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Have you ever though about starting a side project? In this article, I will give you 5 strong reasons to start one today. If you are not familiar with the subject of side projects, don’t worry. I will give you a brief introduction into it in the beginning. In the end, I will also share with you how side projects helped me create my career as a freelancer designer and web developer. Without further ado, let’s find out how side projects can make you successful!
What Is a Side Project
Let’s begin with something very simple. What are side projects? Well, in the simplest terms, side project is anything you do that is not part of the regular description of your job. It can be something that can make your work easier. It can also be something that can improve it. However, it is not something for what you are directly paid for. Let me give you a more extreme definition. If your employer would find out that you are working on it in your working hours, he would fire you. Or, he would at least give you a warning.
If you are working for client as a freelancer, the definition would be similar … If your client would found out that you are working on that project in time you are billing him, he would probably cancel your contract. This or that, working on your side project is just not something your client or employer would love to hear. There is also another, less precise, way to describe a side project. It is something you are working on in your free time. Issue here is that, if you are like me, you might be working on client projects even outside your office hours.
I know it is a bad habit, but I love what I do[ad.com]. Also, I would think about it anyway. What’s more, I would had nothing else to do. Anyway, from this point of view, defining side project in terms of when you are working on it is not sufficient. Fortunately, there is another even more confusing way to define a side project. Something in small scope. The major problem I see here is that almost everything starts as something small. Gradual increase is just natural result of you working on it day after day. It’s happening again … I’m getting to philosophical consideration.
I have to stop before going too far. One more thing about the free time condition … I just realized that it’s even more confusing. Why? Imagine you don’t like your job. For this reason, you will often leave your work and switch to your side project. Only when no one is looking, of course. In this situation, you are still working on your own project (first condition is met), but it is not in your free time (second condition is not met). For the purpose of this article I will use the term side project in relation to anything outside your job description. If you disagree, let me know on twitter.
How Side Project Can Make You Successful
Now, we have some basic definition of side project. The next item on the list is to find out how side projects can help you succeed. Let’s be honest. In the world where more than three billions of people are connected to Internet, there is plenty of competition you have to face. Any tool that can increase your chances to breakthrough are welcomed.
One of the reasons why to dedicate folder to new side project right now is that it you can use it to enhance your portfolio. Think about it. How much are side projects different from client work or job? Sure, behind every client work is a client that will use what you create. The same with the regular job. Besides that, there is no real difference. Paradoxically, you can often see on Dribbble and Behance that many personal (side) projects looks better than client work.
One of the reasons may be that your personal project are limited only by your own restrictions. Also, personal projects are bolder than client work. Meaning, when you work on side project you are more willing to experiment and try less tested approaches and techniques. This is often not truth in client work, especially some bigger companies. Clients are more likely to stick with what worked so far and not to rock the boat unless it’s necessary. Just for this reason you should consider starting a side project as a way to add some spice to your portfolio.
You may have plethora of clients on your waiting list for the next three months. On the other hand, you may be desperately looking for one. In both cases, investing small part of your own time to side projects can bring couple benefits to your portfolio. As mentioned, you will be able to create work you might not be able to – bolder and more experimental. Even if your portfolio is filled to the roof with examples of your work, personal projects can add more diversity and show that you are willing to leave the tried and tested paths and try something completely new.
From my experience, quite a few people are looking for this characteristic when hiring a freelancer or full-time employee. If you are interested in this kind of work, it will be much easier to convince these people you have this characteristic by showing it on real work. From the other side of the river, what if your portfolio is kind of empty? In that case, you can use side projects to fill up the space until you will have client work to show. In the end, the purpose of portfolio is to show clients and employers your abilities and skills on tangible examples.
Unless you will steal work of others and pretend it’s your work, I see nothing bad in presenting your personal projects in your portfolio. If you do, I would love to hear your opinions on this topic. If you decided to present your side project on your portfolio, keep in mind one thing. Focus on quality, not quantity. Portfolio with four or five great pieces will beat portfolio full of crappy work. Honestly, I may not be the best person to give you advice in this topic. My portfolio contains few examples I am almost embarrassed to show. So, take me rather as an example of what not to do :).
Skill Improvement & Acquisition
The second reason to start working on something in your own time is to improve your skills and acquire new ones. Personally, this is how I often use side projects – putting new knowledge into practice or test. For example, when I see some interesting technology I want to try, I will either start new project or implement it into the one I’m currently working on. Do you remember the previous post on Gulp? It all started with one article in .net magazine and painfully slow and difficult workflow I used to have. The result? Tutorial for you and using Gulp on a daily basis.
