I dedicate today’s blog to all side jobs, side projects, pilot experiments … in short, it is about all projects that we engage in during the evenings, on the weekends, i.e. after the work that pays our bills … Let’s have a look at what such work brings us, what benefits we can gain from such activities, and why this phenomenon of ever increasing importance is on today’s labor market.
(20 min reading, mp3 version here)
I believe that at the end of my tale each of you will find within you the motivation and specific inspiration for taking on something similarly on-the-side during your current profession whether you are a freelancer, a new employee, or an experienced corporate manager, or even if you are directing your own NGO! 10 out of 10 career coaches even recommend creating your own side project.
Let’s start with some light terminology (so that it’s clear) in the Czech language there is no formally accepted expression for what is called a “side project” in English, though we do have some slightly pejorative expressions (bokovka, vedlejšák). The term “side project” is used in Czech, for example among musicians, or these days it is used even more among IT developers (you will find many inspiring links to this topic, just google it). In Spanish, the term “proyecto parallel” is used and, in my opinion, is even more fitting.
Nevertheless, I will continue to use the not-too-pretty English expression “side project” – so I kindly ask linguistic purists for tolerance. In any case, I welcome all suggestions for better translations.
So what is this “side project” exactly?
As I hinted at in the introduction, it is an activity that we engage in concurrently with our current job. It can be an experiment within the scope of your current work to see if you will save time, it may be done using time your boss has directly dedicated for these experiments (we are all probably aware of the famous yet controversial 20% in the Google office). Alternatively, it is something that we are doing by ourselves, completely voluntarily, after work, after school, outside of your current core business. At the same time, it is something that, as a rule, we can’t get out of our heads because it is simply and purely founded on our basic need to create, experiement, and investigate; it is something founded on our passions, interests, and skills.
How then does our side project differ from a mere hobby or education?
In short, it has the parameters of a project, i.e. we are not doing the activity randomly or just trying something without a target. But we have in our heads (and then ideally also on paper or in a project tool) an idea about its concrete results, the steps which lead to them, a timetable, expenditures (of time, people, and finances).
WHERE TO GET AN IDEA FOR A SIDE PROJECT
To be specific so that we can imagine the extent and variability of projects of this kind, I offer here a couple of tips from working with my clients, colleagues, and friends:
Janet is a teacher who wrote the book Loving for Those in Love.
Originally a shop assistant, Lucie is passionate about second-hand clothing and sustainable fashion, so she started creating workshops for producing recycled bags and backpacks called Relu
Tomas, a graphic designer, went on trip to China to find good tea and started a tea subscription and the summer tea school Meetea
Computer programmer Eduardo, besides doing coding for companies and beside his own core business, created the platform Fotobookers (like airbnb when looking for an event photographer) which he is now testing out not only at home in Guatemala, but also trying to start up business in Columbia
IT cloud expert Pavel taught himself to program in the evenings while working on the project IKnowMyTime, which automatically generates statistics from your Google calendar.
My brother Martin, a hydro-construction architect, founded a group with his friends offering teambuilding workshops to companies about Brazilian samba, and he also plays as a professional musician in I don’t know how many other projects.
My former colleague George, who led the first ESF projects in Prague with me, wrote the book On the Hill because he lost a bet and now he is living off its profits.
- Many similar activities come up on the website RedButton, where I am a member, and where one can gain a lot of inspiration.
Dan, originally an on-line marketer who enjoys podcasts, started his own, and within a few months he built up one of the most listened-to Czech podcasts Against the Current.
Teacher and songwriter Filip created a comic for children dealing with the history of the region where he lives.
My own project Career DYARY, a workbook for DIY career management and life inventories
Etc. etc. etc.
I am familiar with the side projects listed above and have been watching them from their beginnings. Most of them are very dear to me as it pleases me to see the others’ success, so I support them and promote them further. These mentioned projects are still running and the enthusiasts who founded them continue to develop them. Those of us with side projects and with similar experiences often discuss the joys and sorrows of our activities, and how our projects develop over time.
