Are you passionate about something? Do you have a secret project? Not something that will change the world (though who knows?), but will definitely change you? Do you have a friend who complements your skills? Has anyone recently asked you for help with their project? Do you just have a digital dream, or is there also a plan to make it come true?
Every professional has something in common. It’s called the comfort zone. The first sign you’re in it is when you see no challenge on the horizon. You know pretty much everything you need to perform well, and if anything unfamiliar comes your way it can be solved fairly quickly. It can take a while to realize you’ve stopped moving, and working on freelance projects seems like the only way to keep your brain busy.
If you are in a rut you can hopefully see where you need to head. But when you look back after years of being busy, I can almost guarantee you won’t remember all your projects. If you were asked which projects you could recall immediately, you would probably think of: a) the biggest client; b) the most enjoyable project; c) the oddest project. That’s how memory works. We remember the extraordinary things: the best, the worst, the weirdest.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- A Guide To Personal Side Projects
- Work, Life And Side Projects
- How And Why To Make Side Projects Work At A Digital Agency
- How To Run A Side Project: Screenings Case Study
You may be proud of what you’ve done so far, but if you take a closer look you will understand you have more potential. To unleash your creativity, consider making some room in your schedule for a pet project. If you don’t think you have enough skills to cover everything, fear not – many of us are wearing these same shoes.
Let me show you what works for me.
Why Working On Side Projects Is Not Enough
Your side projects, although personal and exciting, are still the same type of work you do at your day job. Yes, you can filter projects you would like to work on, but as long as the project comes from outside, you are bound to the owner’s opinion: you have to satisfy both the owner and their customers. So you’re looking at limited freedom here. And if we dive deeper, your clients hire you based on your current skills, so you lose the freedom to explore areas outside of your skill set. It’s very rare for a client to be keen to let you explore the wilds of technology you’ve never been to before.
With a pet project everything is different. It is something you own. You define how it looks, what problems it will solve, and how it will evolve over time. Your pet project doesn’t necessarily have to be based on a huge world-changing idea, but on something you are passionate about. Because passion drives motivation. When you truly believe in what you are creating, it will look and feel sincere. And it will be a meaningful product, a product which makes life easier for (at the very least) one user.
Building your own product simply feels right, it feels like you are doing something meaningful, which is pretty damn amazing.
Find A Friend
You do not need to know everything to make your pet project see the light of the day. You are not meant to work alone. You must always have someone beside you, someone who can cover the areas you don’t have expertise in. In short, finding a partner is key.
It may seem like an impossible task to find someone like-minded you can rely on. But humans are social creatures (yes, even developers). We study at schools, at universities, and somehow manage to work with many other developers, designers, marketers, copywriters. In this day in age, we can reach out to anyone.
Professional social networks like LinkedIn, Dribbble, GitHub, Stack Overflow or (pardon me) Facebook will do. Active people (and this is the type you want on board) usually share their achievements, the projects they are currently working on, and their interests.
And I’m talking from experience.
One day my university buddy Yarik, who moved to Berlin pretty much at the same time I moved to Toronto, sent me a message asking for help in redesigning Mutiful, an Android app he developed a while ago (his pet project).
Soon after the project was done, we realized we had creative momentum. We were exchanging interesting and inspiring news, tools, articles, books and techniques. While working on the app, we developed an infrastructure using many great tools for effective collaboration and communication. So we addressed the elephant in the room: should we explore building something else together? Fortunately, there was an idea on the surface we both were committed to. And what’s important is we didn’t test it: test ideas if your goal is to make money, not if you want your dream to come true.
From scratch, we started to work on Loliful, the world’s first app for creating jokes collaboratively. There was literally nothing but the rough idea: one person creates the first part of a joke (an intro), the other person closes it with a funny outro. That’s it.
As soon as we started to work on the app, we decided to scrap best practices. Not that we were deliberately ignoring everything that was working, but we wanted to play around with new possible solutions. This is the beauty of a pet project. You have full freedom to experiment and try new approaches. After all, most best practices were once simply new approaches. Be a trendsetter, not a follower.
Identify What You Are Good At And What You’re Bad At
Identifying your strengths and weaknesses helps you not only understand what kind of help you may need, it also helps you improve over time.
When we started working on Loliful, we had no clue exactly how we were going to do it. After a couple of weeks of researching, we split the work: I took user experience, design, animation, branding, and marketing, and Yarik took coding, front-end, back-end, infrastructure and servers.
The areas I wasn’t really comfortable with (like marketing and animation) revealed my pain points, so I started to teach myself. Understanding the need for improvement is a huge motivator. Remember, all of these areas are just means for delivering a successful product, and to move on you have to fill the gaps.
