Learn by doing: why I started doing side projects
Unlike what you’ve been led to believe, and somewhat against the expectations of the Start Up and Tech industries, I didn’t start doing side projects to enhance my résumé. It wasn’t to make myself more appealing to employers or clients. It wasn’t even to work alongside my close friend Jordan Amblin again. While side projects are great for all of these things they’ve become a sort of interview meme and hot topic for that very reason as of late. Just search “Side projects” on twitter and you’ll see exactly what I mean. For me however, they provide a creative outlet beyond my 9 to 5, allowing me to grow and learn in ways that my daily grind wouldn’t allow. They provide me a motivation and drive that otherwise I would not have found. They give me a whole new outlook on the world.
Since becoming a full time Software Engineer, I always had the “what if” question of, what if I had done Industrial Design, or Architecture at University? I’d become fascinated with how the physical world of design could inform my digital creations. Obviously, I couldn’t go back to Uni. I couldn’t just magic up another £30,000 for the privilege. Step forward a few years, and I found myself at Appear Here. I was in awe of all the awesome brands that they were helping realise their dreams. Combine this with a vague interest in fashion and a long discussion about “how the tote bags you get as start-up swag suck”, and bingo! I had my idea.
I saw this as an opportunity to figure out a bunch of different things. How could I go from idea to market? How on earth do I get physical products made? Could I convince someone to pay for something I’ve made? The best bit about it was, even if the project bombed, I’d learn a shed load and be able to apply those learnings to future endeavours.
So what happened? It took two years, lots of back and forth and a lot of patience, and… I parked it. To this day, I’ve got the brand, the domain name, the placeholder website, the photography and I even have a prototype of the exact bag I want to go to market with. Privileged as I was to have my Mum’s sewing genius making the bags for me, in an unfortunate turn of events her health became worse and that became our focus.
One day perhaps I’ll pick up the project again, but for now I can tell you that I’ve learnt a damn lot. Like organising photoshoots, the complexities of choosing a fabric to work with, the time and cost of producing physical products, and how the digital, iterative approach to design needed to be adapted for the real world. Knowing this is what makes it all worth while.
Now, to a few months ago and Jordan is telling me how filling out his time sheets is a drag. The tools he has to use are so bloated and don’t really play well with his day-to-day process. We’re on a tube, heading miles away from where we live, and we come to the conclusion that we should make something to solve his problems. For me, this was an opportunity to make something with some true user insight. Heck, when the guy designing the thing is also your #1 user, what can go wrong?!
It was this time, where we had no external pressure. No client, no boss. Nothing but our own motivation. Could I deliver on my promise with nothing but myself to push me there? It might not sound like a big deal, but when you didn’t get to finish your first real side project, it was definitely a question that I needed to answer. It was time to find out.
We agreed very early on that we would launch on Product Hunt and that was really exciting for me too. The only Product Hunt launch I had seen first hand was a massive flop. Mostly because of the lack of effort put into it. Could we do a good one? Could we get to top of the list? Could we build something good enough that we’d have returning users and actually become part of someone else’s day-to-day?
It’s the immediate aftermath of our Product Hunt launch, so I don’t have concrete answers to any of the above questions other than Yes. Yes, I can deliver on my promise and take something from idea to execution with only my own desire driving me forward.
The question remains however, who, of the ~1,400 people who visited hellotimo.co on launch day, found it useful enough to come back again? I won’t be able to answer these questions with any certainty for a little while at least, and we’ll be doing a write up on our launch as soon as traffic has settled down and it’s more reflective of reality.
As I took on these two projects, the former lasting over two years, my only goal was to learn by doing. If I was asked in a job interview what side projects I was doing, they may have baulked when I returned with “I’m making a bag company”. Let’s face it, producing a physical product has little to do with my day job. The same goes for Timo. While I was the developer behind it, I wasn’t really learning anything new technically. Both projects were done to learn things I had decided I wanted to know more about. They were done because they excite me and as far I’m concerned that’s all that is important. So, if you’re trying to become a better swimmer or if you’re learning to knit and run a marathon at the same time you don’t need to be doing anything else. You’ve already got yourself a side project, and heck, you’re already growing.