My guest today is Michael Riddering aka Ridd who is the founder of Figma Academy, an advanced level course on Figma. In this episode, we discuss the following: - Michael Riddering Bio - Feeling of launching a new product - What is Figma Academy - Why create a course on Figma - How long does it take to create a course on Figma - Pivoting from finance, venture capital field to design - Collaborating with MDS - Twists and turns along the Figma Academy journey - Waiting for ideas to marinate before implementing - Landing the founding designer gig at Maven - Finding synergies between day job and side hustle - Figma Academy has generated $250,000 in revenue in 5 months - Focusing on building an audience first before monetizing - Dealing with competitors and clones - Advice for designers who are trying to monetize their side projects - How to contact Michael Riddering ("Ridd") For show notes, guest bio, and more, please visit: www.designmba.show
Michael Riddering ("Ridd") is the founding designer at Maven and the creator of Figma Academy—a new online course that teaches advanced design tactics directly within Figma. He's been designing products every day for over a decade and is passionate about improving the way we learn online.
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Namaste and welcome. I am Jayneil Dalal and you are listening to the design MBA which is a real-life MBA program for designers. You will learn how to launch a side hustle and level up your design careers from the interviews rock star designers.
Jayneil Dalal: Today's amazing guest is Michael Riddering or as he's famously known on Twitter as Ridd. So, who is Ridd or Michael Riddering? Well, he's a proud husband for starters, right? He is a parent of two dogs, right? And he is a founding designer at Maven and the creator of Figma Academy, an all-around awesome guy.
Welcome to the show, Michael.
Michael Riddering: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited. It's going to be fun.
Jayneil: Oh hell, yeah. I did not know that you owned two dogs. I literally was looking that up. I was professionally stalking you before an interview like is there anything else that I missed that I should probably bring into the convo. So, how's that going.
Michael: Yeah, it's going well. So, we actually … I moved to Michigan last year from Denver, Colorado. And over the course of that time, I did get a second dog and they're actually Great Danes and they're black and white. And so, it kind of looks like we have these two cows that follow my wife and I around everywhere we go.
Jayneil: Or big giant Dalmatians.
Michael: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Jayneil: I don't have any dogs. I am a little bit biased towards those Huskies or those wolf-like dogs that you see in Game of Thrones but, personally, I haven't had any pets in but I do like petting them. So, if you ever meet them in person, you have the Danes … I don't mind just like petting them, be like “Hello! What's going on.”
Michael: And the best thing about Danes is you never have to bend down to pet them.
Jayneil: Oh boom! I did not even think about it. You're so spot on. So, first of all, congratulations. You launched Figma Academy, it’s a huge milestone, had an amazing launch. How does it feel right now?
Michael: I’m not going to lie. The last two weeks have been probably the two most exhilarating of my life. I mean, it's been … it's been crazy. I had high expectations just based off of how things have been going on Twitter and the amount of inbound I was getting and how the beta program had gone and I ran an initial kind of survey just to get a sense of like “Where are we at? How are we liking the course?” kind of thing. And so, when we talked, I believe, in December, I was trying to be cautiously optimistic but I was very excited because I knew that it had a pretty high ceiling. And I still … I mean, it just totally blew my expectations out of the water. The last two weeks have been genuinely awesome and just so much fun and I’ve met so many people, had so many great conversations and, yeah, no complaints on my own. It's been pretty good.
Jayneil: For a designer who does not know what Figma Academy is, how would you describe it to them?
Michael: Yeah, it's a more advanced design course that's built entirely within Figma that is going to teach …
Jayneil: Wait, wait, wait. Within Figma. So, there's no hour-long videos or like three-hour video lessons I got to watch. It is in Figma.
Michael: It is in Figma. And so, it's that … trying to find that combination of … within each lesson, there's going to be a guided video walkthrough but you are living inside of the environment that the video was filmed. And so, as I’m walking through things and building UI, you're right in there in Figma and can inspect what's being created like measure things, look at the styles and different component architecture and everything that. So, I essentially re-created more of an LMS like a Teachable or something like that. I basically just built that component system in Figma and then used it to power the course which is a little bit more craft focused and is … the idea is to really help designers develop some of these mental models and more practical tactics that they're actually going to use on a daily basis as a designer working with engineers, working with their team, setting up these systems. And so, that's … definitely the high-level concept of learning Figma in Figma is where it all kind of started because it just makes sense, right? Because you can do it in Figma …
Jayneil: As a conception, it's like Meta like you're learning Figma in Figma.
Michael: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Jayneil: And why Figma? Did it ever bother you or worry you that … like how the design tooling landscape for the past couple of years was changing so rapidly, right? We had so many different tools like half the people using Envision, half of them using Sketch, some of them using like Framer, some of them using Figma. What made you confident that “I’m putting all this energy and effort into Figma. I think it's going to be okay. I don't have to worry about some other tool becoming the most dominant tool now.”