I suggest that you take similar approach and use side projects as a way to increase the number of skills you have. You can spend whole day reading books and tutorials. However, it is only through dedicated practice how you can make new knowledge stick. Also, by practicing your new skills on personal projects you will be able to find any weak spots without jeopardizing client’s work or job. Then, you can take the steps necessary to fix these gaps and deliver better service to your clients.
From this point of view, having side projects can benefit both, you and your future clients or employers. First, you will be able to regularly practice and improve your current skills. Second, you will be able to acquire new ones. Both of these reasons will increase the value you provide to your clients and employer through your work. Your value as a freelancer or employee will increase as well. As a result, it will help you make more money while pursuing your passion.
What’s more, practicing new skills on side projects is much better for people who like to rather test the water than to jump right in. Side projects gives you complete control over your learning curve. So, if you are not sure you are ready to use certain skill in your regular work, you don’t have to. It’s only you who says when and under what conditions will be your skill and project ready to be released. Just don’t wait for too long.
In this day and age, many of the most successful people are also the ones most visible. That’s no surprise. The more you show and share your work with the world, the more people will be able to see it. Imagine every tweet or message presenting your work as a single billboard. One tweet or message means putting one billboard on one street. Unfortunately, there is rest of the city you didn’t cover. Wanna fix it? Well, you have two options. First, you can take one example of your most recent work and show it again and again.
The downside of this is that it will soon become annoying. It will also suggest that you have nothing new to show. Some people can start to think that your business might be facing problems. Whether it is true or not, this approach will soon become counterproductive. In other words, you will shoot yourself in a foot. Second option is much better and harder. You will share more examples of your work. Doing so will help you reach broader audience and keep message (examples) fresh. The downside is that you will have to work more and harder.
If you want to have more examples of work to show, you will have to create them. The math is simple. More work equals more examples to present. More examples to present will increase your visibility. Higher visibility will result in more work opportunities. The question is … How to get the opportunities to create more work? The answer is, again, working on side projects. This approach helped me get interesting work opportunities from companies such as Avast and ČSOB. The secret sauce? Creating something on a regular basis and presenting it on Linkedin. That’s all. Try it on your own.
Potential Source of Income
Another reason for working on side projects is that some of them can turn out to be sources for income. In a fact, many products and services we hear about today started as small side projects. Back then, their authors didn’t even think about them as something they will be able to monetize. They were either doing something they liked or solving their own problem. To give you some example, think about Asana. This work management tool created by Dustin Moskovitz started out as a small project that should be used by Facebook employees.
Aside from more visible examples such as Asana, there are many other creations you never heard about. The one thing these projects have in common is that they all started as something small. Something their authors were working on in their free time. Many of these projects were intended to solve problem either their authors or friends of the authors had. Whatever is the case, monetization or making it big was often not the goal.
If you don’t want to believe it, let me cite a comment written by Paul Graham (founder of Y Combinator):”Don’t even try to build startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things that seem interesting. The average undergraduate hacker is more likely to discover good startup ideas that way than by making a conscious effort to work on projects that are supposed to be startups.”
The last reason to give side project a shot and start one I intentionally left to the end is health related. It is that side project can be a great way to release stress that piled up during the day or week. In a fact, many creative people are often mentioning working on their side projects as way to release the steam. It is their way to escape from the daily race. Also, when you are working as a freelancer and using your craft as your source of income, there might be times when your daily chores will start to irritate you.
That doesn’t mean you don’t like your work anymore or that you should consider doing a pivot. When you will get into such a situation, you should take it as a sign to take a break. This break can be as simple as taking five minutes off and going for a walk. It can also mean taking a sabbatical for a day or week. Famous designer Stefan Sagmeister is known for his one year(!) sabbaticals. No kidding. He developed a routine of working seven years in a row and then taking one year off. According to Stefan, it helps him come up with fresh ideas. However, this can be a bit extreme.
Anyway, back to side project as another way to get rid of stress. Personally, I’m convinced that having side projects can allow your brain to refresh and come up with new ideas just like sabbatical. What I mean is scheduling regular breaks during the day for your side project. You can make this break either static or dynamic. Static break is simply a break scheduled for specific time. When this time come, let’s say 12 a.m., you will drop what you are doing and work for a while on your project. One downside is that this is too rigid.
