7 Tips for Successful Side Projects
Designers and developers have unlimited potential and opportunities when it comes to side projects. With your skills, knowledge, and experience you can do any number of different things aside from your full-time work to make a little extra money, or just for fun. Some of the possibilities include blogging, designing stock graphics for sale (like icons, vectors, etc.), designing and selling website templates or themes, running a community website, and writing a book or e-book. Of course, there are countless possibilities, these are just some of the more common choices.
Many designers choose to take on side projects because they can provide a creative outlet where you get to make all of your own decisions, rather than just following the wishes of a client. They can also help to give you something productive to do during down time between client projects, or for those who are working to build a portfolio they can often serve as excellent work samples. Side projects also have potential to make some money, and in some cases they can even lead to a full-time income. They can even provide some excellent networking and collaboration opportunities. So as you can see, there are a lot of reasons for designers to consider taking on a side project.
In this article we’ll take a look at seven keys or tips that will hopefully help to make your own efforts with side projects more beneficial.
1. Know Your Purpose
There are any number of different reasons why you could start a side project. Maybe you are just looking for a project that will allow you to do the things you enjoy, but with more creative freedom than your full-time work. Or it could be that you want to learn some new skill and you’re using the side project to gain experience. For many designers the motivation is at least partially motivated by the opportunity for income. You could be looking for a little extra money on top of your full-time income, or it could be that you’re a freelancer and you’re trying to make more productive use of your time between client projects.
It’s important to know your purpose and your motivation because it should dictate how you go about managing the side project. There is no right or wrong motivation. If your main purpose is to have fun and enjoy your creative freedom, you can pretty much work on whatever you want whenever you feel like it. On the other hand, if your purpose is to supplement your freelancing income you will want to approach the side project with a more organized and business-like mindset.
Your purpose will also have a big influence on the specific side project you choose to follow. If you’re looking to make money you’ll obviously need to choose something with the potential for creating that income. If you’re looking for something that will simply supplement your existing income you may want to choose something that offers the potential to start making a small amount of money pretty quickly. If your goal is to ultimately use the side-project to replace your full-time income, you’ll want to consider the long-term income potential of any projects that you evaluate.
2. Be Realistic About Time Limitations
One of the biggest challenges with side projects is the inevitable time limitation. Take a look at your schedule and try to be as realistic as possible about how much time you really can dedicate to a side project. Do you have a few hours that you can dedicate each week? Is your available time more sporadic and not as frequent? It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of an idea for a side project only to realize pretty quickly that you simply don’t have the time needed to make it work. It’s better to consider those time limitations before getting started and chose a side project that will fit with the amount of time that you have available.
3. Consider On-Going Requirements
Along with the previous point, on-going time requirements should also be considered. For example, you may have time available right now to create a WordPress theme or plugin to sell, but will you have the time for on-going support and updates that will be required? The more limitations that exist on your time, the more you should consider projects with a reduced need for on-going time commitments.
Anything that is likely to involve a considerable amount of customer service or support will require that you always have some time available to deal with these issues. This doesn’t mean that you can’t sell any items or products, because some items require much less support than others. For example, designing and selling an icon set will lead to a small amount of customer service emails, and most of the requests you do receive will be things like answering basic questions or helping people who may have issues with downloads or payments. Selling website templates, WordPress themes, or plugins will likely bring far more customer service requests, and many of them will involve more time and effort on your part to research and solve.
In general, things like stock graphics and e-books are good for designers who don’t expect to have much time available for ongoing support and service. And things like templates, plugins, blogs, community websites, an online courses are good opportunities if the need for on-going support is not a problem. Also keep in mind that income potential is not equal for all projects. So while top selling WordPress themes will require support from the designer/developer, they also provide a high potential income.
4. Set Aside Time Each Week
Setting aside the time needed for your side project is important. If you’re working a full-time job or freelancing full-time you’ll probably need to set aside some time during evenings or weekends to focus on the side project. Most people, myself included, struggle to get things done on side projects if time is not designated specifically for that purpose.
Each project will have it’s own time requirements, so you’ll need to consider your own situation. If you’re working on something like a book that will take a lot of time to complete, try to find a time in your schedule that you can dedicate on a weekly basis.