Michael:Yeah, I get the question a lot. And honestly, kind of a fun piece of context is I was so anti-Figma even just a few years ago like three or four years ago. I was working at an agency and I was the reason that we didn't switch. And it really came down to like Figma couldn't do auto layout and you could kind of hack that in Sketch and there was just a bunch of different things that I was like “You can't move fast in this tool.” I finally saw the light and I agree that the whole landscape … I mean, the speed at which design tooling is reinventing itself right now is nothing short of absurd. I mean, everything is new. Even within Figma itself, the tools and the more advanced features that we really have come to rely on, they're all 18 months old tops. And so, you're right, it's a little bit risky and it is a bet … I feel even better about it now than I did back then. I think that Figma has pretty much cemented itself as the leader right now but I’m looking at … I’m like extrapolating the trend chart, right? And I think that they are just accelerating. I still think that they are on the up and up and that they're really going to define a lot of this landscape over the next five or 10 years. And at that point, who knows? And maybe I’m being overconfident but right now, I definitely have moved all of my chips in on Figma and it feels good.
Jayneil: I feel the same way. And would it be fair to say that Figma Academy is like a living breathing course? So, let's say, tomorrow … like six months from now, a new feature comes in. Then you can just quickly update your course, right? Because it's in Figma and then boom! It would be like a new lesson for everyone to learn the new feature.
Michael: 100%, yeah. And that's something that I have … I’ve mapped out the way that the actual curriculum is built not just in terms of the content but … I mean, it's actually all built using components and import libraries and it's all very interconnected. And so, I’ve mapped it out in a way where I can add new content very easily and it will actually populate through other people's files even after they've duplicated them to their drafts and started working on their own workbook and stuff that. So, I definitely intend for it to be evergreen even just in terms of adding … like a lot of times, I add little resources or tweet threads or little YouTube videos around the lessons as well in case people are particularly interested in exploring a certain topic like … I definitely want the course to feel alive.
Jayneil: Oh my god! I could literally feel that I’m talking to a Figma pro. I am nowhere near your level, by the way. I’m probably going to have to subscribe to your course at a level but you're sharing how much in depth you've taught through all the mechanisms in Figma, how you're going to implement that, I could feel that. I just want to let you know that. And when would you say that you started filming or like started putting the lesson plans together for this course?
Michael: Yeah, those are two very different answers. Man, I’ve been writing about curriculum and different ideas for what I could actually teach and where that focus is for … I mean, you probably would have to go back to late 2019 … Probably fall of 2019 is when I kind of … I remember I created my workspace in Notion and I called it Figma Academy and just started adding things about what I could teach and that has evolved so many times. So, the answer to when I started filming, I mean, I didn't start filming until maybe spring of last year. And I really punted out. I was terrified of it. I had no experience filming or recording videos or editing videos before. And that was always like … that was a big fear that I had to get over, just getting into that tooling. And, honestly, what saved the day was learning about Descript for the first time. For any of you that have not played with Descript yet, I mean, that is just one of the most powerful pieces of software on the planet and it made it … for someone me who has no experience, I can just go in there and edit all of my stuff as a Word doc. And so, as soon as I recorded that first video as a test to see if I could use Descript and I saw how easy that was, I was “Okay, I got this.” And then it just kind of snowballed from there.
Jayneil: And on Descript note, I actually also for the first few episodes used that to edit out the whole interviews, and before I got an amazing podcast producer to help me out, before that, Descript was the essential thing I was relying on. So, absolutely, hands down with you. So, 2019, you created that Notion workspace with Figma Academy and then in 2020 or later on you started filming it but let's zoom out even further. When did you start working in design field?
Michael: Wow! So, I learned design out of necessity because I wanted to be a startup founder. I was actually an Economics major. I had this like fear of god moment where I realized I did not want to work on Wall Street like I thought and …
Jayneil: But it's a lot of money though.
Michael: It is. I read an article and I talked to a junior associate who was describing his day in the life and I was like “Hell no. I’m not … I’m not going to be a slave in a tie for 80 hours a week. I can't do that.” And so, I kind of pivoted and was exploring what I thought was venture capital like I showed up to my internship as a 20-year-old and or maybe 19 or something that in a tie thinking I was going to work at this venture capital firm and it ended up I got the internship at the accelerator, the floor below the venture capital firm. It was just a bunch of people coding in sweatpants. And …
Jayneil: Where was this? What year was this?
Michael: This was in St. Louis. Ah, man, this would have been 2011 maybe, 2012, something that. And I had no idea this world of tech startups existed. It was so new to me.
Jayneil: You had no coding experience.
Jayneil: None of that.
Michael: Absolutely, none. I was a Finance guy. And I fell in love with it. That summer internship, I knew that “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to build digital products” but I didn't want to be the idea guy, right? Nobody wants to be the idea guys. So, I was like “I’m going to contribute on the product front. This is what I can get really excited about.” And I started learning how to code and I sucked. I hated it the first time around. It made no sense. I was like “I got to learn something.” And so, this one lady explained to me like “Well, this stuff has to be designed first.” And so, I spent a summer, I cracked a version of Adobe Illustrator and I just listened to startup podcasts and just taught myself how to design. And back then, you had to create prototypes stringing together Flinto screens. I don't know if you remember what’s Flinto.
