When I was entering my teens, I was replete with my future career ideas: A bus driver, an actor, a doctor, a politician, a sportsman.
My father often talked to me about a home-made projector my grandfather built for some dozen family kids’ pastime. (It was his secret dream to build a street cinema that never materialized.) I was quite fascinated with the story.
Despite my relentless inquiries, I couldn’t lay my hands on it. The apparatus was unreachable in the huge old house. My scavenging escapades to cobwebbed attic had failed thrice.
Then one morning my father handed me a magnifying glass — saying that this was the only part he could recover from the shackled assembly. Having just studied about it in the textbook but never seen it, I was overjoyed.
For the next three months, I ran every possible experiment: burning skin with sunlight to seeing huge projections of movie still negatives (also from my grandpa’s collection) on the wall.
At that time I made up my career choice: I wanted to be an experimenter: either a scientist or an engineer. The dream was materialized in the next 15 years.
My grandfather’s side project helped me make my career choice — and more importantly, choice of my lifelong passion: experimentation.
Why are we troubled with our unfinished side projects?
People in tech are basically experimenters and executioners, employed as inventors and engineers.
Anything unfinished brings sleepless nights to executioners. More so, also because it is more worrisome for stakeholders: employers and investors.
In case of side projects, though, the sleepless nights are reserved for executioners themselves. (Sometimes, family maybe a stakeholder breathing down the executioner’s neck.)
Main source of the trouble with side projects is the fact that they have a tendency to pile up.
So unfinished side project bringing trouble is basically a two-fold question:
- Why do we have so many side projects nowadays
- Why are we troubled when they are not finished
Targeting each pain point will rightly dissect the problem for everyone.
Why do we have so many side projects nowadays?
Because we are living in a very crucial juncture of technology and competency.
We are living in a world where home-based startup creation has exploded
At one side we have exponentially widening net of: training / tools / accessible resources / internet ecosystem
On the other side tech is just around the corner to replace business functions at lightning pace. Every founder who can envision the future X-years ahead (and X is shrinking every day) can see that if he / she doesn’t fill this gap in the market, an AI bot will.
But while startups can be done either full-time or as a side-project, the latter has picked up momentum due to the fact that:
- Side projects are frictionless.Working in your couch on something that excites you is far better than preparing presentations and chasing angel investors in conferences. Recent entrepreneurial advices heavily favor bootstrapping against external equity — but this is quite wider topic than the one today.
- Side projects are well-supported by the right mix of communities such as Github, Producthunt, Reddit et al. Inspiration is abundant, resources are at your disposal. All you need is the right mix of passion.
- Side projects are lucrative. Lucrative as in one-shot winner takes it all game. In contrast, look at how content-creation businesses grow: they saw their gold-rush around a decade ago, and are now saturated. In programming parlance, content creation is O(n) complexity — taking proportionate amount of resources and time, against O(log N) complexity of side projects. Also, content-creation is inherently identity bound (i.e. whose blog, which youtube channel, whose Insta account) that takes months, if not years, to build. Huge wall for new entrant in a saturated market.
- Cumulatively due to all these reasons, side projects are the new market in the startup ecosystem. “Startup Project” term leads 6500+ monthly google searches worldwide. Programmers are increasingly becoming cogwheels of huge factory called side project incubation and assistance.
Why are we troubled when side projects are not finished
It sounds cliche. But it isn’t.
Many engineers start a side project just to validate their competency. They are keen to show-off their capabilities to their bosses, the next interviewers, spouse, or someone exciting they are about to meet at Friday night party.
I have 3 side projects (browser and mobile apps) squatting on my HDD that I created to help my 8 year old son identify numbers / letters. I partly succeeded. I know I cannot take it to website / app store, because competition is simply and staggeringly better. I have no further interest in them.
But engineers who got / cultivated entrepreneurship in their DNA begin to itch when their side projects don’t see a buck in the bank.
When unfinished projects pile up, engineers’ anxiety increases, due to the perceived failure rate. Despite being known just to themselves & family, unfinished projects create a towering sense of failure during quiet moments. Family starts complaining about the time pie that side projects ate up.
And then on one gloomy day, they topple you over the cliff’s edge. Unsplash’s glaring overnight (?) success (or a similar one) shadows their own unpublished ambition.
That thing about other people’s success:
Yes, not all successful side projects bring inspiration. They bring jealousy too, even when they belong to someone completely unrelated.
News reports, forum upvotes, blog feeds, twitter mentions, github stars — everything that we are subscribed to screams other people’s successes.
Unlike startups with CEO-CTO duopoly, side projects are mostly solo adventures (although Unsplash wasn’t). They are often born out of inventors’ wish for secrecy. They believe that announcing their ambition conflicts with their full time job.
Who knows, how the boss might take it — we are connected on linkedIn.
This hinders their ability to network, their ability to find those first 100 crucial customers.
Amid this, when someone hijacks their claim to side project success, it hurts. Even if they didn’t steal it.
I couldn’t market it in time. I couldn’t take valuable user feedback early on. I didn’t fail early!
That’s when it hurts.
All entrepreneurial schools always say:
Never build a side project just because you want validation for yourself, your boss, friends or family. Build it to solve a larger problem. Lesson learnt.
But you know it —either way, it’s easier said than done.
So how does one cope-up with unfinished side project?
They say it quite often: Fail early. While this is pragmatic, not every side project is built to serve a huge people problem.
Many a times, a project with high ROI under shorter time (a perfect sweet spot for a side project) is a problem already solved by someone else.
You got high on it, but little too high to research the market. No problem in solving it again, but do it for the experience of having done it.
Unfinished projects have enormous value in filling up the silences during interviews and investor pitches. Show them how you tried it and failed, instead of uttering that boilerplate bullshit from similarly boilerplate CV / PPT.
I was freelancer for 1/3rd of my career. When back to mainstream programming career, my side-projects were best tools in nailing increasingly rewarding offers from employers — both at home and abroad.
If none of it, simply shelve them on your private git / blog. Sit on it for months. Or years. The fact is, because they represent the passion in you, they are never actually shelved.
They will find their uses either through you, or the world around you, and you will be fortunate enough to claim your pie.
They could be a required component in your future job that you code in a day and enjoy rest of your sprint browsing startup forums.
They could be an app / web template for a startup hounding freelance devs to make their MVP work.
If not, remember that:
Doing side projects is not simply about entrepreneurship. It is about employing your passion to perform exciting things. Things that you thought you could not perform, but yet accomplished.
If you feel painful cherishing your unfinished side projects, store them in your attic (read HDD with password protection). Show your son where you place it.
Who knows? Your grandson might just discover the next password decryption algorithm.