Some of them have and will remain side projects for fun, are for extra income, while others have transformed into their creator’s core business. What they have in common, though, is the mentioned need to create, experiment, and to somehow systematically develop their interests. And this is regardless of whether it is close to or very distant from their current work with which they make a living.
Taking up a side project seems absolutely natural for some. For others it is difficult to take the first step. Here I will give you some tips on where to look for inspiration:
Look for the topics that you enjoy and comment on with Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn … which areas attract you when you aren’t working on a task for your boss? Is it ecology, human rights, culture, or do you love anything about mountain biking, programming robots, or making toys for children? You can simply transform your brief commenting on these social networks into a longer blog format … and you will see where your topic leads.
Or, you can take it from the other end (the offline world) and begin to do something that influences your neighborhood, or improves the lives of you and your friends – this is exactly how bottom-up non-profit community initiatives arise (e.g. mothers found a maternity center because there are none close to them, or an app is created for cleaning up the local area, or web pages are set up for a local association of fire-fighters, etc.)
If you personally do not feel the need to found something, but you enjoy helping and want to learn on a new side project, try making a web campaign for the activities of local school children who could help to collect stories from e.g. the original inhabitants of the Sudetenland, or try offering your favorite neighborhood animal shelter to do data analysis that may help them enhance the placement of pets into families.
Offering voluntary cooperation in a side project does not always have to be connected with a non-profit, of course. You can offer your time in the company where you now work, or in a company you know, or in one you like and would like to work in the future (especially in the area of innovation, e.g., or on-line marketing - there is space for testing and piloting new things even in larger companies).
And if none of these suggestions feels like the way for you, or you are too shy to ask someone around you, try a course (on-line or off-line) which includes working on a project as a required output for graduates (e.g. Digital Academy Czechitas, output project in programs for leaders in social entrepreneurship in Spiralis or maybe in the program Your Chance - Samsung, where we educate children between the ages of 17-21.)
WHAT TO PREPARE FOR, OR, IS IT ALWAYS UP AND DOWN?
If I was to give only one tip for these side projects, it would basically be this: prepare yourself for ups and downs, and take it as normal that this rollercoaster of emotions is a natural part of such projects. I have come up with some typical phases that I’ve identified during my side project – my Career DYARY – a workbook for DIY career coaching and life inventory:
Phase 1 – I have an idea – hooray, it’s fantastic, the best, unique and original
= this is an “up” phase, when my idea doesn’t let me sleep at night and I throw myself enthusiastically and energetically into the first design.
= me in 2013 > visiting my parents’ home, excitedly drawing my first idea with the title “Me”
Phase 2 – creating the first pre-to-type (from joy to the first cold shower)
= if you don’t want to set yourself and your project up for suicide, and/or you don’t have a lot of extra time and money, it is a good idea to make a pre-to-type – whether for services or products.
= me in 2014 > concept creation and the resulting pre-to-type (drawn neatly by hand with the complete contents of the workbook written out, copied on the home copier) > and the first cold shower from my surroundings, i.e. “hmm, well, it looks interesting…” :))
Phase 3 – prototype creation (from a cold shower to a luke-warm shower)
= If you haven’t been discouraged by the (relatively frequent) cold shower after pre-to-typing, go one step further and invest not only time, but also money for the first time into the creation of the prototype.
= me in 2015 > “hmm, people haven’t reacted very enthusiastically, but I’m enjoying it and I want to create it in the way I like it – let’s continue > I start to tune the design with graphic designer Marketa and I once again gain positive energy from my own creativity.
Phase 4 – Yes! I have it, and it is beautiful and it works – awesome!
= we have the first completely serviceable design apps that do the basic things we want, we have the first designer books, we’ve made the first event for friends, which was successful … you know how it is – all worries and nightmares are gone for a moment.
= me in 2015 > I pay for the first batch of printing of the Czech version of my career DYARY and I’m really happy and planning to be sold out by the end of the year at the latest.
Phase 5 – It’s beautiful but, damn, who is selling it?