Jayneil: I remember.
Michael: Yeah. So, I just … all I did every day was just make Flinto prototypes and then walk around the hallways trying to show it to anyone I could pitch my ideas. And that kind of started at all. I ended up just doing design for my own startup for five years and it was awesome but because you're the startup person, you're the only non-technical person at the company. You're kind of wearing all the hats. And so, after that company inevitably failed, it was kind of this mode of “What now? What do I do?” And I had a bunch of experience in sales and customer success but I was also doing all the design and that's what I loved most. And so, I kind of just tested the waters as a freelancer, after that working with other startups and realized kind of quickly that like “Actually, I can kind of do this at a pretty high level and I love it and maybe I have more experience than I thought I did.” And then I just went with it and never looked back.
Jayneil: This is just mind-blowing because for me to hear a former Economics guy learning design and is now a designer and then the journey now has launched its own design course. So, what I’m curious to explore is that during this journey where you're now a designer, you somehow crossed paths with MDS or Matt D. Smith, who's also come on the show, super cool guy. How did that happen?
Michael: Yeah. So, this was actually around the time where I had bought the Figma Academy domain. I knew I wanted to do something. I had no idea really where my niche was. So, I was looking at all of the other course. I’m just trying to get a sense of the course landscape, right? And I saw Shift Nudge and I was like “Man, this is the standard. This is what I want to shoot for. Everything that MDS guy … like whoever this guy is, he's doing things right. I want to be like MDS.” And so, I was following him on Twitter but working on my own stuff. And I had set a … I remember actually the very specific date, it was November 15, 2020. And the reason is because I had set a goal for myself, on November 1st, I said “I’m going to start working on Figma Academy every day for at least an hour. I don't know where I’m going to go but I’m going to start working on it and see where it takes me.” and two weeks later, Matt put out a tweet and it said “Hey, I’m pretty … essentially, I’m pretty overwhelmed” like “This is working. I need help.”
Jayneil: I remember seeing that and he's like “Can someone help me out?”
Michael: Yeah. And I was like … I see that I’m like … my heart starts racing when I see this tweet, I’m like “Oh my gosh! Do I do this?” I was like “Is this actually going to help Figma Academy or am I just like jumping at the next shiny thing?” because I just think his brand and everything about Shift Nudge is so cool. So, I threw my hat in the ring and ended up getting the job and connecting with him and, man, that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. it was just awesome. Number one, Matt is an incredible human and we've become friends and I’m really grateful for that friendship but also, just getting a chance to see how he runs things and what that course looks like and … I mean there's so many just operations level things that you just don't realize and you don't see when you're just going through and taking a course. And that was a big black box for me and being able to help with Shift Nudge on one hand … yeah, maybe it did delay what I ultimately launched with Figma Academy a little bit but I think it was a really great long-term investment because I was able to kind of wrap my head around things. Also, I learned pretty quickly “I am not going to focus on UI design because there's no way that I’m competing with this curriculum.” And that was something that I was considering in the beginning. And it took me two video lessons to realize like “Nah, I got to do something else for sure” but that was just a … it was a great learning experience for me, for sure. It clarified a lot of my own journey, I think.
Jayneil: It's almost … when we look at the Renaissance era, people, the artists especially, they had this model of doing an apprenticeship for other artists who’ve already done something that these other artists were trying to do. And I feel like by you collaborating with Matt, you got behind the scenes peek at all these other things that you might have questions about and … yeah, I mean, it might have delayed Figma Academy a little bit later but I feel like there's so many learnings you got from that that you don't have to like do on your own time and just take sort of these best lessons.
Michael: Yeah, 100%. It's still … I mean, I still get the benefit of it. I mean, I was pinging him just last week asking him very specific questions about how he organized some of the financials and different things about that, backends, operations. And so, 100%. It's just being able to ask questions to someone is invaluable.
Jayneil: And also, on a side note, you mentioned Flinto. I actually have the founders on my list of folks to reach out for an interview.
Jayneil: I don't think I reached out to them but, yeah, there's a bunch of people … I have this massive list of people that I want to reach out to and … but yeah, you mentioned about Flinto and I’m like “Oh my god! Yes. I have to reach out soon.”
Michael: Sometimes I laugh when I’m in the Figma forums or something that and there's just these rogue comments of people complaining about not having conditional logic in their prototypes and I’m just … sometimes you just got to chuckle and take a step back and be like … I was drawing rectangles that were 0% opacity over buttons and doing Microsoft PowerPoint transitions between the two and it's just … you got to appreciate how far we've come sometimes.
