balance your time across multiple projects in order to do your best work?
Tobias: I agree with Jason that timing can mean everything, and we can certainly improve our productivity or efficiency by putting in the right amount of effort at the right time. But I also believe hard work pays off. In Jason’s example, he regrets shoveling the snow on his sidewalks all day when he could have waited until the evening and shoveled once. But the whole point of shoveling is to keep the sidewalks clean for pedestrians, right? If he’s leaving the snow to pile up until the end of the day, why shovel at all?
I do my best work when I consistently put in the effort and the time. Of course I strive for efficiency and welcome any shortcut I can find – but at the end of the day, nothing happens unless we work for it.
Randy: You wrote in your blog post Ignore Everybody, that great ideas are often initially resisted on many levels. Can you talk about the root of this resistance and maybe give us an example of something you have been a part of that succeeded as a result of this approach?
Tobias: People resist great ideas for many reasons: Peers and colleagues might not want you to succeed, friends and family protect you from risks because they don’t want you to fail. Or it might be that your idea challenges the status quo, and most humans resist change by nature.
When I first shared my idea for Authentic Weather, a no-bullshit weather app, everyone told me it was stupid (and to be fair, it is still a stupid idea). But I felt the drive to do it anyway, if only for fun. A few months later I launched Authentic Weather in the app store for $0.99 – one year later we had over 1 million downloads. If I had listened to my well-meaning friends, I never would have launched that stupid app. When we love our idea we have to protect it and run without looking back.
Randy:In that same piece, you go on to say “Stick to your gut feeling and keep working on your idea until it’s strong enough to survive on its own.” I thought this was a really interesting take. So how do you know when an idea is actually strong enough to survive on its own?
Tobias: Your idea survives the moment you’ve reached a critical mass of approval, and that only happens after you’ve put in the work and hours to back it up. Until then, expect to spend a lot of time justifying it. In 1876, Western Union told Alexander Graham Bell his telephone was “a useless toy that would never amount to anything.” In 1902, the New York Times wrote that cars were “impractical” with no future in sight. In 2020, you might think your idea is strong enough to share with the world, but the world might not be ready for it. Do it anyway.
Randy: In your podcast interview with Ryan Hoover, the founder of Product Hunt, he mentions how the MVP for PH was actually validated as an email list. What are your thoughts and experiences on how to validate an MVP for a product without actually writing any code?
Tobias: Whatever gets the job done. Code is just a tool to get something done, efficiently and at scale. If you can get your idea done without code to validate it, why not? If you want to validate an online shop idea for example, you could literally have a fake checkout form where instead of having a whole ecommerce system attached to it, someone just receives an email with the order and then manually handles the shipping. When you’re trying to validate an idea, the code or technicalities should be your least concern. Unless of course, your core idea is a technical one.