Side Projects: A Minimum Viable Theory


I teach entrepreneurship so naturally I talk about Minimum Viable Products, Prototyping, and even Pretotyping (the pre-prototype). All these things essentially point to creating tangible early mock-ups and versions of your idea to test; sometimes just the simple act of embodying it, drawing it, writing it, saying it out loud provides immediate insights that were not apparent beforehand. They also allow you to show the idea to other people and let them interact with it too. The principle is to put your early assumptions to the test, gain feedback, pivot the idea and push on further and quicker – fast failure.

So, with a handful of Side Project interviews and encounters under my belt, let’s take a first pass at a theoretical model for Side Projects.


In my first iteration side projects appeared on a continuum between ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ projects in which they were maybe more than a hobby somehow but less than a business venture (within or beyond your main employment). The first insight was that they drew on both personal interest and professional ability though.

It was Alex Thomas who suggested 3 overlapping Venn-diagram elements – the personal, professional, and a new element we called ‘drive’ initially which represented some kind of motivation, momentum, or traction beyond personal and professional interests.

I’ve refined this a little and come up with this:


The three component factors are now:

  1. Personal Passion – this circle represents your personal interest and passion for the subject at hand. Motivation is critical to starting and persevering with side-projects.
  2. Professional Competency – this circle represents professional skills, know-how, and ability. Competency elevates an activity into a more credible domain. There is an aspect of efficient and effective production which comes with professional competence.
  3. Tomorrow’s Plan – this circle represents the sense in which you’re engaged in this for the future, the expectation you have for the idea. It emerges from the phrase I heard at 3M in reference to their 15% culture: “not part of today’s plan” (but potentially part of tomorrow’s).

Side Projects include all the shaded overlap areas, but I think each shaded section represents a different type of project:

  • Projects that mix the Personal and Professional (but not the Plan) could be likened to ‘enjoying your work’ or maybe ‘working on your passion’ – you’re lucky enough to have a day job that interests you or a passion for which your professional skills are useful. However, you’re not invested in the idea of it going anywhere – its not part of an imagined future and may lack traction or seriousness.
  • Projects that mix the Personal and Plan (but not the Professional) could be likened to ‘curiosity pursuits’ – you’re genuinely interested, you’d like to explore it further and see where it goes, but you lack any (or enough) professional ability to do it credibly (or credibly quickly enough to have impact).
  • Projects that mix the Professional and Plan (but not the Personal) could be likened to ‘professional development’ – it’s future-facing and linked to enhancing existing professional ability but you’re not personally that interested or motivated.

Each of those is a side-project of a kind, but the missing element fundamentally limits their scope. You’ll likely either drift away from it because its not motivating, lack the skill to exploit it with impact, or you don’t have a vision for what it might become.

The fourth shaded area, the one which overlaps all of the circles, has the real potential; vision, competency, passion. That doesn’t mean it will be commercially viable – that’s a another dimension altogether (not another circle!) which I’m still thinking about… watch this space!

Once you have this conceptual model you can start to depict the relative versions for different side projects and see how they compare. Based on Pipedream Comics and Holly Cooks so far I would venture that whilst Personal Passion is strong in each example Alex is probably tapping more of his related Professional Competency (and he’s actively learning those he doesn’t have) and has higher expectations whilst Holly has been a little more cautious about her expectations so far and has tapped less of her existing professional skill-set.

So what does that mean? What does a ‘bigger’ segment of the diagram being wholly-overlapped mean? I’m not sure! It’s not a ‘better’ project, it might however be more viable, more robust, more sustainable project? But if Holly suddenly decided that the blog was a bigger part of her future plans that would suggest greater investment and potency for that project?

The interaction and relative size and growth of each circle enables different profiles of projects to emerge.

Thoughts please! It’s only a prototype!

20 thoughts on “Side Projects: A Minimum Viable Theory

  1. Andrew Wray says:

    The themes of the three circles also describe small businesses that stay small, and maybe always intended to. Enterprises that get called hobby businesses, personal consultancies and Mom & Pop Shops.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. says:

    Absolutely. Some of them stay small because the founder wants them to (because they don’t have a future growth focus or lack interest) or because they lack the competencies to grow it. Equally it simply might not have the commercial viability – which I think is a different dimension and less founder-focused.


  3. Rob wood says:

    Don’t really have anything to say that would add value, Dave but it describes extremely well how my life works and has given me a framework to take a look at a few things and mull them over. For example, I’m involved in some seriously good professional development that I’m grateful for but doesn’t ignite my passion; and I’m also ‘playing’ with running a cycle workshop Drop-in that really interests and pleases me but doesn’t touch the professional circle. Keep up the thinking.


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