why-side-projects-are-great-for-business

Chris Evans

Side projects are a great way for designers and developers to develop their skills, try new technologies and build their personal brand.

Today I hope to set out why businesses should also work on side projects and show the benefits they bring to both your company and their employees. I’ll then suggest a few ways, with examples, in which side projects can become part of your companies workflow.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Utilise spare capacity

There are many situations in an agency where you might find yourself with a few hours spare, this could be while waiting for client feedback or after launching a big project.

Side projects are a great way to utilise this spare time as you can take advantage of these typically unproductive periods to learn new skills that benefit future projects, build revenue-generating products or market your company.

Onboard new hires to your technology stack

As a design and development studio, we have a range of internal tools and technologies that help us get projects off the ground such as Baseline, a framework for starting website builds (Read about our transition from jQuery to ES6) or Blueprint, our UX starter kit.

Naturally, when we hire people, they will need to learn our technical setup and workflow process, therefore, side projects are a great way to acclimatise a new hire, junior designer or developer to your setup without the added pressure of pushing code to production or designs to clients.

Explore new technologies and tools

With what seems like a new JavaScript framework or design tool coming out every month, it can feel like you’re falling behind if you’re not using the latest and greatest.

Side projects are a great way to test new technologies and tools in small doses. From this, you can evaluate the new technology in a risk-free environment to see if it’s worth adopting into your main workflow.

By doing this, you’ll be able to optimize your workflow with the best tools, upskill your team and potentially offer new services to clients.

Marketing

Marketing your agency or startup can be hard, adverts can be a cash-devouring black hole if you don’t know what you’re doing and other methods like networking are not for everyone.

Side projects are a great way to market your company using the skills your team already possess. Your aims could be to generate publicity, find new leads or create additional streams of revenue.

Compared with some other forms of marketing, side project marketing has the ability to produce asymmetric returns as they can be a drain on resources up front, but once finished they will continue to generate returns well into the future for little cost.

Crew: A great example of this method is Crew, a startup that was a marketplace for freelancers. They created an internal side project called Unsplash so their users could upload spare photos from their photoshoots. Unsplash exploded, bringing huge amounts of attention to the Crew platform. It was eventually spun off into its own company.

InVision: Another example is Do by Invision. Do is part of Invision’s free design resources and is a mobile UI kit for sketch and photoshop. To get the kit, you have to enter your email and they’ll send you the download link. From this, they can email you about new products with the aim of eventually converting you into a customer, it is effectively a lead generation tool.

Innovation

Side projects can often be a playground to experiment with ideas, test assumptions and gain valuable insights into areas that are not your primary business. These learnings can then be applied back to your core business which may end up giving you a competitive advantage.

Sometimes a side project can take on a life of its own, history is riddled with cases where the internal project becomes the core business or where companies have sold them for a huge profit.

Glitch: A great example of a company that pivoted from its core business to a side project is Glitch, a multiplayer online game that built an internal chat system. The game eventually failed but the chat system ultimately became Slack. In 2019, Slack went public with a valuation of at least $16 billion.

Hoptoad: Sometimes, a side project may succeed but may not get the love it deserves internally. Thoughtbot, a design and development studio created Hoptoad, a tool to monitor website errors. A few years later they released it as a service under a new name, Airbrake. Airbrake proved successful as its own business but wasn’t the focus of the Thoughtbot team, therefore, they decided to sell Airbrake for an undisclosed amount about four years after launching.

So, you’ve read about the benefits of implementing side projects within your company, how exactly do you go about working it into your process? Here are a few common ways companies manage to do it.

Spare capacity

As mentioned above, the simplest way is to build projects when there is no other work to do. This is easy to work into your schedule and if planned properly, can be a very efficient use of your time and resources.

Hackathons

A more purpose-driven approach to creating side projects is to have a dedicated block of time where attention can be solely devoted. Again, with proper planning and focussed attention on a particular problem, the likeliness of successful projects is greatly increased. Facebook’s ‘like’ feature was famously created in an internally led hackathon.

For more information on how to run a hackathon, check out hackathon.guide.

20% time

A more laissez-faire approach is 20% time, which is a guide to how much time an employee should dedicate to projects outside of their main projects. 20% is a lot of time that may not be available for projects that might not instantly benefit the company, therefore, a popular alternative is to set aside Friday afternoons for this kind of work.

Google is the famed example of 20% time, where they are encouraged to “spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google”. Projects such as Google Maps, Gmail, and Adsense initially started as internal side projects which ultimately grew into large parts of Google’s core business.

Here at Inktrap, we’re always coming up with ideas for projects, whether that’s at lunch or down the pub after work. Here are a few things we’ve made at Inktap:

Pixel Jobs

Pixel Jobs is a project born out of our bad experiences, as a company, using existing job boards in London. We think both the employer and job hunter experiences can be improved through thoughtful UI design and transparency within job listings.

After a soft launch earlier this year we’re now iterating on our ideas based on what we’ve learnt so far.

Coming soon to pixeljobs.co.

Blueprint

Blueprint is a Sketch wireframe kit that we use internally for the early stages of our client projects. We decided we wanted to release the kit (for free), therefore, we productised it by designing and building a landing page. We used the build to onboard a new developer to our development stack and the product is now used to generate publicity for Inktrap.

Check it out at blueprint.inktrap.co.uk.

Planets Set

Another of our side projects was our Planets and Space Illustration Set. We have some very talented illustrators here at Inktrap such as Rachel Brockbank, therefore, after noticing a gap in the market, we decided to create a set of illustrations to plug that gap.

Check it out here.

Thanks for reading, hopefully, I’ve at convinced you to at least look into integrating side projects into your companies workflow.


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