Treating Your Side Project Like a Profession

As new generations pursue a healthier balance between pragmatism and passion, the side project is born. This is the time we spend working on our real dreams in hopes of them paying rent one day. Whether you are an aspiring musician, artist, entrepreneur, designer, vibe curator, or Instagram thot, here’s what I’ve learned attempting to close that gap.

Data + Emotion

We’ve heard the phrase “this project is my baby” enough to know that millennials are latching on to any excuse to avoid having real kids. It’s an expression that says “I care about this thing so much, that I will make irrational decisions for it.” Many consider this feeling the x-factor to any project’s success, but only a few understand it’s limitations. That’s where data comes in. A.K.A. facts, b. Here are some tips on how to utilize:

  1. Focus your initial excitement into researching examples of success and failure in your competitive landscape. Remember: “if somebody isn’t doing it already, it’s probably a bad idea.”
  2. Use data to understand failure before letting failure dictate your emotions. You’ll only win if you know why you lost. When you run out of explanations, it might be time to move on.
  3. Establish reasonable metrics for success so your emotional responses to progress are appropriate. This will help you stay excited without approaching delusion. Should you pop bottles for 1000 plays? No, but have yourself a few beers.
  4. Focus more on trends in your data rather than total size of the response. Nothing blows up out the gate, but if you’re seeing consistent improvements and retention over time, that’s reason to keep going.
  5. Balance patience with resources. As long as you can manage your time and money, there’s no rush. When those two things are really suffering, it’s time to make something happen quick or reconsider.

Product + Hype

The line between popularity and currency is thin these days, but the difference between a celebrity and a local social media hero is knowing how to leverage the attention. Simply put, hype is useless without product, but product is wasted without hype. I talk to so many artists who are focused on their image but have recorded less than 10 songs. In contrast, there are people putting hours into their product and guaranteeing nobody knows about it. Here’s a graph to make what I’m saying sound more official:

Some simple principles to keep the two on pace:

  1. Don’t publicize too many projections. The more people hear “this is going to be huge,” the more they will hold unreasonable expectations to gain their support.
  2. Constantly share progress with your audience and don’t wait too long to get things “right.” Customers and fans will grow with you. They would rather see that things are happening than keep hearing “its coming soon.”
  3. Dedicate the extra hours into presentation. Great branding is no longer a competitive advantage, it is a requirement. If you’re not confident in your eye, don’t be afraid to involve someone who is.
  4. Keep a safe distance from inner-circle anecdotal bias. Or as the culture calls it, “yes men”. Friends and family gassing you up because you’re the one person they know “taking risks” might be a nice motivator, but will cloud your judgement. On the flip side, don’t be bitter when people from your past could care less. Only seek approval from fans, customers, investors, and mentors.
  5. Separate your personal brand from your product/service. You always want people talking about your work more than they talk about you. If you are an artist, let your work speak for you. If you are running a business, always speak on behalf of its interests.
A wise person should have money in their head, but not in their heart. — Jonathan Swift

Money + Resources

When your efforts aren’t making money and you aren’t actively putting together a plan for how they eventually will, then it is a hobby. This isn’t a question of “how can I sell x for $y” but instead “how do I operate without money?” This is undeniably the hardest part of making the leap from project to profession, but here are a few practices that will go a long way:

  1. Find other people making money in your space and reach out to them. Not the top 1% who will never respond, but literally anybody making a dollar from a similar craft. You will be surprised how willing they are to share their secrets.
  2. Work full time jobs that align with your aspirations. That doesn’t just mean “find a coffee shop job where you can think about your project.” Look for positions that will surround you with relevant resources and opportunities outside of work.
  3. Give other people an opportunity to help you without creating the pressures of a paid job. They will help you grow if: a) there is valuable experience in it for them b) you don’t expect more from them than they do from you. With that being said, if someone’s role is as crucial as yours, incentivize them to invest in the future.
  4. Use Kickstarter and GoFundMe with caution. My arbitrary rule of thumb is that crowdfunding only makes sense if less than 5% of the money raised is from family and friends. Instead, look for the qualified strangers who want to help.
  5. Seek ambitious partnerships. Understand that no matter how small your product/service, you have to provide value to someone larger than you. Big venues looking for small acts; large brands looking for niche audiences; high profile investors looking for underfunded startups. For every regular conversation you have about your project, you should send 5 emails to decision makers with the subject “How Can I Help You?”

Closing Thoughts

Part of me is concerned that this piece would qualify under “not really saying anything new,” but in reality no one told me these things before I started any of my projects. That’s the beauty of the side hustle. Everyone’s approach is as different as everyone’s result, but nothing is truly profound. The more you consume and put out, the easier it becomes to craft solutions. There is no need to pretend you have everything figured out, because you aren’t in this alone. I’d love to further discuss any of these themes in detail and learn from your experience with turning a project into a profession :D