= You know how it goes, in this moment the first feelings of being in love (with your newly created product or service) disappear somehow because “it’s not selling by itself” > either you will quit your project in this phase, satisfied that the goal was to learn something, to have a result from his “learning by doing”, or you will decide to go on and shift from a creativity phase to one of sales & marketing.
Phase 6 – Well, alright, so it will work, so what next?
= You have moved from the zero point, sales have more or less started to move, even if they are not paying your bills, but it has given you the hope that at least you will get your investment back, but maybe you feel like a) improving your product/service, or b) developing further
= me in 2016 > okay, it is working somehow, I am gradually selling the Czech version, so why not an English version?
= me in 2017 > hmm, and maybe another version for kids from 13-23 so that they can learn the principles of career management as early as possible and so that they don’t have to “re-invent the wheel” in adulthood
= me in 2018 > Yay! My coach and friend in Mexico likes it – let’s make a Spanish version and try the Latin American market (and now I have returned rather quickly to phase 5 – how the hell am I supposed to sell this here? :)
= me in 2018 > let’s try selling a downloadable pdf version in Czech and in English just to see what happens:)
Phase 7 – I just like to play
= accept side project creation as a path, something like a lifestyle – you want to gradually see all the small partial results, you don’t want to be in the red, but the process is just as important for you as the result … and so you innovate further, whether on your existing product/service, or you start up something else.
= me in 2019 > Marketa, let’s try an interactive pdf, and a version for Kindle, too, … and Andy, how could I process the videos better, and improve online sales … and I might even finally start working on the promised application … who knows, but the path is the target, so let’s keep going.
EVEN BEFORE WE REALLY START…
We often invest a lot of time in side projects that arise out of our enthusiasm and creativity (a whole lot of time – in my case it is hundreds of hours, and in the beginning I wasn’t keeping a proper record). And we very often also invest plenty of money in it (in my case a whole lot more than I initially thought I would). And we rarely have, despite all the planning, a realistic idea of where we want the project to go exactly. We have no idea of all the obstacles we will have to overcome, what we will encounter along the way, all of the things we will really have to deal with in the end.
As unexpected situations come up during the realization of the project (they are not always “problems”), we often start to have doubts … is it really worth it … should I really finish it … is this going to be any good for anyone … will anyone be interested in this … shouldn’t I be spending my free time in another way … etc.
These doubts are normal, and in the moments when they come it is good to pull out of a drawer (or open a file on your computer) your answers to 4 important questions that I recommend you write down somewhere before starting your project:
How do I want to change the world/people’s lives with this project? (meaning and effect on others)
What do I want to learn with this project and why? (meaning and effect on my personal growth)
What am I most looking forward to, what will I enjoy most? (gain for my personal growth)
How much time/money do I want to invest in this project and when and how do I want it to return to me? (Return on Investment of financial and non-financial investments)
I think that it is not necessary to do any super-sophisticated analysis in this respect. You should rather try to visualize and clearly name your expectations. Then you should go back to it in a moment of doubt about whether or not you should continue.
WHERE SHOULD I BE WHEN I WANT TO CREATE?
It seems like a relatively clear question with a clear answer: I will simply work on my side project at home, after work, when I have time … I recommend a change of environment at least when beginning and when ending your project. As my friend and colleague Marek from Edupunk (who travels to Morroco to create) says,
“… the results from changing the surrounding people and place are that much more colorful …”
In the beginning you can try something smaller: either just create at the weekend somewhere in the countryside, in the mountains or by a river (ideally somewhere you have peace and quiet so that you can go deeper in your concentration). If you know, on the other hand, that you need commotion for your creativity, go sit in a café where you don’t usually go (neither you nor your friends and acquaintances – so that you are not distracted:).
If you need a bit of commotion, but at the same time relative peace – I recommend using a co-working space and/or a study zone in a library – Victor, my Mexican teacher of Spanish worked like this for 3 days in the National Technical Library in Prague when he was putting together his first amateur webpage for his students to practice grammar.
