As part of my ongoing exploration of ‘Side Projects’ I’ve decided to start interviewing some individuals whose extra-curricular activities might help investigate and explore both the nature of side projects and the strategies for success.
For my first interview I caught up with my good friend Alex Thomas – whose side project is Pipedream Comics.
Alex started what is now known as Pipedream back in 2010, initially as a way to utilise some surplus research material. However it not only taps a vein of interest for Alex going back over 3 decades, but dovetails with his professional skills and aspirations too.
Alex bought his first comic in 1986, he still owns it. In that intervening period he became a professional graphic designer, art editor, and regular contributor to a host of magazines largely within the Future Publishing stable. It was in 2010 whilst working on MacFormat and it’s then sister publication Tap! that he was given an opportunity to research the newly emerging apps for the iPad and iPhone that brought digital comics to our devices. His over-enthusiastic research for one article generated a mass of interview content that he ended up turning into seven articles he would publish on his personal website.
Alex had stumbled into what was then open water – a newly emergent market of digital comics using new hardware and software to shake up publishing – and he had the passion and professional publishing skills to develop an interesting project.
“It was a personal interest I was passionate about. I found it easy to write about it – but wanted and was able to do so in a properly professional way.”
Alex used the name of one of his teenage ambitions – ‘the pipe dream’ was imagined as an umbrella agency for creative ventures – as the moniker for his new project – and he started to review digital comics and interview their authors. The authors were still operating in something of a niche market and happy to talk about their work; even though some of those authors were massive names in print-published comics, V for Vendetta’s David Lloyd for example.
Over time the project developed, firstly creating an annual digital comics award as a quick-win format for discussing the comics which inadvertently tapped the authors’ competitive streaks and saw those authors championing the competition to their own fan bases and driving traffic to The Pipedream. Later Alex launched a quarterly digital digest magazine – The Pull List – which has recently had its first print run. You can pick up the digital versions of the Pull List from Alex’s online store.
Alex freely admits that it makes frustratingly little income and finding the time for it amongst a day-job and being the father of two under-threes is challenging.
“It’s always been a gateway to something else. I still love being able to get hold of a huge range of new comics and meet my heroes. I’m now being rewarded by effectively giving back to the community – helping get writers attention, giving them reviews, and helping raise profile to generate Kickstarter donations. I get thanked, I get told my opinion matters”.
So how does Alex feel about the Pipedream as a ‘side’-project’?
“Until it pays the bills it is a hobby.”
Despite his caution I think this is clear side-project territory (in part because I don’t think hobbies and side-projects are mutually exclusive) because it mixes personal passion with professional ambitions and a real sense of the activity being a route to somewhere.
It might not be paying the bills, but its role as an arena for skills development (Alex has had to learn a lot about digital publishing and social media marketing), a break from domestic and professional chores, access to new and exciting comics, and the fact that Alex sees it as a stepping stone to explore future career options, all make it a bit more substantial than a hobby.
Secrets for side-project success?
- “If you want to write… WRITE!” Alex was quite firm in the view that the best way to learn and develop your skills is to start practising them. The words don’t have to get published, but you do need to write them.
- Use the time you get on the side-lines. Alex uses his breaks, his commute, and down-time in the evenings (because fathers of young children don’t get out much) to read, review, write, and edit. It might be in fits and starts but it adds up.
- Adopt helpful tools and tech. Alex uses his ‘Notes’ app on his phone – synced to his tablet and laptop – to keep all his notes in one place and accessible from wherever he is. Likewise social media scheduling apps for streamlining his social media marketing.
- Apply your professional mindset and methods. Alex treats the side project like a professional project as often as he can – deadlines, standards, using other writers (although they get paid in perks and opportunities rather than cash).