A good mantra for a start-up is to ‘fail fast’.
Prototype early. Release a minimum viable product. If the customer thinks it sucks, kill it. If they like it, refine it. Iterate, iterate and iterate again until you reach a point where the customer loves what you do. In the tech world, this works. In the tech world, speed matters.
It is indeed better to find out your idea sucks as fast as you humanly can than to spend the next 5 years working on something that will ultimately send you to a pauper’s grave. But failing fast isn’t just a mantra to save you money. It is a mantra to save you your most important asset: time.
You can make more money but not more time. Time matters in the tech world. You want to release your idea before someone else does. Being first matters. Being able to update a bug quickly matters. Being able to code faster than your rival matters. Yup, speed matters in the tech world. A lot.
But where the ‘fail fast’ mantra falls down is with side projects.
Side projects are ‘labours of love’. You know, those ideas that just won’t go away. Those little ideas in the back of your head that just keep bugging you. That keep gnawing away at you in your quiet moments. Well, those ideas just want you to commit some time to them. They want to make their way into the world.
For me, the best way to make these ideas happen is to treat them as side projects. I like side projects, as a different set of rules apply:
That’s important. This thing will require you to keep plugging away at it, maybe for years.
What you have to give your side project is your time, your belief in it, your refusal to quit. You are its guardian. You are making sure it grows up to be the beautiful thing you want it to be. You know, how you saw it in your head from day 1.
You are letting it grow up protected from the harsh world of putting food on the table and meeting deadlines and targets. It will do that for you one day. It will do that in spades. But right now, it is just a child. It wants to play around for a bit. It needs time to work out its place in this world.
Patience is your biggest gift to it.
What made me think about all this was a few years back, I found myself in a hop barn in California listening to Tina Roth Eisenberg (better known as @swissmiss) speak at Do USA. And she spoke about how all the main projects in her life started out as side projects. Her blog started out as a blog for herself. CreativeMornings started in her of ce and now there are 164 of them around the world. Tattly started from a desire to give her kids some better temporary tattoos.
None of these were supposed to turn into businesses. As she spoke, I realised all of the things I had ever started, started out as side projects too. And that made me realise that side projects are more important than I ever realised.
Clare and I started howies in 1995, but we received our first paycheck in 2001. It was our side project for 6 years before it became the thing that put food on our table. How did we fund ourselves over that time? Simply by keeping our day jobs. Keeping your day job is one way of funding your side project.
We sold howies to Timberland. That helped us fund other side projects. We started The Do Lectures in 2008, and we have worked at it for 9 years without a single paycheck.
Sometimes the best thing you can give your idea is patience and unwavering belief. Maybe it just has to nd out where it sits in the world. Time helps that process. If you love it, you will nd a way to make the business side of things work.
What we try and do with side projects is build teams around the idea, and give the teams our trust. And let them fly. They work out how to make it work. That allows us the time to concentrate on our main project, which is getting our town making jeans again with Hiut Denim Co., but still have one eye on the side project.
For me, the importance of side projects is allowing precious time for a young idea to be protected from the world. Like one of those tree guards you see around young saplings. It just buys them time to get strong. Once they are strong enough, the guard is taken away.