Jayneil: 100%. And I think a lot of people don't realize this like … we haven't even gotten to the part about how your launch went but even before we go there, from that 2011, if I’ve got the year right, where you have that internship where you first learn about this design side of things, what excites you, to 2022 like we were talking about the solid 11 years where you felt that you had the entrepreneurial spirit from there … like 2019 you got that first Figma Academy Notion workspace going on. So, the genesis, I would say, is probably like … I want to say 11 years in the making but maybe if you really count when the ideas and all these things coming together, maybe 2019, but even then, until like now, it's three years but the genesis is probably 11 years in the making. And this is really important to point out because when people see that “Oh, Michael had this amazing course launch on Figma Academy on product hunt, you know the top product on the day, all these rave reviews on Twitter,” I really want to emphasize to people that it was not that one day … hopefully, it's not that way that you just woke up and you're “Huh! What should I monetize?” And that's actually what happens. When people look at your journey, they're like … they just start sitting down and they're like “Oh, what can I monetize?” but they don't realize like by seeing your journey, they're seeing a crafts person who took the time to really excel at the craft before jumping to monetize it or launch a course or something around it.
Michael: Totally. I can't emphasize that enough. I mean, the amount of twists and turns and pivots that ultimately led to Figma Academy, I don't even know if I could count. I mean, there are so many pages in that Notion workspace …
Jayneil: Like what? Like what are the twists and turns? Some that come to mind.
Michael: Yeah. I mean, one of them was … so, I put out this tweet, I guess, maybe like seven months ago that went a little bit viral but it was basically this concept of like “What if Figma launched a magazine and you had all of these different little micro lessons and community experiences were each different page” because that was around the time where about … well, I guess at that point, I knew like “Figma files are unbelievable. This is the best way that you can package content on the internet right now.” And I had … that was going to be the idea that I was going to launch for a long time. I was going to launch a subscription educational magazine type like this interactive educational magazine built inside of Figma and that was going to be Figma Academy for a while. It wasn't actually even going to be a course. It was going to be this like community initiative. And I spent probably two months even recruiting early adopters. I mean, I got quite a few pretty exciting people that were stoked to be a part of this and we were going to in some way, shape or form create content for the community. And I don't know if that's ever going to happen. I mean, I think probably it's not going to happen. I still think it would be amazing but that's just one world that I totally thought I was going to go down that direction. I ended up not being able to. And, honestly, I was kind of grateful to have a full-time job because it forced me to move slow in some regards like if I was working on this full time, I probably would have just blitzed in the wrong direction and launched something in three months and …
Jayneil: Oh my god!
Michael: Who knows … who knows what that would have looked like? I don't think it would have been near as successful. And so, I am grateful for the journey and also specifically the power of Twitter too, not just as like a growth engine … obviously, it's been really helpful as a way to build an audience and generate interest for the course but the most valuable thing about Twitter is it's been this kind of battle field for me to test my ideas. I mean, every lesson in Figma Academy has been tweeted in some shape or form. Then I just kind of see what works, what are people reacting to, what gets people excited. And maybe I’ll take one concept and then I will realize “Wow! People love this. This is super powerful.” And then I’ll just kind of re-mix it a little bit and then as I’m just like creating in public, I’m learning myself and starting to kind of figure out not only how something can work but what is the right way to communicate this potentially complex idea in a way that is simple because I look back and I see threads that were the launching point of a specific topic and I’m like “Oh man! That is so hard to follow” but by the time you get to the third time, you're talking about something like “Okay, I’ve refined definitions. I’ve refined even the visuals that I can use to help people make sense of a certain Figma concept or design strategy or something like that.” And so, that atomization of content and kind of just testing and refining in public and then grouping things together that are working and … I used that to develop my curriculum 100%. Twitter developed the Figma Academy curriculum.
Jayneil: I probably was solo or just focusing more on LinkedIn, I want to say, when I launched the podcast but then I got a guest, Abhinav Chikara, who runs 10K Designers, good friend, and he lives on Twitter and he really got me to get back on Twitter and it's just been amazing. Although I don't have any desires of growing a following or creating like content and stuff, it's just more of like a good idea just like I message you on Twitter, right? And we're here. I think something really powerful that I want us to just … I want you to dive a little bit deeper is that you said if you were completely free to focus on your side hustle like just focus on that and not have the day job, you might have blitzed in the wrong direction. And this is so powerful because I do know a lot of designers and creatives who feel that just because they have a day job, it's a burden, it’s not … it's not working in their favor. So, what I’m curious to learn is how did that time where you had to go slowly help you and not launch that Figma Magazine that you're thinking about or what made you not really pursue that magazine and go in that direction?
