The Secrets to Side Project Success

Once it’s wheels up for your startup, you start to miss those passions you checked at the gate. At cruising altitude, you have a choice to make: Pursue your passion, or keep your full-time job? Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario.

November 23rd, 2016   |    By: Eden Chen    |    Tags: Management, Motivation, Announcements, Freelancers, Side Projects, Staff, Idea Validation

You’re a startup founder. An idea machine. But it doesn’t matter how many ideas you have; those are a dime a dozen. What matters more is how you’re going to turn ideas into reality. So there’s a fork in the road: Pursue your side project (e.g. your passion), or keep your full-time job?

Delaying your side project could save time and money. Then again, going through with it could add color to your life and massive value to your company.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. You can make room for passion projects without ditching your post. Almost all the companies I’m running today started as side projects.

A few years ago, I was working as a hedge fund manager and a CTO of a Hollywood church. I was doing a little side consulting on websites and apps, so I decided to put a brand to my work.

A logo, a domain, some social media, and dozens of projects later, and I’m running one of the country’s fastest-growing app development studios — and I’m still working on side projects.

Working on your side project


Don’t get me wrong. I’ve wasted tremendous amounts of time and money on poorly planned side projects. There are legitimate reasons you shouldn’t take one on. The first is obvious: Side projects can turn into full-time work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless it causes conflict with your co-workers.

Side projects are also becoming less and less common. Angel and seed funding are more available than ever: Why should your side project stay sidelined if you can get funding for it?

But working on passion projects also isn’t as simple as it used to be. Startups already suffer a high failure rate, and the chances of side-project success are even worse. In my industry, the complexity of multi-platform development only makes it tougher. Before 2008, you just built an iOS or web app. Now you have to build for iOS, Android, and potentially Mac or web.

Go for It Anyway

But spending some spare time on something you’re passionate about isn’t all bad news. If you’re learning a new language, for example, you can test it out through a side project.

Or use side project marketing — working on projects that will help your startup — to solve your innovator’s dilemma. My company engages in side projects constantly, for us and our clients, but we try to start only projects that help the studio.

You could even argue that Google is a company with a bunch of side projects. That’s what makes it so innovative.

Make Your Side Project Work

The reality is that, unless you’re preparing to leave your main job, your side project can’t interfere with it. Things get dicey if your co-founders think you’re focusing too much on something unrelated to the business.

Here’s how to launch a side project and keep everyone (including you) happy:

1. Kill two birds with one stone.

Tackle a problem your startup is facing. For example, my company recently started a project management software because we were frustrated there wasn’t an agency-specific tool to help our employees and clients communicate effectively. We’re also launching a coding boot camp to prepare recent graduates for the workplace.

2. Call in reinforcements.

If you’re wondering when to bring in outside help, the answer is simple: ASAP. Get yourself a CEO or a project manager. Greed makes no sense because your side project isn’t your primary focus. Give away some equity to someone who’s 100 percent committed to seeing your project through.

3. Put it to the test quickly.

Use prototyping tools to quickly test your concept. Try Webflow to launch a landing page that explains what you’re building. Put your project on Product Hunt to gauge public interest. Get projects backed with Kickstarter crowdfunding.

4. Don’t keep secrets.

Make sure your co-founders know what you’re up to. You don’t want your co-workers to worry you’ll abandon them for your passion project. Transparency is the best policy to avoid a rabbit hole of intra-company conflict.

Don’t start a side project because you have a cool idea or to prove doubters wrong. Instead, take a rational look your concept and situation, and use agile launch approaches.

Some think passion projects are black and white: Either you don’t have one, or you quit your job to tackle it full-time. But you have more choices. Find a project that benefits your startup and manage it properly, and you can pursue your passions without risking it all.

About the Author

Eden Chen

Eden Chen is the co-founder of Fishermen Labs, a Los Angeles-based app development agency focused on custom web, mobile app, virtual reality, and augmented reality development, and digital marketing. Follow Eden on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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