For the next interview in my Side Project Stories collection I’ve turned to one of my Centre for Innovation colleagues at the University of Bristol. Travis is one of the Design Thinking Teaching Fellows in the Centre and an Independent Design and Innovation Consultant for the remainder of the week. However, having spent the last 10 months working alongside him, I know even when he’s not designing and making things for other people, Travis is usually making things for himself and with one eye on the future.
He’s just finished a custom motorbike top-box conversion to enable his Boston Terrier Roxy to ride in style and safety (see above), he’s been selling custom hacks for IKEA products online for pocket money, and helping a friend design business models for a language school too. He’s also been exploring home-automation, connecting all the devices in his home to be voice-activated and using the house as a test bed for future products.
Making things for Travis is a mix of “Fun”, a chance to express his own design style (rather than for example his employers’), a chance to learn new things, and a chance to practice all the things he preaches in the classroom:
“To make sure I’m completely fluent… understanding an end-to-end process that I’m teaching”.
Travis also agrees with the observation that Creatives, including product designers, often need side projects to showcase their skills to new clients when their previous work is often confidential:
“It’s a major problem… most of designer’s projects don’t get built and these cool projects get stuck in a pipeline where they may never be seen. It’s highly frustrating.”
Travis suggests he’s not necessarily doing all these projects for his portfolio though, many really are just for fun or for learning, but he’s also hoping some might yet evolve into something bigger.
A passion for making things and a matching professional skill-set can be a powerful combination for any side project – but where is this one going? Travis admits he is still hoping to stumble on something that might take off as a business. For now, all these small projects are one big research project to find that high-value opportunity for tomorrow.
“If home automation takes off I might just have a niche product ready for that market. I’m gauging market appeal using eBay, if something I have up there starts selling like crazy I might fire up a factory!”
Travis says that last line very easily – and that’s his professional skills and networks proving transformational for what would be a hobby to anyone else. He already manages the production of 3-6 hardware products every year for his clients.
Travis has a whole set of peers in the product design world who have either started up their own product businesses or work in roles that can help him put these ideas into action. These peers are part-inspiration, part-supporter, and part-benchmark for what he wants to do next.
Exploring the 4th Dimension
The ‘entrepreneurship’ side of starting up a business based on a product is also interesting to Travis – his father has a host of entrepreneurial side projects – selling brass door hardware, propagating plants, writing books – many failed but several paid off big time. His father said: “If you can make something and sell it its better than your hours being for sale”.
One of the main motivations for Travis investing in all these making projects on the side-lines is precisely to stumble upon tomorrow’s plan – he’s engineering his own luck.
He is trying to find that 4th dimension of the market for his work. Through relatively small-scale making and selling he’s trying to establish if there is a paying audience.
However, at this point Travis’ professional competence in design is not the same as the entrepreneurial competence required to either stimulate or respond to the market. So, whilst one form of competence makes for a satisfying side project, another is required to transform it into a growth business.
Travis is keen to develop that entrepreneurship side of his know-how; he particularly identifies the challenges of selling and making that big breakthrough in the market:
“It’s a major challenge, going from a hobby or concept to a successful high-volume product – how do you get market penetration?”
Selling is something a lot of side project experimenters struggle with. Travis suggests his persona might not present as well as more charismatic founder personalities – both online and in person:
“I prefer to stay behind the curtain and tinker!”
Focus vs Experimentation
At this point we hit upon another key tension for a side project hoping to make the step into a growth start up business; being focused enough to make it happen:
“For me there’s a problem with side projects: you can’t give them the 150% focus needed when you’re working for somebody else… However, having your hand in 50 different pots gives you creative connections which you need to start something. Somehow you have to go from being really broad to being super-focused…”
The broad, diverse, curiosity-driven process of seeking a compelling idea ultimately must give way to a comparatively ruthless pursuit of that opportunity.
“Maybe you need a ‘sociopathic switch’ – just shut down what you don’t need to be doing and just focus in on the one goal you need to accomplish for success.”
Most entrepreneurial success stories seem to have involved at least a period of focus to make something happen… and having the resources (time, money, supporting relationships), let alone the will, to switch gear like that is a major separator of entrepreneurs and everyone else.
However, whilst resources might be the difference between spectacular growth and steady development, ensuring that the plan will be satisfying is also an important aspect for Travis:
“Is it interesting enough to be satisfying – would you want that to be your life for several start up years? It may work as a business, but is the idea big enough to be worth it emotionally?”
For me that’s that combination of passion, competence, and tomorrow’s plan again.