Michael: The simplest answer, honestly, is all of these ideas had time to marinate. And everything kind of trends in a direction internally where some of the things that I spent hours whiteboarding and writing about … and I was so excited … I mean, just so excited, “This is the best idea ever.” And when you have no choice but to sit on that for a month, sometimes you look back on that and you're like “Okay, maybe not quite actually.” And so, I do think that the forced tempo was beneficial because it required me to reflect and think deeply about each specific action. And also, when you only have a subset of your time each week, you have to use it so efficiently as well. And so, it really helped me stay focused and make sure that I was working on the right things because I am totally this person that chases shiny things. I run at everything that looks exciting on the internet. It's like that's a … it's a character thing that I’m dealing with, for sure. And so, not being able to do that is definitely helpful but then also, when you're developing a curriculum, it always has a little place in your brain, right? You're always kind of processing these ideas and thinking about it. And so, I was taking that subconsciously into everything that I’m doing at Maven as well. And as I’m building out this system from scratch in Maven because it timed up really kind of perfectly where when I started really recording content, I was also working on a blank canvas to build up all of the foundational systems for Maven in Figma. And it was this wonderful opportunity to really think about “How would I do this?” like “What is actually the best way to do this specific thing?” And I’m a big believer and every time that you start with a … every time you hit Command New in Figma and just like start, you're going to learn something because it forces you to go through the process again. And that was … having time for my curriculum to play out while I was going through all of these processes in my actual day job and finding all these little connections were really valuable. And ultimately, it's one of the pieces of the course that I’m really proud of is that there's a lot of very practical examples of like what we're building and how I’m actually setting up these different form systems and other variant systems and things like that.
Jayneil: In 2020, to your point, I took some time off about a year where I just would say “I’m going to focus exclusively on side hustles, not have a day job just to see how far I can go.” And I tried a bunch of things. I tried to make a living as a YouTube creator, try to see if I can launch my own course. I failed miserably at that but it was good, I realized what I could do, what I could not do. And now that I have a day job and there's opportunities like should I write a blog, should I just focus more on blogging, should I focus more on these things. And to your point, you're right, because you've lived at a time, you really have to focus on the thing that you not only enjoy but was the thing that you the most. And that's why, right now, in trying to manage all these different things on my plate, and there's always some new shiny thing like “Oh, let's just do this thing. Let's do this thing,” you're like “No.” and I’ll get the initial high of an idea, by Monday I’ll get the high, on Friday I’ll be like “Aah!” and Sunday I’ll like “All right, I don't know … I don't think that's an idea worth pursuing.” So, totally resonate with you on there. I’m kind of curious. You joining Maven, right? What is Maven?
Michael: So, Maven is a new platform for creators to offer direct cohort-based courses for their audience. So, a bunch of people can go through and learn from an industry expert, maybe it's crypto, design, marketing, something like that. And you can go through this program with a group of students. It's time-bound, it's live and it's a really exciting way to learn on the internet right now.
Jayneil: It is not a pre-recorded video. It's opposite. It's live, compared to that.
Michael: It's live. The crux of learning experience is in live sessions. It's very hands-on, project based a lot of the time. You might have some async video happening as well but definitely what makes cohort-based courses special is what you can get out of this live interaction both with the instructor but also with students.
Jayneil: And you're a founding designer there. How on earth did you land this such an amazing gig? Because a lot of designers want to be founding designers of such rocketship startups Maven.
Michael: Yeah, it's funny because it's quite connected to the Shift Nudge story. And so, you kind of almost have to go back even a few more months to talk about some of the conversations that I was having with Matt because I was looking at Shift Nudge and I was thinking deeply about my own curriculum and where I wanted to take that. And I started realizing that there were a lot of benefits to these time-bound CBCs or cohort-based courses but we didn't have the language then yet, it wasn't a buzzword yet. So, I was kind of just talking in circles around this core concept and I kind of pitched the idea to Matt. And we thought it was interesting but he essentially kind of put it back on me and he was like “What would that look like? Kind of figure it out.” And so, I went and started investigating and googling how would you actually do this like what's actually the tech stack that you would use to put this together. And I had this moment in about, I think, January of 2021 where I realized “Whoa! This does not exist. And I wholeheartedly believe this is the direction that education is heading but this is so much bigger than just figuring out a way to host a design course. There's going to be a clear winner that builds the architecture that pioneers this next era of education and it's going to be huge.” And I went in. and so, at that time, I was working at an education company full-time but I basically decided I wanted to quit my job and find who was building this. And so, before I had any idea what Maven was, I started looking and googling and trying to figure out what the keywords even were and I had conversations with people that are tangentially operating in the space but nothing quite felt right. And then I’m flying home from Florida in February of 2021 and I’m listening to one of my favorite creators David Perrell and on his podcast he is interviewing the now CEO of Maven Gugan Biyani and he's also the co-founder of Udemy. So, I was familiar with him just from Twitter and I knew he was into education. And he is explaining his vision for a platform that hosts cohort-based courses. And I’m just sitting there on this airplane and I feel my heart is about to beat out of my chest because “This guy gets it. He is 100% working on what I want to be working on.” And at the time, all he had was a Notion doc and it explained what his company was and he …
Jayneil: I remember that.
