“The best way to learn is by doing” — Alex Spanos
Although it is quite common to think of side projects only as an additional source of income -and in fact many of them end up taking off and becoming successful businesses- the most are actually developed motivated by these more than possible other great benefits -beyond the economic- that they can bring us:
- They provide an opportunity to practice and learn new skills, techniques and/or technologies -related or not with our daily work.
- They encourage our creativity -breaking the monotony or routine of our day job- and self-development and improve our self-confidence. In addition, as they often are projects end-to-end, they keep us motivated by pushing away from our confort zone which leads us to improve other important skills outside our day-to-day environment.
- They are directly related to the idea of the recovery process¹ that we need along the week: the stress and fatigue caused by our daily work can affect our mental and/or physical health in the long-term, so spending time on leisure activities such as passionately working on projects or personal ideas for diversion would have a significant impact on our recovery -not forgetting that a good night’s sleep will still have higher priority.
- They can have a big impact on your career. Showing people what we’ve done or what we’re capable of building, or having a voice on a matter, can open up new job opportunities or promotions -and also some public recognition and reputation.
- They can bring value to other people and make their day-to-day life easier in some way² -which is nice and comforting.
- And last but not least, as we can keep the pressure at minimum and not take everything so seriously, they are fun.
There are side projects everywhere. A countless number of them, created out of different motivations or objectives. Great ideas, revolutionary or not, perfectly executed, turned into great solutions. But like everything else in this life, their success, repercussion, visibility and eventual economic benefits -some of them really end up paying some bills- will depend on several factors, including among them: a good amount of luck.
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" — Seneca
If we google for information about side projects that has become successful companies, profitable businesses, we will see that almost always the same are listed: Twitter, Instagram, Gmail, Groupon… which are undoubtedly successful companies, but were they really born as mere side projects as we know them? Well, we could say that it's not entirely true…
It's true that they fulfil the premise that they are projects created without being part of the main focus but when they are created within an existing company they are actually another value creation project for that company -even though they are not expressly related. Twitter (former Twttr, name inspired by Flickr at the time), for instance, was created from an idea that emerged in an emergency brainstorming session in a way to reinvent a dying podcasting company called Odeo. Something similar, due to a change in its business model, happened with Unsplash. Google offered Paul Buchheit -who was also the creator of the motto "Don't be evil", used within Google's corporate code of conduct- to work on the development of a project to create a "type of e-mail" which he enthusiastically accepted and which laid the foundations of Gmail -the well known e-mail client (it's worth mentioning that he built the very first version in a single day based on his experience working in another project within that same company: Google Groups). And so on…
Now, taking into account those small but important details, we can say that, although it is an unpopular opinion: the closest thing to a genuine side project would be Facebook (former TheFacebook) because Mark Zuckeberg developed the bases of that social network -in just two weeks- when he was a student at Harvard -a few weeks after that another of his side projects, Facemash, was banned by that university.
But don't get it wrong, not all projects of this type have to do with a certain degree of despair: it is strongly recommended that certain companies allocate resources to create these "side projects" -as long as they don't become simple and costly distractions- in order to take advantage of internal talent, avoid personal burnout, make learning part of their culture, test future plans or implementations, or send a message to the market that they are capable of building incredible things -aka enginering-as-marketing.
As conclusion, we can say that developing "side projects" within a company -for instance, during an internal hackathon- it's an investment that's really worth making and can end up in a decisive change in the business model or even spark a new undertaking. But we have to call a spade a spade.
“The key is in not spending time, but in investing it” — Stephen R. Covey.
But all that glitters is not gold, all those rewards will have a very high price: our free time -in most cases quite limited.
We will have to carefully plan the project, every step we’re going to take -it’s hard to get back from work to keep working, so it’s better not to waste our most valuable resource staring at a wall without having an idea of what to do next- deducting the time we’re going to need from something else -but not from your real job: there is no side without main, keep in mind- and probably postponing that new -and possibly not too good- series on Netflix.
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” — Benjamin Franklin
Here is one more skill that we will learn indirectly throughout our adventures developing side projects: how to plan well -the more we plan the better how we plan. And this is an important lesson -for projects as well as for life in general- because, although sometimes things just don’t turn out as planned, it’s better to have a plan that’s not too good than nothing at all.
"Plans are nothing. Planning is everything." — Dwight D. Eisenhower
To plan is to determine what objective, goal or purpose we want to achieve or reach meanwhile planning is to decide beforehand how and when we are going to achieve that objective and the strategy, tasks and steps to accomplish it -combining forecasting with the preparation of the different possible scenarios and the way to react to them- as if it were a map (as we usually do when we travel: the trip is the plan and the route we would like to follow is the planning).
"No plan survives contact with the enemy" — Helmuth von Moltke
No matter how good your planning is, either short-term or long-term, you will never be able to predict all the problems you will face³, since each stage has a high degree of uncertainty, not always evident -and even though we will never know what the future holds, working without minimal planning should never be an option⁴.
Therefore, the key to success will be keeping the plan under constant review and adapting it -always changing some parts and not the whole- to cope with the changes without ever losing sight of our original destination -keeping the old plan alive while we work out the new one. In order to be able to do this, we must try to make the plan flexible enough because, although eventual changes and unexpected challenges can be overwhelming -they are part of the game anyway- there is nothing more frustrating and stressful than being stuck to a too rigid plan -often leading to a dead end.
“The prize is in the process” — Baron Baptiste
Don’t forget that. This must be fun. So once we have decided to do it, we will have to pay close attention, along the way, not to make certain common mistakes in order to prevent our brilliant project from turning into hell:
- Focus on one project at a time⁵. Multi-tasking is only for computers. Normally if we start too many projects at once, we end up not finishing any of them.
- Start small, keep it simple. Take baby steps. You’re more likely to succeed. Thinking about something too big usually ends up overwhelming us (and anyway we will always have time to complicate things, or not, when the time comes).
- Don’t get obsessed. Prioritize the important things in life. Starting a new project is always exciting but we will have to stay calm and think about it as what it is: a hobby.
- Don’t put pressure on yourself. We have neither inflexible delivery deadlines nor stakeholders waiting for what they paid for. Perfection simply does not exist.
- Don’t focus all your attention on a possible monetization or passive income -it can be a goal, but it’s not the goal-. This generally leads us down paths that end up invalidating almost all the benefits described above. It is true that a few side projects may become full-time jobs, but it is also true that the vast majority suffer a high failure rate. Think of them as a project, not a job.
- Be prepared to fail. There are numerous reasons why a side project can fail. Never mind, you didn’t actually lose anything by failing. At least you have learned one thing, which you probably can take to your next project, making it easier in someway. Keep going.
This article was originally published on Medium
 John W. Rook & Professor Fred R. H. Zijlstra Faculty of Psychology (2006) The contribution of various types of activities to recovery, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15:2, 218–240, DOI: 10.1080/13594320500513962
 “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” — Henry Ford
 Even Mike Tyson once said something about this matter: “Everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth”
 "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win" — Sun Tzu, The Art of War
 “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one.” — Russian proverb