Making Side Projects Work for You
Photo by Patrishe.
In his book, My Startup Life, Ben Casnocha offers a 30-day plan for becoming a better entrepreneur. I’m not going to rehash Ben’s plan – you’re better off reading the book than hearing about it from me. But I am going to elaborate on the task he assigns for Day 28:
Have multiple side projects going. Diversify your portfolio of interests and activities.
This begs the question: What is a side project?
I like to define them as projects that we usually aren’t paid for and are done in our non-work hours. Here are three examples:
- You’ve been playing the piano since you were seven years old. So, on weekends, you perform with a jazz ensemble. You got this, your first paid gig, through a casual conversation with your neighbors.
- You and your children are crazy about sports. Baseball, football, basketball, you name it. This has led you into several volunteer coaching positions.
- One of your friends decides to run for a seat on the city council. So, being the good friend that you are, you volunteer for the campaign. Over the course of six months, you organize campaign rallies, walk precincts, make phone calls, and distribute yard signs.
Funny thing about side projects: they have a way of finding you when you least expect it.
Recently, my portfolio of side projects has included:
1. Volunteering for a local environmental organization. This has honed my skills in digging holes, picking up rocks over here and putting them down over there, and planting drought-tolerant trees and shrubs. Not exactly what I’d call glamorous work, but when we’re finished, our water harvesting projects look nice.
2. Doing photography for Habitat for Humanity and other community organizations. I’m in the process of turning pro as a photographer, and doing these shoots have been a great way to build my portfolio and skills. And the organizations have appreciated the photos.
3. Attending various meetings on neighborhood and community affairs.
4. Helping my engineer/inventor father with his latest project. He is seeking a patent on technology that emerged from the university class where he serves as a volunteer consultant. (Yes, this is a side project for Dad.) The co-inventors of this technology are three students that solved an engineering design problem that my father posed in the class, and two of their instructors. So far, my work has included:
- Setting up a meeting with Dad’s Congressman. We think that the federal government may be interested in this technology, and the Congressman’s aide encouraged Dad’s team to stay in touch. This has led to a lot of Martha-provided coaching on how to stay in touch with politicians. And I’ve met more than a few politicians while attending all those meetings mentioned in Item #3.
- Identifying private firms that may be interested in licensing the technology. Since leads identification is the lifeblood of my own business, applying this skill to Dad’s project was quite easy.
- Drafting a one-page overview of the technology. The template for this overview came via a onetime client and longtime friend who does public relations for high-tech startups.
- Creating a filing system for the blizzard of papers that this project is generating. Dad is like me in that he has the attention span of a gnat. Which means that his desk can get hopelessly cluttered in nothing flat. To help him be better able to focus, we cleared everything off the desk, gave it a good cleaning, then put his project papers into an expandable pocket file. I heard very few complaints about missing papers after that job was done.
Dad’s side project at the university draws on the skills he already has. So does my involvement in his technology patent project.
In addition to being a great place to show what you can do, side projects also provide many opportunities to learn new things. So, be open to them. You just never know where they’ll take you.