Finish Your Side Projects

Multi-million-dollar companies sometimes start as a side gig.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

If you’ve been wondering about the long-term potential of your creative hobbies, consider this: many multi-million-dollar companies started as side projects.

In the beginning, Craigslist was literally just that: Craig’s list. While working at IBM, Craig Newmark started an email distribution for promoting local events and meeting people. Only later did the service become a website, which now serves billions of visitors each month.

Salman Khan started Khan Academy while holding a full-time job as a hedge fund manager. A few years later, he was recognized among TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. And even Twitter started small: it was invented at a company hackathon, and initially operated as a side project.

We all have creative hobbies and side gigs. Some of those may have the potential to grow into something meaningful — even a full-time job or a successful business.

But no matter how much potential our side projects have or how much effort we put into them, life often gets in the way: most side projects get abandoned.

Reaching the finish line

There’s a big difference between a project and a finished product. “Finishing the product” means something different in every case, but a good rule of thumb is: your project is completed when others can use it or enjoy it.

For example, the article you’re reading right now was written by someone who has a day job elsewhere. Writing is my “side project,” and “finishing it” means publishing it here.

Publishing an article is rather straightforward, but for other projects, the overhead of turning them into a product can be overwhelming. It may involve incorporating a business, or dealing with shipping and returns. You may need to create a brand or the marketing machine that helps others find your project in the first place.

No regrets

So let’s say you have managed to overcome these hurdles and your project is finally finished. What happens next? You’ll be proud of it, of course, but there’s no guarantee that others will appreciate your product as much as you do.

If a project does go to zero, there are two cases in which creators usually still have no regrets about spending all the time and effort:

  1. When they’ve gained new skills in the process and learned something they can use for the rest of their life
  2. When they’ve formed new relationships in the process, by finding teammates or helping others

In most cases, however, an incomplete project is worth exactly as much as one you’ve never started.

What open source gets right

If you have side projects that you truly want to abandon, the free software movement offers an insight into dealing with them.

When Linux was released in the early 90s and a competent operating system was offered for free, the world saw the undeniable power of open source. Today, some one-third of all websites in the world use an open-source content management system at their core: WordPress. WordPress owes its success largely to the fact that its source code is available to everyone to adapt and build upon.

But the biggest thing we can learn from the free software movement is not what it can achieve, but how it achieves it.

One of the most important principles of open source is the philosophy, to “complete your packages”. If a package is open source and the documentation is available, another developer can pick it up and continue the work. 

Software without documentation is incomplete: if other developers don’t understand your package, you’ll be the only one who can contribute to it. But when hundreds or thousands of developers can contribute toward a shared purpose, everyone benefits — and you’re free to step down anytime.

Ship it

To make sure you’re not just “working” on a side project, but actually shipping it:

  1. Hit the “Publish” button more often. By breaking up the end goal into smaller milestones, you can enjoy small successes and give yourself time to recharge. Harvard University psychologist Amy Cuddy put it well: “Big goals require a million little steps in between, and each of those little steps is an opportunity to fail.
  2. Manage the project; organize and prioritize the steps. Plan the path to the finish line and keep an eye on the progress — just like you would in your day job.
  3. Conspire. Talk about the project, or find people you want to work together with. “The simple act of explaining the concept to people you’re close to will raise issues that may have gone unnoticed, or it might trigger new ideas,” writes Virgin founder Richard Branson on his blog.
  4. Know yourself. A lot depends on your personality: some people do better when held accountable by their peers, while others stop working on an idea right after they share it. Working on a side project may be just another way to get to know yourself better.

Because it’s fun

Side projects can give you a platform to play with new, creative ideas.

They can teach you skills that are otherwise difficult to learn. Side projects are also fantastic preparation for being an entrepreneur, because they teach you to adapt to a product mindset.

The direction of your energy is more important than the intensity of the energy. Doing the right thing matters more than doing the thing right. Remember that it’s just a side project — first and foremost, you should have fun.

When in doubt, build something beautiful.