The Side Project Misconception

I’m currently in the early stages of starting Unpossib.ly, a new venture in innovation platforms. I’m reading a lot and absorbing everything I can from people who’ve already successfully achieved what I’m aiming to.

Something I keep coming across from founders, writers and experts is the idea that many of the best startups start as side projects.

Now, I’m not questioning the legitimacy of the information — I’m sure its true, that indeed many great products and companies we know and love today began in a developer’s proverbial Friday night toolshed, but I’ve been wondering why it’s such a common perception and what are the underlying concepts behind what gives ‘side projects’ an edge over full blown, “quit your day job and build this sucker” attempts at creating valuable startups.

After re-reading over many of the books and articles that mention it, I began to realise exactly why so many side project gone gangbusters success cases exist. I think the reasons behind why side projects make great starting points for startups are as follows:

They’re passion projects

Chances are if you work a full time job, or run a full time business like myself, you’re going to be tired when you get home. By the time it gets to the weekend doing more work is often the last thing on your mind. Unless you love it. Unless you’re so passionate about that particular thing that you can’t not think about it or work on it in every spare second you have. So my theory is that side projects, which by nature need to exist outside of the regular working or school hours, are often projects people feel passionate enough to sacrifice their precious spare time to work on. Which leads me to the next point..

The ‘side project’ personality

Something that often comes up in startup wisdom is that the kind of people needed to found successful companies need to be the type of people that are driven beyond normal standards. They’re the kind of people that are borderline manic about their work and often, as bad as it sounds, neglect other aspects (especially social) of their life. Now, what better way is there to find that kind of person than to look at who’s at home at 9pm on Friday nights, not partying, not playing games, not surfing the internet — but passionately building this product? If we think about the qualities in a founder that are important throughout the early stages of getting an idea off the ground and keeping it alive through almost certain adversity: determination, indomitable focus, belief in the vision, ability start and finish tasks — these are the types of traits you need to posses in order to successfully build a side project whilst maintaining a full time job.

It may very well be the case that the size of the project is not the key driver, rather the type of people who are working tirelessly on them.

Bullets, then cannonballs

This is a concept Jim Collins talks about in his book Great By Choice. He identifies a quality in great companies as their ability to fire carefully aimed ‘bullets’ or tests, to qualify an idea, and then throw their full force into it, make the commitment of resources and take on the full scale of the accompanying risks. When we hear stories about the unicorn startups that began as side projects, we probably don’t hear about the hundreds of thousands of other side projects that were showing promise, but the creator never took the leap to dedicate themselves fully to it. To fire the cannonball, so to speak. Not unlike the previous point, I think another key aspect of a successful startup is that the founders, early on, were smart about testing the concept and validating the idea, but then brave (or stupid) enough to drop everything and pursue it with absolute fervour.

Dominating the niche

Starting with a niche market and dominating it quickly is often talked about in startup land but rarely brought up when people make the side project observation. I won’t go into detail here surrounding the actual concepts behind why startups need to focus on growth within a niche initially as there is plenty of material on the subject. I think the key here is that side projects are innately niche. They have to be. People don’t usually start side projects with global domination in mind. They start with small, with a very specific yet unique purpose. And that happens to be exactly where the biggest ideas need to begin (I’m an absolute believer of that). Yet the opposite seems to happen when people sit down and deliberately try to come up with the next big thing. They do exactly that — they try and come up to too big a thing and it’s target market is everyone who eats or everyone who breathes. Which is everyone. What better way to keep the idea small and niche then to literally have no time to make it otherwise?

So whilst I think side projects are indeed a great starting point for startups, there are a host of other important factors such as founder personality and passion that form the foundation and the distinction between the ones that get left to rust in the corner or the ones that become ubiquitous household products.