For the more courageous: try a week or a month (or more) of (un)paid holiday. What kind of agreement are you able to make at work as well as reduce personal costs?
Of course you can create in the classic normal commotion of your week routine (and at some point in your project you will probably have to). But I recommend detached time especially at the beginning and at the end - preparation phases, when you are stuck, or you need to make some significant progress – switch off the telephone, social networks, and email and truly devote your time only to your project.
I do something in between: I work for some part of my year in Central America, but I ideally try to devote 1/3 -1/2 of my time to pure creation of new side projects, or developing existing ones. The Career DYARY was actually created at home in Jizerka on Jablonec, but it grew into its final form somewhere between León and San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua), Antigua (Guatemala), El Tunco (El Salvador), Oaxaca and Tijuana (Mexico) and a bit in San Diego (USA)
WHAT ALL CAN A PERSON (NOT) LEARN
From our side projects we often also expect financial returns, but together with financial return on investment it’s also good to include a return in what you’ve learned. In my view these types of projects are first and foremost about the joy of investigating and learning new things.
Here is some self-reflection, then about what my career DYARY project taught me:
I investigated and learned …
How the office for the protection of intellectual property works and when and under what conditions does it (not) pay off to register a trademark
How to make a web page that is more sales-oriented than personal
How to market and sell a product (what are the differences between selling and marketing a service, by which I exclusively earned my living) and how to tune sales for B2B and especially B2C
How services sell a product and how a product sells services
What are the principles of good content marketing and where is my ideal position for communication corresponding to my brand
And in this sales connection, how to tune sales and networking elevator pitches for various target groups and in various countries (e.g. in the USA vs. in Mexico vs. In the Czech Republic - they are very different:)
How to make product pictures and when they are (not) good (how to contract a good photographer in Guatemala – my developer friend Eduardo with his above-mentioned side project Fotobookers helped me with this
How translations into foreign languages work and what to do with translation differences that appear in given languages, cultures, societies, education systems, where the product will be used
How to think globally and even universally and how to eliminate these cultural, social and other barriers in the product
How the production and selling of products can change your account and setting up legal contracts when you have only ever provided services
How to automize at least some processes and how long to keep them manual (so that you can really find out what exactly it is that you want)
With the list I don’t want to imply that I am an expert in all these areas. I got to know some things more deeply than others while other things I understand in a more general way. With some things I at least know which criteria to use when choosing a provider, or, where I still have gaps for future re-working. And this is exactly what side projects are about.
When I started writing things down for this blog, I surprised myself with how many things a person has to learn thanks to one side project. At any rate, I recommend to everyone who already has their project, or who had their project (even if it is on ice now, or simply unfinished) – try to write down all the areas you had to investigate and which new skills you learned.
WHERE & HOW TO USE A SIDE PROJECT FOR YOUR PROFESSIONAL ADVANCEMENT
Benefit 1 – help during your professional transition
Because horizontal career changes (e.g. changes in field, or position within a field) are still not standard practice on the labor market, those who would like to make such changes have to fight. Besides declaring your motivations in your CV that you “really, really want to learn new things”, this is actually a great occasion to concretely show not only what new knowledge and skills you have acquired through your side project, but mainly how you managed to apply that knowledge and those skills in practice.
Here I would like to encourage all perfectionists (who need to submit outputs of work done of a quality of at least 120%:) – don’t be afraid to even show the gradual, not completely perfect version (side projects are really often more about the way than the target). At the same time don’t be afraid to present side projects that you have done in a team. Just simply write fairly what your role in the team was. However, one argument that I often hear: “but I didn’t do it by myself”, will uselessly take away the possibility to present your interesting experience.
Benefit 2 – revealing your talents & flow & developing your endurance
I wrote about finding your passion and flow in one of my previous blogs in connection with AI and the automation of labor. I come back to it in this new context to say that we alone are responsible for finding what we enjoy in work and what fulfills us.
