As part of my ongoing exploration of ‘Side Projects’ I’ve been interviewing some individuals whose extra-curricular activities might help investigate and explore both the nature of side projects and the strategies for success.
For the fifth interview in the series I caught up with another friend whose side-projects are not just passion projects but really values-driven in nature.
One half of adventuring wife and husband duo Laura and Tim Moss (whose own Side Project was covered previously on this blog) Laura founded The Cycle Touring Festival and is a director of The Adventure Syndicate, which both inspire and respectively equip and empower people to get into cycling adventures. For the purposes of this blog Laura and I focused on The Cycle Touring Festival (“the Festival”) but there are some clear links and connections between the two projects.
A serial adventurer in her own right, Laura developed the Festival project whilst she and Tim were on their own 13,000-mile cycle-tour around the world. Before undertaking the journey, they had spoken to lots of other seasoned long-distance cycle-tourers who had either undertaken similar types of trips or cycled through some of the 27 countries they planned to visit. That collection of cyclists had been incredibly supportive and even though they had largely only connected remotely there was an inkling of a nascent community. On the journey, a plan for a social gathering of this community emerged – “I thought wouldn’t it be nice to gather people together to share experiences from the road“. A conversation with one of those connections in Iran developed the Festival into something bigger, as both a social and an educational event, and by the time Laura got to India she was booking the venue for the first Festival and contacting speakers.
The vision was to create an event that would “inspire and equip people to undertake cycling journeys”. Laura defines cycle-touring as a bike journey of one night or more – cycling, sleeping and repeating. Anyone is welcome at the event, whether they’re planning to be away for a single night, or for several years, and it usually attracts around 250 people who camp on site for the whole weekend and attend the variety of talks and workshops on offer.
The Festival takes up a lot of spare time, averaging probably 5+ hours a week, especially in the four months before the event in May. Laura suggests she gets her thinking done on her daily commute (by bike of course) and grabs admin time at weekends and evenings, and also picks up emails during breaks and gaps in her working day as a full-time charities and social enterprises lawyer. “I could be more disciplined at separating out my work and the Festival, but I just care too much not to be checking the Festival’s emails on my phone.”
In the run-up to the Festival Laura routinely asserts “its too much work, I’m never doing it again” but in the afterglow of the event she always reverts to “it needs to be bigger next year!”. When I asked her what she’d be doing if it wasn’t this she concedes it would just be something else on a similar scale:
“If I believe in it and think it should happen then I’ll probably just get on and do it.”
That belief is important, whilst Laura obviously likes cycle touring, the Festival is far more about community, about inspiring and educating, about unleashing people on adventures. Laura’s favourite feedback from a Festival-goer was the woman who wrote that she had “found her tribe” at the event, as it really sums up the inclusive community spirit she was hoping to generate.
The Adventure Syndicate has a similar ethos – its mission is “inspiring, encouraging, and enabling cyclists, especially women and girls, to challenge what they think they are capable of“. These values, all about making a difference in a community, run deep through Laura’s projects.
Laura is however (as all our side-project story subjects so far) also bringing her professional competencies to bear on the projects. The organisational skills, communication skills, and financial discipline critical to her work as a lawyer also serves her well on her projects (as does her professional specialism in the governance of charities and social enterprises). Laura is quick to highlight though how much her side projects benefit her professional work though:
“interacting with different people, staying calm in a crisis, thinking on my feet – and actually just the fact that I run a not-for-profit event where the emphasis is on knowledge sharing and treating everyone’s experience as equally valid, instead of a top-down approach with high profile speakers who are put on a pedestal, hopefully gives me credibility with and empathy for my professional clients”.
In terms of future plans Laura really enjoys her day job but has harboured ambitions of a portfolio career in the past. She has contemplated spending more time on the side projects, but as detailed above, she is concerned that over-professionalising the activities might change their character negatively for both her and her audiences. At the moment, the Festival is entirely volunteer-run, with no speakers being paid and even the catering largely being done by her Mum and other family members. The consistent feedback is that this gives the Festival its unique feel, which would be a shame to lose.
Laura and I spent a good chunk of our interview reflecting on themes of ownership and control in side projects which was a new perspective on this kind of activity. In most of the previous interviews our subject has really been the lone developer of the side project, but Laura’s projects both have a collective aspect even if Laura is the clear leader of the Festival. However, I think ‘creative control’ has simply been an unspoken theme so far, it is simply that Laura notices it because she has had to collaborate.
In terms of the development of the Festival Laura “had a really clear picture of what it would be” and has at points stuck to that vision in the face of alternatives suggested by collaborators. She worries that ‘ownership’ of an idea – and all the pride, motivation, and satisfaction that comes with that – can become ‘controlling’ in a negative way. Whilst a lot of current discourse about creative processes and organisations focuses on the benefits of collaborative creativity there is also a case for solo creativity or at least creative leadership unleashing more distinctive (and arguably more creative) outcomes. With collaboration comes a more consensus outcome, the solo project is less likely to serve a mass audience but more likely to deliver a really compelling experience for a niche audience.
Positively or negatively, creative control and power over the form of creative expression, is I think a critical factor in developing a compelling side project. Collaborators need not be ‘peers’ in the process, they might just be ‘sounding-boards’ or ‘supporters’ – the tricky bit is likely to be managing expectations of ownership and control.
Side Project Downsides
We also talked about some of the down-sides of side projects; which largely centre on using your spare time to do work rather than rest. The resulting workload, correspondence, self- and audience-created pressure, and lack of time spent resting from the day-job can cause stress and illness.
Managing relationships that depend on quality time with people can suffer if they don’t know about your project or don’t support it quite the way you do. She relies a lot on friends and family who help out with organising the Festival, and she worries about using and abusing their goodwill. She feels very lucky to have friends and family who understand what she’s trying to achieve and are prepared to give up time and energy to help out, for no reward other than the sense of being part of something which she thinks is pretty special.
Laura acknowledged that living with another side-project-engaged person really helped in terms of tolerance: “the fact that Tim ‘gets it’ and helps out with the event makes a massive difference, and it would be impossible to deliver the project without his support”. Laura also suggested that her mutual expeditions and outdoor activities (on and off the bike) with Tim really helped them de-stress together and maintain their relationship.
Tips for Side Project Success
Finally, some tips for managing your side project:
- “If you stop enjoying it. stop.”
- “Don’t watch rubbish TV.” (Although I know Laura to be the queen of intensively-cramming TV box-sets in periodic binges)
- “Send side project emails to an account you can check on your phone to stay on top of it in the gaps throughout the day.”
- Surround yourself with similar people – “people who don’t have side projects are unlikely to feature amongst my friends”
- Go out for a walk with the people you love, turn off technology, and maintain relationships with time spent together sharing an experience