Michael: Yeah, it just said “Wes and Gagan’s new startup.” The other co-founder was Wes Kao at that time. And it was perfect. Everything about it was perfect. The vision was there. They had raised a seed round. It was high-profile co-founders. And so, I basically beat that down the door so that they would let me in.
Jayneil: What does that mean, beat down the door?
Michael: I emailed Shreyansh Bhansali. He's the third co-founder. He was the first employee at Venmo. And I basically said “Hey, we need to talk.” And he liked my portfolio enough that I was going to get the initial conversation, which I was really kind of nervous about because I didn't have … I hadn't worked on my personal site.
Jayneil: Why did you email him first and not Gagan or Wes?
Michael: I think that on the Notion doc, it probably told me to email for the specific role. And we were talking over the course of a month. And I guess a little fun tidbit that came out of that was I really … I guess, I oversold myself a little bit where … I mean, we went through the interview process and I didn't have any scheduled touch points with Shreyansh anymore and I basically emailed him and I said “Hey, I enjoyed our connection” and then “By the way, since we don't have another meeting on the calendar, here are three reasons why I refuse to believe that I’m not the most qualified person for this role on the planet.” And I just went one, two, three.
Jayneil: Oh my god!
Michael: So, I came in hot like even Gagan told me, he said in all the hiring that he had done at Udemy and Sprig, he said that … I can't remember the exact word but it's basically he hadn't seen a candidate be as aggressive as I was but I wanted the job, right? I knew this is what I wanted to work on. So, I was … I was all in. and then I started right at the beginning of April in 2021.
Jayneil: And that is a phenomenal story, by the way. And I think anyone who … this is a template for any designer who wants to be a founding designer at a rocketship startup. I think they can literally take your template and beat down that door until it cracks open.
Jayneil: Now, one thing I’m curious about is you have your job in the day at Maven where you're busy designing systems, designing the entire interface of that and you're doing Figma Academy. Are there synergies between the two or is it like one is completely different from the other and then you have to spend more time on the weekends or are you able to leverage any kind of synergies there?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. I consider myself really blessed to not have to make large mental shifts in order to kind of detach from work and think about my side project. And that's something that has helped, I will admit. It helped a lot because ultimately, every day I go to work which is really just walking the 10 steps for my bedroom and sitting in this chair and I start thinking about how we can help creators build online course businesses and everything that goes into that. And, yeah, the model itself for Figma Academy versus what a CBC operates as is different but the business side of things is … honestly, there's so much overlap. It's essentially the same. You still have to do marketing. You still have to build an audience. You still have to write compelling website copy. And just even a few weeks ago, it was really awesome how clear the parallel really was because I’m sitting there at Maven and I’m working on this course email marketing funnel and what that could look and how we can help instructors convert students at a high level via email, and I’m literally doing that during the day and then at night, I open up Convertkit and I’m setting up my own conversion and doing all of the same things. And a lot of times even when I look at my own stack and the things that I’m doing to keep track of conversations or requests for team licenses and trying to make all of these different tools talk to each other, it kind of just reminds me of the value proposition of Maven at its heart and I’m even uncovering very specific pain points where I’m like “Man, if I could make X do Y, that would just be amazing. And it's so obvious that's how it works but it doesn't because these are two separate tools.” And then I can just kind of make a little note and use that to inform a lot of the work that I’m doing at Maven. And so, for sure, there's a lot of overlap. I feel I get to operate pretty much in the same mental headspace throughout the day and I’m super grateful for that.
Jayneil: And it's not that it happened by accident. You proactively seek that out. And I get that that's a lucky or very rare position to be in but I also see that you actively seek that out because … I think to be in a position where you can leverage your learnings in your day job and apply that to your side hustle or side project is so amazing.
Jayneil: And talking about the course launch, I saw it over Twitter, I saw … It's amazing. Can you share some metrics or some numbers around it, if possible, like what was that course launch and if someone has a successful course launch like you, what can they look to expect to make in terms of revenue?
Michael: Yeah. So, it was successful. I have well over a thousand students now. I went into this launch with 500 from the beta and, honestly, I lost track of a really good way to count it. I know that it's closer to 2000 than 1000 but that's about as high fidelity as I can get. And the part that has been really quite breathtaking is the team licenses and enterprise sales. I have done absolutely nothing and all day, my inbox is just teams looking to sign up their designers and that part has been … that's been the part that's been really exciting. And ultimately, what it has produced is … I think that they're … definitely by the time that this airs and probably by Monday morning, I will surpass a quarter million of revenue over the life cycle which is about five months and 200 of that will have come from this launch window in January.
Jayneil: That is freaking amazing.
Michael: Yeah, it's pretty surreal. It's weird to even say out loud at this point but … I mean, I’m about to put a down payment on the house and Figma Academy is going to just buy my next house and that's why.
Jayneil: It is, man. It is like … holy cow! Just for a second, I’m just taking a pause right now … aside from the fact that I have a runny nose …
Michael: You're doing great.
