When was the last time you worked on a side project? Something that pushed you outside of your comfort zone and stretched your mind and creative capacities? Something you’ve been dreaming of working on for a long time? Something that was actually fun?
Whether it’s a vegan donut delivery service or a website that rates dog haircuts, side projects are strong indicators of what you’re capable of because they give you an opportunity to call the shots and experiment, to learn new things, and to try ideas that no boss would probably ever be game for. Side projects can also become the motivation that gets you through rough spots in your life or day job.
They aren’t, however, your golden ticket to fame, success, or millions of dollars. They tend to require more and harder work than a day job, and mostly, they don’t even pay off. But if you try enough of them, perhaps one will. And then, oh man, things will turn out awesome. When a side project succeeds, it means you’ve created something from scratch, on your own terms, and taken the ultimate leap—believing in yourself and your work, even when others didn't. There’s really nothing more fulfilling. It’s you, manifested.
But, too often, we convince ourselves not to move forward with an idea for a side project. It’ll cost too much money. It’ll fail. It’ll take too much of my time. What if I put in all that work and no one uses it? Or worse, what if everyone who buys it absolutely hates it and I become a laughingstock?
It’s easy to have an idea for a project and then shoot it down quickly. That’s far less work than actually doing the project. It’s safer, too, since the idea can live and die in your mind, without the outside world ever knowing about it. But that means you’ll never get any of the awesome benefits—and never even have the chance for success.
Let’s examine some of the most common self-criticizing assumptions that keep us from creating—and see how you can push past them and pursue your side project today.
“My Project Will Cost Too Much Money to Create”
This seems like the most valid reason not to move forward with a project, right? If you don’t have the funds to create it, you shouldn’t.
When starting a side project, most of us have huge delusions of grandeur about what our project might become (and how much money and how many resources that big thing will require). But really, most ideas can get started without any of this, at least at first. For example, one of my first side projects is called Pseudodictionary. It’s basically a user-submitted dictionary for words that aren’t in traditional dictionaries (think: slang like “celwebrity” or “noob”). I didn’t have the funds or knowledge to build a word submission queue, so I manually added each one by hand for the first four months. Only later, when the idea was proven, was I able to invest in making it more automatic. If you start small, you can do things by hand while you’re testing out if people actually want it.
And if you really do need some cash to get going? You can pre-sell your idea to fund its development. Websites like Kickstarter have popularized and brought audience-funded projects into the mainstream, but you can also simply add a single payment button on your website to collect pre-orders.
“My Project Might Fail. Or Not Be Used. Or Be Hated!”
Convincing yourself that other people won’t use your project is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you talk yourself out of doing it, and therefore no one ever sees it. A better way to approach this fear is to start small and use tiny steps to test whether people find value in what you’ve built (or want to build) along the way.
I’ve started entire books as single tweets. I’ll have a small idea, tweet it, and test the waters in less than a few seconds. Are people replying? Are people interested? Do people want to learn more? You can also start by interviewing people who fit into your target audience for your project to see if they deal with the problem you’re trying to solve and if they might be interested in the solution you’re thinking about. This isn’t always an accurate guarantee that there is a market for your project (since telling you they’d use a product and actually buying it are two very different things), but it’s a start.
My favorite way to test an idea for a project is by setting up a pre-launch mailing list. It takes less than a day to write, build, and hook up a “Coming Soon” page with a mailing list. I include a little blurb about the project (what problem it’ll solve) and then build in a single call to action: Sign up if you’re interested. Chances are, that if 100 or more people sign up, your idea has enough merit to move forward.
“I Don’t Have Time For My Project”
Being busy is a badge of honor these days. We’re all busy, all the time, mostly too busy to get more busy. Who has time to create a project when you’ve got a full-time job, three kids, or a full schedule of ultimate frisbee practice?
Well, I’ve got news for you: Making time for anything is about saying no to other things.
What can you cut from your life (and still be happy) that will give you enough time to create? For example, I cut television almost a decade ago, and I’ve never looked back. I also don’t watch sports and haven’t seen a video game since Super Mario Bros. (the first one). I’d rather spend my time working on ideas than passively consuming sitcoms or the Super Bowl, so my life is prioritized accordingly. I’m not saying TV or video games are bad, I’m just saying they’ve been prioritized out of my life for other things.
I also wake up earlier than most people so I have to time to write, even on days when I have a full schedule of client work for my web design business. When I’m deep in writing for a new book, I skip hanging out with friends a few times a week or going away for the weekend.
Working on projects can be selfish, and that’s OK. You’re making time to do something you enjoy, that’s going to make a meaningful contribution to someone else. As long as it isn’t to the total detriment of your social and love lives, health, or primary work, do what you need to do to get your work out there.
“My Idea is Too Big to Build”
An idea for a project can get stressful quickly when you start to think about the actual logistics of making it happen. It can be daunting to the point of procrastination (and often is).
Almost every time though, there’s a way to scale the idea back to something small enough that you can build it quickly. This saves money and time and gets your idea to market quickly, which is the ultimate test of its viability.
If you want to build an online school to teach students how to design and program, why not start with a single email course? If you want to build a tool that matches writers with editors, based on genre, budget, and timeline, why not start with a pre-packaged message board or forum? If you want to open a shop that sells handmade jewelry and clothing, why not try selling a few items on Etsy first?
Think about how you can scale your idea back to its essence, as a single task you can help someone complete. What would the simplest form of your idea look like? With the least amount of work? How can your idea be taken to market quickly to see what might need to be changed or keep growing based on demand?
There’s always a way to scale something back. Figure out how to do that with your idea and you can move forward more quickly.
Too often, we get complacent and comfortable in our lives, jobs, and abilities, and we forget how much fun (and how rewarding) it is to grow and experiment.
If you’ve been sitting on a side project idea, get off your ass and go get your work out there. It may not revolutionize your industry. It may not make you a gazillionaire. But you’re a creative person. Making is stuff is what you do. So go do that.