5. Start Small and Build
From my own experience, one of the most challenging aspects of side projects is limiting the scope. In most situations it’s easy to try to do too much all at once, and with a limited amount of time available it can reduce the quality and success of the project. If you’re working on a blog or a website as your side project you may have big ideas and plans that you want to implement with the site. In most cases you’ll be better off if you can keep it basic to get started, focus on doing things well, and then expand and add new features or sections of the site later.
If your goal is to create a template or theme club as your side project, focus at first on just creating your first template or theme and doing the best job possible. Then later you can focus on adding more templates and themes, but don’t try to do too much right away.
Time limitations are something that you’ll always have to deal with on side projects. By recognizing the limitation and appropriately focusing on starting small you can build success over a period of time, and you’ll do it on a solid foundation. If you’re trying to do too much all at once it’s easy to get frustrated and give up before you achieve that success that you’re looking for.
6. Consider Sustainability or an Exit Plan
While you’re thinking about how much time your side project will require on an on-going basis, think not only about the time that you will have available, but also about whether it is something that you will still want to be working on a year from now. Also consider if it is possible for the time requirements of the project to grow faster than the income from the project. For example, you could start some type of community website for designers. It’s possible that the site could grow quickly and require more effort on your part to keep it running smoothly. It’s also possible that the site doesn’t produce significant income for you despite growth in traffic and the amount of time you spend working on the site. If this happens, how will you sustain the site? Will you be able to use the income from the site to outsource the maintenance to someone else? Will you be able to quit your full-time job or scale back on client projects to allow for more time on the project?
In addition to sustainability, you can also consider if the project is something that you may be able to sell. If the side project is a website or a blog, chances are you would be able to find a buyer when you are ready to move on to something else (of course, it’s possible that you may not be able to find a buyer that is willing to pay the amount that you want to get for the site). Obviously, the details of the project’s sustainability and your exit plan can change and evolve throughout the life of the project, but it helps to consider these details early on and at least start to develop a plan.
7. Take Advantage of Leveraging Opportunities
Since one of the biggest challenges of side projects is the time limitation, anything you can do to leverage your time can be helpful. If you are creating and selling some sort of resources (templates, themes, stock graphics, e-books) there are opportunities right now to use deal websites or existing marketplaces to sell your products. In general, I think a lot of designers can make more profit by selling resources on their own rather than using stock marketplaces, but when your time is limited there are some significant advantages to using a marketplace. While the marketplace will obviously have some drawbacks (sharing revenue with the marketplace and the chance of having your products buried by thousands of other items), you also have the potential to start selling items without the need to set up your own online shop or to process transactions. It’s possible to leverage the popularity of a marketplace like ThemeForest to get a great deal of exposure for your product without doing any marketing on your own.
Aside from marketplaces, there are also a number of deal sites that present opportunities for selling products. Sites like MightyDeals and AppSumo have huge customer lists that you can leverage, and there are even more deal sites with smaller audiences that can also produce some sales for you. With deal sites you’ll need to be able and willing to offer a deep discount on your product, and then you’ll also have to share the revenue with the deal site. So you’ll be making significantly less per sale than you would make by selling the product on your own, but the volume of sales can be pretty significant. In general, deal sites work best for selling digital products with low customer service requirements. If your product is likely to require a decent amount of customer support you should consider how much you would be making on each sale and determine if that amount is enough to cover the time and expenses needed to support the sales made through the promo.
Leveraging opportunities aren’t applicable only to side projects that involve selling products. If your side project is running a blog, you could leverage your time by accepting guest posts from other writers. There are a lot of people looking for guest posting opportunities in order to get a link back to their own website or blog (usually in the author bio of the guest post). By accepting guest posts you can get content for your blog without the time requirement of producing all of the content yourself, and without the need to hire freelance writers.
You really just want to look for ways to make the most of your time and to work with other people and other websites to improve the results of your project.
The unlimited possibility for side projects is one of the things I love about the design and development industry. There are always ways to have fun and experiment on your own, and making money with side projects is also possible. However, in order for the project to truly be successful you’ll need to make the best use of your time, and I hope the tips covered in this article can help with your own projects.
Published October 31st, 2012 by Steven Snell