Why ‘Side Projects’ matter?

The art of succeeding slowly.


A good mantra for a startup is to ‘Fail Fast’.

Prototype early. Release a minimum viable product. If the customer thinks it sucks, kill it. If they like it, refine it. Iterate, iterate and iterate again until you reach a point where the customer loves what you do. In the tech world, this works. In the tech world, speed matters.

It is indeed better to find out your idea sucks as fast as you humanly can than to spend the next 5 years working on something that will ultimately send you to a paupers grave. But failing fast isn’t just a mantra to save you money. It is a mantra to save you your most important asset which is: Time.

You can make more money but not more time. Time matters in the Tech world. You want to release your idea before someone else does. Being first, matters. Being able to update a bug fast, matters. Being able to code faster than your rival, matters. Yup, speed matters in the tech world. A lot.

But where ‘The Fail Fast’ mantra falls down is with side projects. For side projects read ‘Labours of Love’. You know those ideas that just won’t go away. That little idea in the back of your head that just keeps bugging you. That keeps gnawing away at you in your quiet moments. Well, that idea just wants you to commit some time to it. It wants to make its way in the world.

For me, the best way to make these ideas happens is to treat them as side projects. I like side projects as a different set of rules apply to it:

1, They don’t have to provide you with a living. You can still eat if they fail.

2, They don’t have a deadline. And as there is no time pressure, you don’t revert to your usual formula. You try new things. You experiment. You take risks.

3, This is a Labour of Love. You provide the ‘Labour’. And you provide the ‘Love’. So when you spend time on it, it is because you really want to. That keeps you coming back and pushing it on. That’s important. This thing will require you to keep plugging away at it, maybe, for years.

Love pays well in the end. But in the early years, it doesn’t pay at all.

What you have to give your ‘Side Project’ is your time, your belief in them, your refusal to quit. You are its guardian. You are making sure it grows up to be the beautiful thing you want it to be. You know, how you saw it in your head from day one.

You are letting it grow up protected from the harsh world of putting food on the table and meeting deadlines and targets. It will do that one-day for you. It will do that in spades. But right now, it is just a child. It wants to play around for a bit. It needs time to work out its place in this world.

Patience is your biggest gift to it.

Side projects are the opposite to the mantra of ‘Failing Fast’. Side projects are all about ‘Succeeding Slowly’.

What made me think about all this was recently I found myself in a hop barn in California, listening to Tina Roth Eisenberg (better known as @swissmiss) speak at Do USA. And she spoke about how all her main projects in her life right now started out as side projects. Her blog started out as a blog for herself. CreativeMornings started in her office and now there are 56 of them around the world. Tattly started from a desire to give her kids some better tattoos.

None of these were supposed to turn into businesses. As she spoke I realised all of the things I had ever started, started out as ‘Side Projects’. And that made me realise that ‘Side Projects’ are more important that I ever realised.

Our learning.

Clare and I started howies in 1995, and we received our first pay check in 2001. It was our ‘Side Project’ for 6 years before it became the thing that put food on our table. How did we fund ourselves over that time? Simply, by keeping our day jobs. Keeping your day job is one way of funding your ‘Side Project’.

We sold howies to Timberland. That helped us fund other side projects. We started The Do Lectures in 2008, a set of talks in West Wales and Northern California in 2008, and we don’t expect it to put some food on our table until next year. That will be around 6 years between starting and earning a living from it. Good things just take time. In 2012, we started The 25 Mile, a restaurant that sources its main ingredients from a 25 Mile radius. Again, this is going to take some time before it gives us something back. What we try and do with ‘Side Projects’ is build teams around the idea, and to give the teams our trust. Let them fly.

That allows us to concentrate on our main project, which is getting our town making jeans again with Hiut Denim Co, and still have lots of ‘Side Projects’ on the go.

For me the importance of ‘Side Projects’ is to allow that precious time for a young idea to be protected from the world. Like one of those tree guards you see around young saplings. It just buys them time to get strong. Once they are strong enough, the guard is taken away.

‘Side Projects’ tell you what the future will be like.

If you are running a company right now, the amount of ‘Side Projects’ that are being worked on will tell you how successful you will be in the future. If you are creative person your ‘Side Projects’ will one day become how you earn a living in the future. That book project that you have been working on for ages, that blog that you have been writing every day for years, that product prototype you have been building on the weekends, they all matter.

So don’t dismiss your side project as just this thing you do on the side. It is the thing you do that makes you happy, it is the thing you do that excites you, and it will, in the end, become your ‘Main Thing’ that puts food on your table.

So yeah, ‘Side Projects’ matter. They just take time to show you why.