“Do you ever sleep, Jo?” – a question I hear a lot, from friends, family, and coworkers. Do I ever sleep? When they ask this, they think about The Aside Mag, Web Fatale, Graphical Cooking – projects I did for fun, side projects. What they intend to ask is something else: How do I find the time to work on these?
A big chunk of my career has evolved from side projects. Aside from my day job as a designer and marketing specialist, I have created an HTML5 iPad Magazine, a design framework, a food blog & cooking recipe infographic collection, you can get the full list on my Twitter. All my projects have become some kind of stepping stone for my career as a designer:
Doing the Aside Magazine has led to joining an HTML5 game development team as a UI developer. Developing Mobile UI in HTML5 has led to being asked to write a book about that topic. Publishing the book has led to conference talks, doing screencast courses. This has led to writing more books, covering UX design, which has led to me teaching UX design in my old university. And none of this has ever been my main job – yet it had a great influence on my career. All started with a single side project.
Now, I am not alone with the idea of doing something on the side to fuel my career. But how to get started, how to find the time when you already work a full-time job, maintain a family life and maybe, just maybe still want to get a bit of sleep?
Let me share some things I found to be very helpful:
The main reason a side project fails or never gets off the ground is that it is too complex, too ambitious. Do not overload yourself with work at the beginning. Try to keep a project easy and light to work with. Most important: Keep them short. The quicker you can get a project done, the easier it is to get it done.
For our project Graphical Cooking, we were ambitious: We wanted to create a design system, an app design or a food box. Getting done any of this would have been unrealistic for a side project. So we started with simple recipes, that would turn into a cooking blog, which would turn into a poster series and recipe box.
Try to find the essence of your project: What is it that makes you interested in it? What can you do as an MVP, a minimum viable product? What can you, with the skills you have, finish?
Do you go to the gym, have a book circle or do regular wine tastings? If you have a hobby that you practice regularly, you know how to make time and room for an activity aside your daily chores. The easiest way of getting started with your side project is to treat it like a hobby.
Make time for it every Wednesday night, maybe meet people on a regular basis you want to work with on that. Create a routine and build a habit around it. Get some gear for it, like you would for a sports activity. Tell your friends and family about how happy it makes you, like helping out in the community center does. Give yourself some homework for the next session, as you would in a book club.
Deadlines are an amazing productivity tool. Nothing pushes you more than a date to which something NEEDS to be finished.
But beware – there are two easy rules for setting deadlines: 1) Don’t go too short and 2) Don’t make them feel random. If you set yourself a deadline of one week or two weeks, you might miss it. Better: Give yourself 3 or 6 months to achieve a milestone in your project.
Make sure you can take your own deadline seriously – a made up date that bares no consequences when being missed is not a great motivator. Better: pick a significant date, e.g. your birthday, an important public holiday or a conference date, at which you want to present your side project. Pro tipp: Many creator meet ups offer lightning talk slots at which side projects can be presented. Sign up for one of those, and BOOM – you have your deadline.
So you have a great idea. It has the potential to become the next Twitter or the next Facebook – if only work hard enough, right? You read The Lean Startup, Tools of Titans and you know that all successful people start their day at 4AM. You know you can make it, if only you work hard enough on your idea. Pulling all-nighters, living off of corn flakes and pop tarts. Right?
Chances are, you won’t get your idea anywhere if you push too hard in the beginning. If you expect to be launching a startup unicorn, the likelihood of being disappointed is very high. Even worse: You turn your side hustle into something really really boring right from the start: You turn it into work. My advice: Keep your side project stupid.
Make sure it stays quirky, it stays fun. Make sure that you have fun while making it, allowing for room to goof around or take your idea to other places. Many successful Tech companies started exactly like that: Facebook? A dorm room «Hot-or-Not» experiment. Twitter? A platform with the serious name of «my.stat.us» to bug your friends with what you are eating right now. Even stupid ideas have the potential to grow into something interesting and, eventually, big.
It is supercool to help the elderly in Myanmar or to find a solution for ocean plastic in the pacific, no questions asked. Getting motivated to start projects like these though is much harder. If you are looking for a reason to build your side hustle, build something that you can benefit from. Create a tool or framework or platform or thing that you want to have, that you will be using and that helps you in your daily life. Make yourself the target audience for your project first – then think about how others can benefit from it as well.
Done is better than perfect. The Pareto principle states that 80% of the outcome is generated in 20% of the work time, while the last 20% take up around 80% of the time. The Pareto principle can help you focus on getting these 80% out. Don’t get lost in the details or polish of things – there’s always time for that later!
You have an idea for a great platform, but you don’t have the coding skills to make it happen? Not every side project needs to result in a fully working app or a live social network site. Sometimes, it is enough to produce a prototype, a presentation or a video. Make sure that the idea and vision are well presented and it helps people to understand what you are aiming for. Two examples:
Tobias van Schneider designed a beautiful and really innovative Email client for Mac in 2011, called the «.Mail App». He created a landing page and let people sign up to get notified for whenever the software would launch. Only that he never actually build the software – he still got people excited about the idea and started a discussion around email clients, as well as his own career: https://www.vanschneider.com/story-dotmail
Alex Cornell had the idea for «Gofor», a drones on demand-service. He created an app prototype, the whole «Gofor» brand, and a marketing video. The whole thing looked so realistic that the producers of “Shark Tank” got excited and wanted him to come on the show – believing that this was a real-life product.
The most important thing is to get started. You can use the techniques from my previous article to help you do that. A project playlist with music that gets you in the mood might help. I love to use the Just 5 Minutes hack: Whenever I feel overwhelmed or have issues to get started on something, I promise myself to work on it for only 5 minutes – not longer. Usually, these 5 minutes are already enough to get you in the flow.
So, stop reading this article and start now.
This article was previously published on https://johannesippen.com/blog/