It was also interesting that whenever we contacted specialists in other fields like copywriting or legal, people were eager to help. We discovered valuable insights from a wide range of areas. For free. Don’t underestimate the power of people like yourself.
The World Is Yours
With so many great applications and technologies out there, it’s easier than ever to maximize your effort. The internet works 24⁄7 – you don’t turn your smartphone off for the night, do you? It’s not even an issue that we are able to collaborate effectively. What’s even better is that so many apps are free.
When we started to work on the project there were no communication problems whatsoever.
- Slack provided us with daily communication on all topics.
- Trello was our choice as a free and easy way for creating a roadmap and assigning tasks.
- Axure made it easy to see the flow, the bones, the skeleton of our product.
- Marvel and InVision allowed us to visualize the user experience on mobile, tablet and desktop devices.
- Viber helped us chat, when emojis were not enough.
Your Pet Project Will Make You A Better Person
I’m the first to admit I am not a perfect organizer. Nor am I a great decision maker. But I am improving. Besides being fortunate to work on my dream project, here are some areas I’ve already improved a lot, and, hopefully, won’t stop.
- I started to learn more.. The contents of my Kindle shifted from fictional to tech in a blink of an eye. In five months, I devoured more information than during the previous five years. I read hand-picked information, required information, welcome information, all of which shed light on areas I didn’t even know existed.
- I started to plan better.. When you only have three hours in the evening, your brain turns into a lightsaber, slicing off chunks of work you can complete with great precision. I never turn my computer on without knowing what exactly I want to accomplish.
- I became more responsible.. Things changed forever when I saw the thread of Slack notifications beeping constantly on my phone. My friend was sitting out there pushing code to the repository on a Saturday night. Have you ever felt the guilt of teammates being productive, and you couldn’t help them out? I have. And it is one hell of a motivator.
- I started to value different perspectives.. When I work alone on a project I sometimes get stuck with obvious choices and inside-the-box thinking, missing other opinions and approaches. I may miss the mark, and what’s worse I don’t even know what the mark is. Working with a like-minded friend helps me to validate any idea instantly, or develop it to something incredible.
- I became more decisive.. As there are just two of us, decisions are made at the speed of light, and executed in rapid succession. This doesn’t mean we don’t test designs or code for usability or performance. It means your gut is a much better critic than you may think.
- I became more creative.. When I have the full freedom to invent, reinvent, or simply try new approaches, I don’t have this constant flicker at the back of my head that someone might not like it. And when we test our product, we test it on real users, there are no middlemen involved. Moreover, I started to practice this “no limitation” attitude at work, which helps me to deliver a better variety of ideas.
- I became happier.. Happiness to me is always having a dream. At the moment, my dream is to create a product which other people will use and appreciate.
On top of it all, working alongside a friend is twice as fun. As well as our work-focused communication, we exchange interesting videos and articles, discuss our daily issues, and get a piece of advice from each other on any matter. The time difference (him in Berlin and me in Toronto) only adds to the fun. When I wake up, I check the updates on the project first thing – it’s like checking the morning newspapers with a coffee and croissant. Wonderful.
What’s The Catch?
Let me put aside my rose-tinted glasses for a moment and examine the costs of working on a pet project. It would not be fair to ignore the risks of investing your time and brainpower, before you jump on this train.
You must understand that it takes time to build a product – sometimes much more time than you estimated. It depends heavily on your work style and how organized you are; but as a rule of thumb, be prepared for unexpected stops, delays and connecting flights on your journey. Both Yarik and I have families, and under no condition would we sacrifice our personal lives. Check with your nearest and dearest to learn if they are OK with your intentions. Plan accordingly.
You will need some cash to move forward. We are not talking about huge investments, but expenses associated with building a product (domain, hosting, tools, advertising, collateral) have to be taken into account. Also, it is worth mentioning that you might never get the reward you were expecting. In the beginning, consider your pet project a charity, then see how it could be translated into financial success.
People are different. Make sure you work with somebody you can trust. But don’t assume your partner thinks the way you do. Start with a small project, understand your potential and limitations, and proceed with caution. If you are planning to work remotely, bear in mind the time difference and personal circumstances of your partner.
Some companies have strict policies on after-work activity, especially if you are considering implementing solutions or technologies you are working with at the office. Consult with your employer and read your contract carefully.
Are You One Of Us?
In summary, I would like to say I never thought something this great could ever happen to me. But when it happens, you become an instant believer. You no longer make excuses, you just roll up your sleeves and get things done.
Do you have a dream project, application, big or small idea? You can do it. You just need to start.