Jayneil: Oh my god! But the other reason is it's like it’s something tangible. It's no longer just fictitious like things that could happen but it's like making a real world impact, a change that you can see like you're about to buy a new house and this side hustle you started is about to contribute towards it in a big way.
Jayneil: My god. And, again, I keep reiterating this because I know a lot of folks listening are going to be like “Goddamn, you know, Ridd did this and I got to also like spin up my own side hustle and somehow figure out a way to monetize it,” which is why I want to touch on this. In a parallel world, if you were not able to monetize Figma academy or … do you have an answer to that or were you like always obsessed like “It has to make money” or were you just kind of like chill about the like “Ah, we'll see where it goes, I mean.”
Michael: I didn't have to monetize Figma Academy. I will say that monetization was always the long-term goal but I was very open to that time horizon being quite long. And so, Figma … well, because I really believe that being a creator, having an audience, having connections, having distribution, I think that that's the best investment that we can make right now. And so, I really cared about that part. I set out on January 1st of 2021 and said “Every day I’m going to do something to create and attract like-minded people and build an audience because even if I don't ultimately know what I’m going to do with it, I know that it's valuable.” And so, that was really the only thing that was 100% set in stone. There were definitely some versions of Figma Academy that were not monetized but if I went that route, it was just going to be a growth mechanism for audience building unto something else. And the … honestly, the thing that I did … I mean, if … I’ll give like a practical example of something that I did that I think is very repeatable and it worked really, really well for me is the month that I decided “Hey, I’m going to go for this,” it was January of 2021. And what I did was just created a free resource. It was handoff helpers. It was just a library in Figma that I didn't even have to make. I had had it even from Sketch. I just had to keep bringing it over from projects to projects and adding to it. And I just created a Figma file and I put it behind an email gate and I turned it into a real product. I didn't … I think it's easy to create a free resource and just tweet it out once and that's fine but if you make something that's valuable, make a big deal about it. And I made a big deal about it. I branded it, I made a custom Webflow site for it and I launched it on Product Hunt. And that thing was the catalyst for everything. It generated about 1500 emails in a few weeks, which was huge because it was me going from zero to 1500. And that was what generated a lot of the momentum. And so, to answer your original question, there's definitely this world where Figma Academy was just a larger version of that high-level concept. Ultimately, I realized “Man, it takes a freaking long time to make a video curriculum and I’m definitely charging for this though.”
Jayneil: So, that is mind-blowing. What advice would you have … well, actually before we go there, you are one of the first few ones to crack this marketplace open about a unique way to educate people in Figma. How do you view that other people who see that “Oh okay, Ridd’s got something figured out. Let's just latch on to that and maybe make something similar in a different domain or do something different” or there might be something else that comes out that's maybe even an improved version of what you have, how do you view competition, in your perspective, or how do you build a moat right now around Figma Academy so that you're not worried about it?
Michael: That is a hard question. I think that there is definitely an element of first mover’s advantage which I hope to be able to benefit from. That being said, I do wholeheartedly believe that Figma Academy has already to an extent kind of spearheaded a new way to think about what a Figma file can be. And I have seen actually quite a few examples that look like Figma Academy, honestly, like …
Jayneil: Oh really?
Michael: Not a full course but just like “We'll launch something that is an individual file on the Figma community and it will essentially just follow my layout template and like have a video embedded.” And I think that's great. I think it's really great and I think that we're still super early in that and I want people to push the boundaries of what Figma files can be not only just from an education standpoint but even just as a distribution tool. I mean, the fact … I know I keep saying it … the fact that there isn't somewhere on the internet right now, to my knowledge, where I can put in my email address and subscribe to a Figma file that shows up in my inbox that I can just really quickly open or duplicate or something like that, I think that's a miss and I think that we're going to see that kind of stuff because Figma files are so versatile because they lend themselves to community experiences and collaboration and there's nothing like cracking open someone's actual UI and components and seeing how they're put together. I do think that there's going to be a lot of that moving forward and, ultimately, I’m totally all fine with that. I think it's going to be great and I think it's good for the ecosystem as a whole.
Jayneil: I also think that you've been thinking about the space for so many years in the making, all these ideas you had about curriculum, the vision you have that I feel like you have this roadmap in your head about what the next three years could look for Figma Academy, if I had to guess. And …
Jayneil: Exactly, right? And we don't know what that is going to be. And even if someone were to just look at this and be like “Okay, I’m just going to copy Michael's Figma Academy, call it something else,” what they don't have is your roadmap, the different features you're working on. And I’m probably sure you're also reaching out to a lot of people actively for user feedback and user research?
Michael: Yeah, a lot. Honestly, it's gotten to the point now where I don't even really have to be proactive about it. My Twitter DMs are just flooded with people's thoughts and a lot of them are … I mean, obviously, a lot of them are just very positive but if there's anything that is off, I hear about it, for sure.
Jayneil: Oh my god. That is hard to clone. I mean, it's really hard to clone that.
Michael: Yeah, I agree.