Another downside is that, when the time comes, you might be at the flow. Dropping your work while your performance is at its peak is, I think, not a good idea. When you get into flow, you should not break it unless you have to. It is at this “sacred” state when we are producing our best work. So, taking a break could be detrimental to your work. For this reason, I came up with what I call dynamic breaks. These things are just amazing. First, you can take them whenever you want. If you feel drained or stressed in the morning, take a dynamic break. The same applies to evening.
Second, their length is flexible as well. You can drop your work and forget about the world for five minutes or five hours. Do whatever suits you and your options. My recommendation is to take at least one dynamic break every day. By doing so, you will bring a little bit of diversity into your life. Your work will be less rigid and routine. This will become especially handy if you are working on one type of work for a long time.
I tested this approach many times and it always worked well so far. So, give it a shot and use at least one your side project as a way of taking a break from your daily routine. Nobody says that side projects must have some higher and bigger purpose or be profitable. They can be just small gigs dedicated only to you.
How Side Projects Helped My Career
The last thing related to side projects I would love to tell you about is how they helped me on my own path to become a designer and web developer. In reality, my path was not exactly by the book. This is something I’ve never shared with anyone. Have you ever heard about the saying “fake it till you make it?” Well, I followed this “approach” to the last dot. In the early beginning, I had no clients and no previous work to show. Because I started as a developer and coding was my first orientation, I also had close to no knowledge about design.
Also, I had no previous experience from working either as developer or designer. My only experience from previous jobs was related to stock trading and real estate. Yes, you read it right. I am a stock broker and real estate agent turned designer and web developer. Insane career path. What was my next step after transitioning to design and web? Starting on my own as a freelancer. As I mentioned, I had no foundation to support that could provide me with support. No knowledge, no referrals and no portfolio. Great way to start your own business!
The only thing I could do back then, and I still do it, was to follow the “fake it till you make it” approach. In practice, this meant that I would create my own side project focused either on design, development or both and then display it on my portfolio. In other words, since I had no real clients, I decided to create some. Funny thing is that if you now take a look at my portfolio, the majority of my work displayed there are either personal projects, products or something in between. Reason is that the majority client work I do is subjected to strict non-disclosure agreement.
If you’ve ever worked with some bigger company, you probably have your own experience with these business related things. Back to the topic. By working on side projects, I was able to create portfolio even without any real clients. This approach helped me overcome the paradox that in order to attract new clients, you need to show them quality work. Unfortunately, where can you get this high-quality work without clients? I think that side projects or doing pro bono work is the only answer. You have to either work for free, if someone will give you the chance, or work on your own – again work for free.
Create Your Own Opportunities
The hard reality is not so many people or companies that will be interested in testing your skills, even without paying you. The only way from this rat race you cannot win is by changing your mindset immediately. Meaning, instead of waiting for other people to create opportunities for you, take initiative. Stop asking people for chances. Stop asking people around you for giving you their time. Use your side project as a way to create your own opportunities.
Get up, open the Photoshop or Sublime Text and do the work. Use rapid prototyping, create disgustingly large amount of work and show it on your portfolio. After that, every time you will pitch yourself to clients or employers, use your portfolio featuring every side project you’ve worked on and show them how great and hard-working man or woman you are. In the end, there are only two rules to success. First, you have to create your own opportunities. Second, be so good people can’t ignore you.
Closing Thoughts on Side Project
One thing I forgot to mention in the article is that working on side project can be scary. This is something you have to accept. The reason is that every side project contains a part of you. That’s also why it is so hard to accept critique on our own work. In some sense, these projects and every work are part of your personality and identity. As a result, every time you put your work out there, you are exposing yourself as well and for that reason you feel uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, this feeling will never disappear. It will always be here no matter how many work will you release. What will change is its influence. With time and “practice” of exposing your work and yourself, this feeling of discomfort will change from outcry to whisper. You will still hear it, but it will be easier for you to ignore it. One more thing … Don’t feel bad for being attached to your work. It just means that you care about it.
Before letting you go, think about the power of side projects. Meaning, when you are starting literally from scratch, working on side project can help you breakthrough. Now, I will repeat myself … The absolutely last thing I want you to remember and apply to every side project is this: always focus rather on quality than quantity. One or two great side projects can move you much further and give you greater momentum than five average ones.
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