In the past several years, I have worked on several side projects that have never seen the light of day. For those who are not familiar with my story, I cofounded Fusion Ads and ran that business for several years before selling it late in 2011. While I was running Fusion, I launched several other projects … some to mediocre success, some to no success at all.
When you start a business that does well, then move on, there is a constant internal pressure to repeat your success. The purpose of the business can be a completely different direction, but you have this expectation that you will make it work.
For me, the pressure is partly from my own expectations, but also partly because there is a following of people who you still want to impress. We could debate the whether that's a valid motivation, but to deny its existence would be foolish. We all like to be at least a little Internet famous.
But what happens when a couple years pass and you still haven't launched the next thing? Here's what I've been learning.
Silent side projects have value
It was November 2011 that I completed the six figure sale of a successful business that I helped start from the ground up. Two years later, it's so very easy to look back and say to myself, “What have you accomplished since then?” In terms of replacing a business that made more than $30,000 each month, the answer is, “Not much!”
But I have worked on several ideas that were eventually scrapped, put on pause, or are still in progress. I've learned to take some satisfaction in these, even the cancelled ideas, because of one truth: my skills have grown by working on these ideas. I'm reminded of this importance every time I start a new project. My skills in design, UX, typography, and front end code would be much weaker were it not for spending the time on these projects.
Some great scenes end up on the cutting room floor. Some photos never make the spread. And some projects never see the light of day.
Our current state of business in web circles is still very focused on the startup mentality and business plan. And while this has a lot of problems, there are some things to learn from it. One key lesson I've learned from watching the start up culture is that a lack of clear direction and a valid business plan from the start is a great way to have an unsuccessful idea!
The lack of a valid business plan can lead to a successfully launched product or service that will fail due to a lack of profit. A lack of clear direction can lead to jumping around from one project to another. Knee deep into the hard work of one project is exactly when inspiration for another idea will strike. The temptation to change focus or to “pivot” is always strong at this point. Starting a new idea is very often more exciting than completing the last 20% of the current project.
How does this apply to a one man team? Simply this: I only have so much time to allocate to my own projects, so I'd better have clarity with what I'm doing. Otherwise, hours are wasted and side projects remains just that … projects rather than businesses.
Side projects are not the end all
Last, I've also learned to take comfort in the idea that side projects are not the most important part of my life. There is much more to life, something I've talked about before. There are too many books I want to read, experiences I want to share with my children, and skills I want to learn that don't involve a computer … these each have to compete for the time I've always given for side projects.
To explain this, I have to back up to the time before Fusion Ads when I was working in corporate IT. I was tired of the politics and glacial progress found when working for a large, faceless entity. I knew that if my situation was ever to change, I needed to make this happen outside of my regular work hours. And so early mornings and writing became my normal method of operating.
Even when the change was complete and I worked for myself running a successful business, I still kept up with this habit. Early mornings were most often spent on work, tinkering away on client work or side projects that were not related to my main income stream. A habit that has been in place for more than five years is a habit that is hard to break!
Now that I'm a position where I don't necessarily have to do this, I'm trying to be at peace with where I am. It's so easy to always be looking to the future rather than being thankful for what you have now. And for the entrepreneurial type, it's hard not to focus on when you'll be running the show once again.
What I'm finding is that having a great job can help so much. If you're in a place where you earn a good living, are empowered, and have the opportunity to work on projects that grow your skills in areas that interest you, this internal pressure starts to lessen. Maybe I can just relax and work a normal work day, rather than always putting in those extra two hours in the morning.
Side projects are still in my future. I have a very clear focus on what kinds of products and services I'm willing to work on. And progress is being made, slow though it is.
I'm okay with that.