On January 19th 2018 I got to give a TED talk; that’s a lifetime goal chalked off right there! It was at TEDxCorsham to an audience of about 100 people and I chose to talk about my #sideprojects side-project!
The video is now up on YouTube but I’ve put the script below.
Now, on the night I didn’t use a script, I’d committed the bulk of it to memory and relied on my slides to keep it in shape. I reckon I got about 80% of it on-script so what follows below is what was intended rather than what happened!
The Scripted Version
I’m going to introduce you to a whole load of new people tonight, but the first of them you may already know about – Steve Jobs.
Apple founder, Steve once said “When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.”
“That’s a very limited life, life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that you’ll never be the same again.”
I agree with Steve, there are a lot of unwritten rules and assumptions we could be tearing up – the biggest limitation most of us face is ourselves – I feel like I just don’t have time!! I have a day job, I’m a husband, and a father, I want to see my friends, I have to walk the dog – twice a day! I really ought to be going for a run – where do I find the time to think about changing those things let alone making those things?
Even when you know you can change the rules its sounds a bit intimidating!
But before I tell you any more about me, I’d like to introduce you to some people who helped me change my mind about how to do amazing things without scaring myself witless, who helped me think about how we can all change the rules, change at least our own world, and be more than people assume we are.
Let me introduce:
Alex, a graphic designer, Holly, a charity fundraiser, Tim, who works in professional services, Laura, a lawyer, Will, who worked in software development, Sam, a project coordinator for a major technology firm, George, a creative technologist, and Gav, a designer.
But their day jobs are not the whole story:
• Alex self-publishes a digital and independent comics review magazine and website, championing the up-and-coming writers, illustrators, and publishers people don’t usually notice.
• Holly runs an amazing cookery blog, perfect for busy parents and people, like Holly, who struggle with diabetes.
• Tim runs a website that inspires and helps would-be adventurers plan and fund amazing expeditions.
• Laura founded a cycle-touring festival and helps encourage more people, especially women, to get to cycling adventures.
• Will is now a full-time children’s author.
• Sam runs a blog and a podcast encouraging arts and cultural organisations to use creative technologies.
• George climbs previously unclimbed mountains in central Asia.
• And Gav makes films, runs an online shop, writes books, and gives talks on getting into creative careers.
My own day job is as a university lecturer. I lecture in innovation and entrepreneurship, I help young people have ideas, develop those ideas, set up companies, or carve out freelance careers.
For many people the word ‘entrepreneur’ is a marmite word; whilst many of my students find the idea of starting something up, of running their own business, of making a change in the world through their own efforts really exciting, I also meet a lot of students who don’t like the word or don’t self-identify with the word.
For most its something they think is for other people. Unwritten rules suggest that being your own boss, starting a company, or changing the world is for other people.
It is assumed that to be an entrepreneur you need to be talented, driven, business-savvy, creative, go-getting, brave, maybe even reckless, to be successful, right? Wrong. I could give a whole other talk about misconceptions of entrepreneurship. Tonight, I’ll just say that most entrepreneurs are really normal people who have simply acted on their ideas and made them happen. Entrepreneurship is not an exclusive club or elite sport. It’s acting on your ideas and trying to make them happen.
But acting on your idea needn’t be a big step, starting something up needn’t be a seismic event. You don’t need to chuck it all in and change ALL your rules to make something important happen.
Have you ever seen this diagram – it illustrates all projects ever. You can only have two of the three qualities; if you want fast and good it’ll be expensive, fast and cheap it’ll be bad, and good and cheap it’ll be slow. Side projects are slow – they’re the thing you’re not able to make go fast because you want to do it well, and you have to do cheap because you don’t have the money to sink into it, so they go slowly.
Just over a year ago I happened upon the concept of side projects and the idea of ‘slowly succeeding’, the act of nibbling away at a project over time, in a blog by David Hieatt, the Founder of Howies clothing and Hiut Denim.
His idea of succeeding slowly by developing an idea or a venture through a side project really resonated for me and it quickly resonated with a lot of people I spoke to. All kinds of people who would never have referred to themselves as entrepreneurs or as having a business venture it transpired had side projects! People had these little hustles to make a bit of cash, or evening projects they hoped might become a career, or weekend activities that were just a bit too serious to dismiss as a hobby!
By changing the language, I had opened a door, I’d changed the rules, not just for me to reach out to support a whole new category of would-be entrepreneurs, but I think it helped them see their side project in a new light. Several people have suggested it helped validate their project as a serious venture.
