For businesses, giving resources and time to side projects has proven over and over to be worth it. Slack, everyone’s favorite communication hub, started life as a simple tool for a group of game developers.
Side projects help us uncover new interests, promote divergent thinking (one of the building blocks of creativity), and can potentially take your life in an unexpected direction. However, that’s also what makes them scary. They require time and money–and more importantly, you’ll need enough motivation from the meaning the side project brings to keep going when it’s tough.
So what makes a personal side project successful? After reading the stories of 10 creators, I found these 7 common “ingredients” for starting, building, and launching a successful personal side project.
1. FIND SOMETHING THAT SITS BETWEEN “THINGS YOU ENJOY” AND “SKILLS YOU WANT TO BUILD”
As Julie Zhou, product design VP at Facebook and avid side project champion explains, “Side projects work best when they live at the interaction of ‘Things you enjoy’ and ‘Things that help you practice a marketable skill.’”
While this is simple in theory, it can quickly get murky. Start a side project solely because it will help you get ahead in your own job and you run the risk of that project becoming just an extension of your work. Rather than feeling motivated to spend time on it, you’ll approach it just like another task on your work to-do list.
However, if your project doesn’t help you build a skill you can use in other parts of your life, you’re just having fun. Which is fine, of course. But won’t necessarily bring in a level of meaning to your life.
The goal then, as Zhou explains, is to find that sweet spot in the middle. A good litmus test is that side projects are typically productive, not consumptive. That’s not to say side projects have to be 100% focused on production.
For example, you may be interested in building an app, but not (yet) have the technical skills to do it. So step one would be to take an online course on app development. Then, throughout the course, you could work on the app, knowing it will take a while, but always with that goal keeping you motivated.
2. TREAT YOUR SIDE PROJECTS AS EXPERIMENTS
The hard thing about side projects is that there’s a lot more of us in them than in our usual work. When you’re having an off day in the office or on a work project, it can be easy to push through. You’re getting paid for this after all, right?
But when we’re doing something for ourselves, that mental strategy for motivating us falls short. According to freelance web designer-turned entrepreneur Paul Jarvis, to get over this hump, we need to treat our side projects as experiments.
“Experiments don’t “fail”—they simply prove or disprove a hypothesis. For example, despite my day job as a designer I had the hypothesis that I could also write an e-book. I then simply started writing. I didn’t focus on the outcome, how the book would be received or what others would think of it. I figured, ‘let’s give this a try’.”
The point here is that you’re simply trying something out with your side project. Rather than place the same level of importance on your side project as you do on your job, focus on getting something done. Getting early results will help you learn and grow.
Going public with your side project can give you the momentum to go through with it and also help you find a community of like-minded people to help you along the way.
3. PITCH YOURSELF
If you want your side project to be more than just a hobby, successful creators say you need to learn how to talk about it.
Before he built multiple startups (which all started as side projects) and created one of the largest design communities in Israel, Sagi Shrieber was just another design student with one side interest: He felt passionately about starting the first design blog written in Hebrew. Rather than building it in private, however, Sagi took the stage at a local event and told the 300+ room what he was doing and when he would launch (even though he didn’t have anything made yet).
4. CHARGE FOR YOUR WORK
Selling seems antithetical to creation. One is pure, unadulterated originality, the other simply squeezing hard-earned dollars and cents out of another person. But if you want your side project to be a success (and it’s something you plan on selling), this is the wrong way to think about it.
Successful side project creators don’t think about price, they think about value. If you value the work you’re doing, and you’re creating something that has meaning to you, then there should be someone else out there who feels the same way.
As a full-time marketing director, Noah Kagan was no stranger to the art of sales. Yet, when he launched his side project, AppSumo, he still fell into the trap of feeling guilty about asking for money. To get over this awkwardness about pricing, Noah reminds himself of a few simple facts every time he launches a new side project:
- Whatever you’re doing, you’re creating value for someone else.
- People pay for time. If you make something that helps them save time, they’ll feel good about paying for it.”
- It’s human nature to feel better about things we pay for. Going the free route isn’t always the best way if you want people to take your side project seriously.
5. FIND PARTNERS, COLLABORATORS, AND CHAMPIONS
Side projects are a great opportunity to not only learn new skills, but to work with people you’ve always wanted to. When we let other people into our creative process, we learn to challenge thoughts and values that have been so stubbornly ingrained in us.
When you’re planning your project, think about who you could include. Who would be a good partner? Who could you ask for feedback from early on? Who will challenge the way you think and push you into uncharted territory?
6. BE OKAY WITH FAILURE
Big, audacious goals are great. But focusing too much on the potential end result of your side project can kill your motivation and leave you drained and bitter if things don’t go exactly as planned (and they never do).
Over the course of interviewing hundreds of people who’ve launched and grown side projects over the past few years, entrepreneur and side project coach Ryan Robinson found that the benefits aren’t always what they seemed at the beginning:
“While some projects do go on to become a full-time business, even the ones that eventually fizzle out serve an important purpose. Building and launching a side project is about the experience, and the people you meet along the way.”
7. KEEP YOUR DAY JOB (FOR NOW)
When you have an incredible side project idea that ticks all the boxes it can be tempting to quit your job and run with it full steam. However, almost all successful side-project creators built their project while working a full-time job.
A steady income makes things easier in the early days of your project, of course, but perhaps more importantly, your day job can be a fantastic place to meet like-minded or inspirational people who will help you on your path.
Entrepreneur and author James Altucher started his web design and development side project while working full time at HBO. As his side project grew, he used the contacts he’d made at HBO (with their permission, of course) to land contracts with companies such as American Express, People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Warner Bros.
However, as Robinson outlines in a post aptly titled “How to Avoid Getting Fired (and Sued) When Starting a Side Business” you should be careful how much you mix your day job and your side project. Specifically, you should avoid:
- Breaching any contracts or agreements you’ve signed
- Working on your freelance business during company time
- Using company resources, computers, or online tools within your freelance work
While your day job is a great place to bring some structure (and payment) into your life while you’re working on a side project, you need to use your common sense. Your side project is your project. Not your work’s.
With an estimated 21%–35% of our waking hours spent at work, it can be hard to justify spending what little downtime we have on a side project. However, each of the makers highlighted in this article made the choice to build something for themselves in their spare time and changed their lives in the process.
But don’t think these people had it easy. Hindsight is 20-20, and these “ingredients” only came about from hard work and plenty of failure. So, whether you’re looking to write that screenplay you always wanted to, learn to code an iPhone app, or start your own business, know that your side project can take you to unexpected and exciting destinations.