Author: Jake Prins
Trello, Craigslist, Unsplash, AppSumo, Twitter, Gmail… what do all these successful companies have in common?
Yes, they can all trace their humble beginnings back to being something we might call a ‘side project’.
Side projects come in many forms and have lots of different purposes. Some people start them to create a nice product and eventually build a successful company, but there are many other reasons why working on side projects can be exceptionally important.
Accelerate your learning.
Learning and mastering a new skill can be tough, but with enough persistence and motivation there is a lot we can achieve. Like learning how to code, it can be hard, frustrating and time-consuming. In the end, the most important thing to do is to keep going and gain experience.
Sure, it helps if you’re good at math, logical thinking and have a college degree in computer science. But for people with a non-technical background, like me, it’s still possible to become great developers with enough motivation and persistence.
In my own experience, I found working on side projects in my spare time not only fun, but really helpful in developing my coding skills.
Every time I read something interesting on a blog, or was facing a challenge at work, or learned something new from a colleague, I wanted to implement it in one of my side projects as well.
Read about a better way to store images? Let’s try it! Learned how to work with AJAX? Let’s Ajax-ify everything! Stumbled upon a great Ruby gem? Let’s bundle that up!
And every time I improved my skills, I wanted to rewrite stuff to use better or cleaner code, which made me care about it more and more.
In my first year working as a developer I learned a lot. I also believe the side projects I worked on at night or over weekends gave my learning ability and motivation a big boost.
One of the projects I spend by far the most time on is called RaterFox. It’s a social platform for movies and TV shows that amongst other things, allows you to rate and review titles or recommend them to your friends.
I’m still working hard on improvements (because when will a project ever be finished?), but in case you’re interested you can check it out here. (BTW, any feedback is welcome and highly appreciated! Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org).
When side projects shine
Working on side projects can have different purposes. These can be improving some skill, experimenting with new technologies, testing out a product idea or building a startup.
But no matter what the goal may be, it’s the perfect way to create something new. Working on a side project is different to “regular” work, because there is less pressure, no deadlines, and no rules. You’re free to play around and switch to something else whenever you feel like it.
This freedom sometimes may lead to unproductive, glitchy and half working “products”, but it can also result in something creative, inspiring and innovative. And that is when the beauty of a side project will shine.
At the company I work for, we have an ‘Experiment Day’ every month. This is great for trying out some interesting technologies. Similar ideas are found across a lot of tech companies — and it’s easy to see why.
For example, Facebook’s “Like” button started as the “awesome button” and was created during a Facebook hack-a-thon. This simple functionality is now a core feature and is used in various guises in all types of digital products.
During the hack-a-thon, the creators didn’t know that they were building a button that would have such an impact, but it did.
The huge tech giants like Facebook and Google inspired smaller companies to spend more time on side projects because the results were seen everywhere.
Gmail, Google talk, AdSense and Google News are some of the successful projects that were born out of the Google’s famous “20% policy”. This allows employees to use up to 20 percent of their workweek at Google to pursue their own projects.
More success stories
Besides the awesome products that many of us use everyday, like Gmail or Instagram, there are many more success stories of startups that are build out of side projects.
Take for instance Unsplash, the side project that did more than the creators could ever imagine: it saved their startup. Unsplash, which provides copyright-free and high-quality images, started off as a marketplace for hiring freelance designers and developers. It failed to gain traction until their side project (that was initially built in one afternoon) started to lift off.
The Crew team, the company beside Unsplash, launched many other side projects that have become the main sources of referral traffic to the Crew website.
“More people cared about us in a few hours than in the entire last year.”
If you are a developer, you likely have an account on Github, the Web-based Git version control repository hosting service (oh, and billion-dollar company).
Founders Chris Wanstrath and PJ Hyett were upset with how difficult it was to change open source code, so they built their own repository. They built their side project at nights and weekends, and now serve over 20 million users.
“It all started with a domain, a cheap slice from Slicehost, and some stock art.”
You never know what you may end up with when you start a side project.
Take for instance The Point, a social network that connected users who wanted to rally behind a specific cause.
When founder Eric Lefkofsky saw users banding together to buy an item in bulk and receive a discount, he made some new plans for his project and ended up with Groupon… you know, that daily deals site that had a $1 billion valuation within two years of launching.
Another daily deal side you may heard of is AppSumo. This startup shows that you don’t need a lot of money to start. Founder Noah Kagan had the idea of a discount site for online companies, but only started with $50 to build a landing page and to collect emails. By investing time and effort he ended up with a startup that had $1 million in sales in their first year.
Now, it’s awesome to read about these side project that lifted off to become great companies, but as I mentioned before, working on side projects could lead to many different benefits.
There are plenty of examples of people who learned how to code just by working on side projects. So if you want to learn a new programming language, improve your current skills, or use your creativity to solve a problem you faced, it’s never too late to start something new. So, how to start?
How to start
Once a while, we all have great idea’s running through our mind, but most of the time we don’t act up on them.
It’s not a mystery why. Ideas are not always realistic, but it’s not necessary to let you be overwhelmed by the size of some of our ideas and the thoughts of actually building it. Three things to keep in mind if you want to start on a new project:
1. Start small
The easiest way to start is to pick a small project you will find interesting, or will solve a problem you have. Then break it down into smaller components until one of them looks easy to implement. Complete that part and repeat the process until you have all of the parts you need to solve the original problem.
2. Keep it simple
The best approach is to keep it simple. Your project should have minimal complexity, minimal coding, and be focused on the main purpose it serves. If it’s an app that let’s you find new recipes, it doesn’t need chat functionalities. You can always add new things later, but when you are just starting you should reduce features to the minimum.
3. No pressure
Starting a new project can be exciting. Although it’s fun to read about the success stories about projects that where converted into successful companies, one of the reasons why working on side projects can be so interesting is that it shouldn’t give you pressure to make money with it.
That means it also doesn’t matter if it fails. No deadlines and complete creative freedom mean you can choose which way you think your project should go. While gaining experience in your work, and doing something you love, you can build something to care about which will make you keep coming back when there’s more work to do.
Don’t dismiss your side project as just this thing you do on the side. It can become the thing you do that makes you happy and excited. Your little side project maybe even evolves into your “main project” one day. Just start small, be patient and improve it while you learn. You may end up with some unexpected product that the world didn’t know it needed.