So, for the last year I’ve been using some of my evenings to interview and write about the side projects of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. I’m sharing just a few here tonight. I’ve also been trying to develop a model of what makes a good side project and how to have more successful side projects.
So, what did I discover?
I found that good side projects have three core elements:
Firstly, Passion: at the root of all these side projects is passion. If you don’t love it and geek out about it, you’re not going to make the time for it. All these people have day jobs, many of them are parents of very young children. They don’t really have time to muck about. If you can find something you love you will find a way to make the time. If you’re not making the time maybe you don’t love it enough! George uses his two weeks annual leave each year to fly out to the central Asian republics to climb mountains he’s found on old soviet maps.
Without passion these activities would just be some kind of continuous professional development. Sure, you’re investing in your future, but do you really care? As Laura says “If you stop enjoying it. Stop.”
Secondly, Professional Competency: for something to be more than a hobby it has to be that bit more credible, that bit more professional than amateur. Some relevant skills make the whole thing a bit slicker, a bit more efficient, and a bit more effective. Now some of our side-project people brought some existing skills to their projects; Alex does work in Graphic Design, so he knows how to make a beautiful document, Tim is a veteran adventurer, so he is credible to his community.
But two other things were also apparent – people were using their projects to use their skills in more creative ways, sometimes more rewarding ways than they were at work. Getting to work on your own ideas is often more rewarding than working on someone else’s. But they were also learning new skills; Holly could already cook, but she has learnt a lot about online publishing and marketing, she took a food photography course! So, the professionalism aspect is usually a mix of things people already have, and things they want to develop to advance the project.
Without some relevant professional competence projects are strictly amateur, and that’s fine, unless you want people, outside of maybe your family and friends to take it seriously.
Finally, Tomorrow’s Plan: the element that really separates side projects from hobbies is the sense in which they are a purposeful investment in tomorrow. They are usually something that people want to explore in the hope they might become something more in the future. These projects are also a place to screw things up, to fail, and to learn from in ways that felt too dangerous to do at work.
Gav and Sam have both used their side projects to successfully advance their career prospects by demonstrating interests and skills learned from their side projects they couldn’t develop in the day-job, Will packed in the day job in software and is now a full-time children’s author. Whilst most are still very much a part-time activity they continue to evolve and develop, creating often unexpected new opportunities and routes forward.
Without a plan it’s probably not going anywhere, and again that’s fine, but don’t go expecting a big breakthrough when you’re not trying to engineer one.
However, there is an element, not included in my diagram, that separates side projects from successful entrepreneurial ventures. If a venture is to succeed at some stage, you need to find customers who will pay you for it. The single biggest reason for business failure is making a product that no one actually wants. I think you can have a really rewarding side project without ever finding a customer, but if you can find that customer for your project then you might have a potential venture too. However, what can also be true is that if in the process of finding a customer you move too far from your passion and professional ability you might end up doing something you hate or are bad at!
So, some sage advice for starting up a side project:
Find something you can really get into. Find something you’d struggle not to do! To find the time between work, family, friends, and sleep you need to really care about it.
Then find the time and be disciplined about using it. Alex uses his lunch breaks and commutes, Holly used her maternity leave!
Tell people about it, don’t hide it away. You might find advice, collaborators or supporters, or even customers, at the very least you might get some understanding for all that time you’re spending in the shed… it was only when Will’s wife found out about the writing he was doing on his commute to work and packed him off to a writer’s group he realised he could seriously contemplate getting published.
Start following the people who are doing it better than you already, learn the skills you need and see if you have the interest and patience to take it to the next level. Holly is quite the expert on other food bloggers, so she knows what she can emulate, what she can’t, and what she won’t.
Finally, I was with a serial entrepreneur just recently who suggested that the psychological step of ‘starting something’ always felt really intimidating even when he’d started many projects before, that moment you commit to a new thing was always scary when you built it up in your mind. Instead he suggested that new ventures actually start the first time you thought about them, the very first inkling of an idea. i.e. that the first step was practically accidental, it happened so easily you barely noticed. So you’re never making the big step, you’ve already started, now you’re just exploring and developing something you’re already committed to. Using that logic, you have all actually already begun dozens of ventures – you just haven’t finished them yet.
So, rewrite your own rules, surprise yourself and the people around you. Make some time for a side project, become a part-time entrepreneur and see where it takes you.