Jayneil: What advice would you have for designers who are listening to this and they are getting the itch right now like “God damn it! By the end of this weekend and when I finish this podcast, I need to figure out a way to monetize my side hustle and make money.”
Michael: Don't start there. I really think that it is worth thinking about the audience and distribution side of things and marketing side of things first. And the … I could have launched Figma Academy earlier. I had a few thousand Twitter followers. It would have worked. And what I can see now in retrospect is that every month that I waited and all of that little growth that I was able to experience, it compounded in the ultimate effect. And so, patience is definitely … it's valuable here. And I know that's really hard to hear but I think that atomizing your ideas, find a chunk of your larger vision, give that away for free in exchange for an email, it's going to accomplish so much. I mean, it's going to help you on the audience side, obviously, but it's also going to be great practice and you're going to learn something about how that experience went. You're going to get feedback on it and then you're going to be able to come up with ways that that can influence the rest of what you want to do. And then once you start building up this audience … I didn't launch anything significant until I ran a pretty good amount of surveys to my email list. I was putting out emails to thousands of people testing every combination of core-value propositions there is. And one of the biggest things that I learned over the last year was that the word that by far people gravitated to the most was ‘advanced’. And you'll see … anywhere you see anything about Figma Academy, it always has that word ‘advanced’ in it now and that is extremely intentional and it's because it came out of user research and that was the aha moment where I realized like “Oh, actually the opportunity is framing it in a way where people who aren't actively seeking out courses can look at this and be like “Oh, that's for me. That's very interesting”” because there was a little bit of a gap there and it almost combats a lot of people's doubts before they even have a chance to experience them because people … everyone wants to think that like “Yeah, I’m savvy, right? I know Figma” but if you say “advanced,” then people think “Oh okay. Well, I actually do consider myself advanced. Maybe that could be for me.” And that all came out of me taking way more time to launch the course than I originally wanted to.
Jayneil: And it's mind-blowing because I’ve had other creators on the show who created like beginner level spectrum courses on Figma and you definitely are the odd one out, which is focusing on that segment which is totally about just advanced users.
Michael: Yeah. And I made a point to like … so, if you join the course, one of the first things you do is you go through this … your guidebook which kind of just … it’s everything you need to have success in the course. And the second page on there is prerequisites. And it is a letter from me basically saying like “This is not a beginner course. I’m not going to teach you how to use these features or what they are. I’m going to teach you strategies to get the most out of those features and apply them to how real modern products are built.” And I’ve even explicitly on the website said like “This is not a beginner course. Don't take it if you're a beginner.” and yet still, I think probably in the last two weeks, I’ve processed maybe close to 10 refunds from people who just messaged me and they just essentially said …
Jayneil: Didn't realize …
Michael: “Hey, I’m drowning. I want out.” And that's good. That's how I know like “All right, we're where we want to be in terms of the learning spectrum.”
Jayneil: And when you had those 1000 followers on Twitter, did that this is the target segment you want to go after which is the advance or …
Michael: No, I had no idea.
Jayneil: Oh. So, if you had launched at that point, there's a high chance you could have just launched for the beginner level audience and now you're just like swimming in the sea of like 1000 other Figma beginner videos.
Michael: Totally. That is the biggest mistake that I would have made because … I was also trying to think about it in terms of like connecting all of the different lessons in this creation of a single artifact and it was going to end up being more like portfolio focused. And, ultimately, when you go portfolio focused, it would skew a little bit more like junior, maybe mid and it wouldn't have worked, it wouldn't have worked. I mean, I still could have created something that’s awesome and it would have been valuable for a group of people but what was missing from every iteration of that … for like area of the potential curriculum was this idea of team collaboration. And team collaboration is the vast majority of the skills that we're actually using on a day-to-day basis how do you work with other designers, how do you work with … how do you build systems that other people can use, how do you collaborate with engineers. And that came pretty late in the process, for sure.
Jayneil: Wow! So, just waiting and waiting and not rushing the launch along the way gave you insights and you realized like “Oh my god! I think I should not focus on the beginner level just getting started with the Figma market but there's this whole other market that I can capitalize on.”
Michael: And Twitter was honestly the way that I learned that. That's really what it came down to is I was testing all these ideas and the ones that were taking off were like the most advanced concepts that I knew. And so, I realized “I got to focus on these.”
Jayneil: How can designers get in touch with you? Whether they want to level up their Figma skills or they have some ideas they want to launch side hustles on or courses, how can they find you?
Michael: Definitely, if you're on Twitter, I highly recommend just sending me a DM. I’m way better at my Twitter DMs than my emails. I sat down this morning and went through my email inboxes there were some old ones in there. So, if you can, ping me on Twitter, RidderingAnd and, yeah, if you say that you're from this podcast and you have ideas for side hustles, I love that stuff. I will happily jam with you or exchange some Loom videos back and forth. I’m always down, for sure.
Jayneil: Thank you so much, Michael, for coming on the show and sharing your wisdom.
Michael: I appreciate you having me. This was a blast.
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