I’ve had a folder on my computer for about 15 years; it’s titled Rhys’ Lock-Up. In it is a subfolder called Lost Projects. It’s where my side projects and half-baked ideas live (or die). But they’re there — a long list of Lost Projects accumulated over 30 years of being a designer, consultant and teacher, and being promoted to a level of incompetence in a corporate leviathan. They’re all side projects, and the reason I originally called them ‘lost’ was because I was frustrated that they never went anywhere — they lost momentum, I lost interest, they were crap, or all of the above. They simply got lost.
In 2015, I co-founded a company called OMATA. We make modern analog bicycle speedometers. It’s so clear what we’re building; we have absolute focus and conviction in not only what we are building but in how we’re building it. I’m very excited. But it wasn’t always so clear, and OMATA was the one and only Lost Project that didn’t die.
The origins of OMATA start in 2009, with an idea — an idea that I tried to tease out with a confused drawing. I draw a lot; it’s how I think. But this
half idea wasn’t a lightning bolt of insight and opportunity, it was a moment. I didn’t know that 6 years later I’d found a company on this idea. It was just a drawing of an idea. It was, however, the continuation of persistent themes I’d been noodling around with for several years. It was also a clear reaction against some of the digital tech projects
I was working on in my day job leading Advanced Design at Nokia. It was also a sub project within another side project. Confused? So was the drawing. But it was the start of something.
Trying to remember and share the circumstances that not only led to the idea, but gave me the personal con dence to start OMATA as a business, seem both arbitrary and strangely inevitable. But what’s clear is that for about 6 years, OMATA was in the category of Lost Project. But over that time — through persistence, circumstance, encouragement and a growing conviction — OMATA landed in my lap at the centre of that Venn diagram that Master Hieatt draws of passion, skill and opportunity.
In March 2015, with a fair bit of coercion and persistence from a colleague named Luke Jonson, we co-wrote a Medium post titled No Dickheads. It is a guide to building healthy, happy and creative teams. (I honestly think the title and the pictures are the best bit.) It simply documents the behaviour and culture that I feel contributes to an environment where people want to work, and where creativity zzes and crackles. Side projects are part of that culture, and OMATA was one of mine.
What’s not shared in the post is that the article was published at the end of my 15 years at Nokia, when we’d all just been made redundant by a classic fall-out of corporate shenanigans. Over the years, my personal side project had become a shared side project, but it was the end of a salary and a co-conspirator that pulled OMATA from the side to the single focus.
That article was published within weeks of Julian Bleecker and me founding OMATA Inc. OMATA had to be built, we had to do it. Personally, I wondered whether I could do it without being a dickhead.
Let’s be clear, we have not yet shipped our first OMATA product (it won’t be long though). So, I’m definitely not in the lofty position to offer any insights on how your side project will make you wealthy. What I can do, is briefly list the conditions that I think allowed OMATA to not get lost, but exist, grow, gain momentum and draw people towards it and also towards me.
So, here goes.
A very brief guide to nurturing and maintaining side projects without being a cock.
Shed or sketchbook or something in-between. Side projects need some place where you can look at them, work on them and share them with others. A place where they can also be left untouched and not be cleared away at dinner time.
Side projects and ideas are naturally absorbent. Surround your project with bits and bobs of inspiration and motivation. It’ll rub off on you and it. I think that’s why drawing pins and sticky tape were invented.
Keep your project in your peripheral vision. While developing OMATA, I kept one drawing and a sample of an old speedometer pinned to the top right hand side of my desk. I know that’s where I look (up and to the right) when I’m thinking or searching for the right word. The fact that it was always there, out in the open, kept it in my sight and my thoughts.
Ideas and projects do not live in isolation. One leads to the next; they inform the following, build on the previous, and create skill and knowledge. See stepping stones more as building blocks.
Nobody is going to steal your idea. Or, it’s very unlikely. My years in corporate advanced design bunkers, cloaked in secrecy and paranoia, were fine because we were a team. But side projects are often lonely endeavours, so I talked openly and enthusiastically about OMATA. It drew good people into the conversation, and good people help.
Again?! Yes, it’s so important. New ideas are like new babies — they’re immature, they need protecting, they need nurturing. Don’t let anyone negative near your side project — no devil’s advocates and no allowing your project to be a vehicle for someone else’s career.
Ask for help from people you admire — people who’ve built companies, projects and teams you love. It works; it’s amazing! And in turn, help others when they ask you.
One last thought… go ride a bike. I’m evangelical about the benefits of cycling and travelling through the world at approximately 18mph. But not simply to gain chiselled calf muscles.There’s an increasing body of science connecting the relationship between cycling and creativity — honestly!
Breathing + pedalling + eye scanning that connects both sides of the brain = a form of meditation in motion, which = good ideas.