It’s fantastic to do e.g. the most well-known test of our strengths and weaknesses in these areas, the so-called Gallup Test. But when we are holding the automatically generated results of the test in our hands, it is good to look for the context in which we can best apply our talents and strengths. And it can happen that in some work environments one person will enjoy the same activity that another will not enjoy.
Even your existing work that you enjoy doesn’t always have to create an opportunity to reveal all of your talents. In the first three employments that I had, for example, which dealt with project management, I always scored 0% in creativity on such tests > obviously, when I was swimming in graphs, numbers, and time schedules and did not have the opportunity to create:) It is fortunately thanks to my side projects that I could get back to discovering and developing my creativity.
Do not expect that one day, by some miracle, something will appear that will suddenly and completely fulfill you. Be active in the process of searching itself. And as a first small step you can think right now about what makes you happiest even in your existing job. On this topic I recommend TED speaker Barry Schwartz and his book Why We Work (which is my current challenge – reading it in Spanish:).
Generally, to search for you passion/flow I recommend trying out new things in your own little projects, learn from them, have fun while doing it, investigate where you (don’t) have flow … and take it as an endless game that develops your skills as well as builds your endurance in social changes through the diversity of activities (see my colleague Valery’s recommendation of Bruno Marion’s book). Again: the path is the destination.
Benefit 3 – update your personal brands
A personal brand is something like a jigsaw puzzle. Where individual pieces, e.g. our vision, talents, hard & soft skills, values and personal characteristics, etc. form a whole picture of ourselves. And one inseparable and important component is a clear and authentic self-presentation of the content of our personal brand.
Nevertherless, we, and our brand with us, transform over time – mostly under the influence of our private lives, family, or health, which influence our current priorities and values. So, it is good to put our puzzle together again from time to time and to “update your brand”.
Most people think about updating their personal brand in a crisis moment (e.g. I was fired, I want to give notice, I have an opportunity for promotion, I have an opportunity to work abroad and I don’t know if I want to move, etc.). It is also good, however, to update your brand regularly (at least once a year) and to develop it through self reflection and so-called self-career-management skills.
Sometimes meeting with a career coach can help us in this. They can sometimes help us sort out our priorities using various printed self-help tools (e.g. career DYARY or other planning diaries, books …), or online (what I like from the web is e.g. “passion finder” Road Trip Nation, which I have written about in a blog). And for some people the ideal helper in sorting out thoughts to update our personal brand can also be the realization of a side project.
What do I ask myself at the end of a project so that it really helps me in my professional growth?
At the end of each side project I definitely recommend writing down or otherwise visualizaing:
the knowledge you have acquired
the skills that you tried out in practice
what you learned from managing a project
which activities provided you with flow
what were the biggest pluses and the biggest minuses
what did specific mistakes teach you to do differently today
what did cooperating with colleagues as part of a team teach you
Write it out on a piece of paper at the end of short side projects, and with longer ones I recommend doing this “inventory” at least once a year. What is mainly important is to be honest with yourself and specific when answering these questions (avoid generalizing with empty phrases such as “I learned to communicate better”).
Then, when you have all the pluses and minuses neatly arranged before your eyes, do not forget to add your side project to your CV and/or LinkedIn and/or other professional portfolio. Specifically it is good to describe:
the name and aim of the project (plus the info that it is a side project)
the time that you worked on the project
a link to the outputs of the project or partial results
and if it turned out to be a dead end, add what experience you gained
There are many variations on how to begin your own side project, how to develop it, and what to take out of it, which is great. So, I am crossing my fingers for you in hopes that your little projects and side jobs bring you joy overall, even through all the up & down phases of their realization.
Take heart in the fact that at the end of all of your projects (whether successful or unsuccessful, whether paid or unpaid, finished or unfinished) you will always harvest: new experiences, new contacts, and new findings about yourself!
a) Archive of other articles are on my web HERE
b) or listen to my SoundCloud version in mp3 HERE
c) You can add comments under blog on my LinkedIn
d) The photos are from January 2018 where I am working on my career DYARY in Mexico. Here I pull back the curtain a bit for a view of the background based on the tips of Austin Kleon and his book Show Your Work!