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Branding & Marketing

Make Your Side Projects Wildly Successful: Treat Them Like Experiments

Set your fear of failure aside and get that nagging idea out of your head, once and for all. The benefits can help take your creative career to new heights.


I used to let fear of a failed side project keep me from trying new things outside of my normal workload. Or worse, I constantly had ideas for side projects but never actually started any. My day-job was comfortable, so I didn’t want to fail at something new. But, the truth is, I wasn’t pushing myself and I certainly wasn’t growing. My skills stagnated.

Meanwhile, I noticed exampled of other creatives tackling side projects and wildly succeeding at them (and sometimes the “side” projects would take over their day jobs). Tina Roth Eisenberg’s (Swiss Miss) side projects (Tattly, Creative Mornings and Studiomates) helped her put client work on hold indefinitely. Jessica Hische’s side project of drawing drop caps and posting them online led to several jobs/clients (including The New York Times, Penguin Books and Google). Seeing others succeed on the side, I wondered if I had the chops to do the same.

Side projects can be scary. There’s more of us in them so they hit closer to home. This can make them difficult to start or follow through on. But it’s also important to be our own client sometimes, and have side projects that push new skills, flex our creative muscles, and give us testing grounds for new and innovative ideas. I knew I needed to start doing them as well, if I wanted to really see what was possible.

Side projects can be scary. There’s more of us in them.

To get over my own fear of failure with them, I started picturing these ideas as simply being experiments. Experiments don’t “fail”—they simply prove or disprove a hypothesis. For example, despite my day job as a designer I had the hypothesis that I could also write an e-book. I then simply started writing. I didn’t focus on the outcome, how the book would be received or what others would think of it. I figured, “let’s give this a try”.

Framing my side project as an experiment didn’t sound as bad. Experimenting is the only way to prove something, to get that nagging idea out of your head.

Here are few tips I use to frame all of my ideas for side projects as experiments:

  • Focus on the task at hand, not the end result. Focus on the process to allow serendipity and personal exploration to take over. Otherwise you might inadvertently alter things with a subjective idea of how you want it to turn out, rather than what would be best for your long-term learnings.
  • Don’t create your experiment and judge it at the same time. Creation and judgment are very different thought processes and can interfere with each other, and must be done separately. Experiment with exploring every idea completely first (writing it down, drawing it out, actually trying to do it). Only then move into editing, curating, and judging to get to best version of the idea.
  • Break the experiment down into the smallest tasks possible. Then, focus completely on each small task. Only at the end do you tie all those tasks together. This helps you avoid the fear of things being too big or overwhelming to accomplish and lets you slip in your side project around your weekly primary responsibilities.
  • Remember: these are experiments. Not full-time business ideas. First figure out how to run the experiment using the least resources as possible. What is the core or essence of your idea that you can prototype quickly? Get that prototype in front of as many people as possible before pursuing it more. Fail fast.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. The same experiment can’t have a different result unless you change the variables. If you experiment with an idea and it doesn’t work, you need to change things up or move onto a new idea. There’s no point doing the same experiment over and over, hoping for something different to happen. If you want a different outcome, you have to change your experiment up a little—refocus for a new audience, try a different medium, or try experimenting with a new idea completely.

Some of my own experiments have led to great results, like selling thousands of copies of a book I’ve written (writing, for me, started as an experiment in creative expression). Some only proved that there wasn’t a market or opportunity for an idea, and several apps I made didn’t sell a single copy. But I keep experimenting with new ideas, always keeping one simple rule in mind:

Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.
— Rule 6, Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules

By framing the side projects I’ve done as experiments, I’ve had both the confidence to pursue them and the ability to judge them less harshly when they didn’t work.

How about you?

What’s your side project? How has it helped you develop new skills?

Comments (127)
  • Darren Handoko

    Could you give some examples of side projects for people in various careers?

  • István Szép

    wow! How did it come out? I mean what are the results of the 6 projects? I am thinking constantly about new stuff, and doing 6 in 6 month seems pretty heavy!

    • http://ewoolery.tumblr.com/ Elijah Woolery

      thanks István! You’ll have to read the blog to find out 😉 I’m actually still in progress (working on #5); setting a 6-hr constraint has helped get this far, but I am still behind on my timeline..

  • MorgBoer

    This really is good advice and for me it ties into the mindset of “just make something”. Don’t underestimate a 20 or 30 minute gap, just make something – anything. I adopted this recently and am halfway through a marketing book I’ve been trying to read for 2 years! 🙂

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Agreed—I try new ideas by doing them too 🙂

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Nice! All creatives should have side projects (I think). We can push ourselves much more than our clients can in new ideas and with new ideas.

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Great job on that!

    • István Szép

      Thank you Paul! One more thing: Even if it won’t be successful, I made it! I didn’t just talk about an idea to my friends, or battered myself about postponing it. I sat down, wrote and drew and actually published it. A great feeling of authority and accomplishment.

  • http://ewoolery.tumblr.com/ Elijah Woolery

    nice job on shipping that István! If you don’t mind saying, how long (roughly) did it take you to put all the material together?

    • István Szép

      Haha, good question! I was postponing it for so long, having sketches here and there. But I fixed up the site, the layout, the design, the illustrations and the final materials in the last 4 weeks. Now I have about 18 strong lessons, and the possibility to teach again!

  • Kyle T Webster

    Side projects have been surprisingly lucrative for me these past few years (making prints, custom Photoshop tools for sale, writing children’s books) . I will continue to experiment and make things that are not client-driven. This article is great reinforcement.

  • http://Digital-Cloth.com/ D. Lee

    thanks for the article Paul, Its nice to hear encouraging words that actually have meaning!

  • theworklaboratory

    Paul Jarvis – Thank you for this post – you might have just set me free from myself with the experiment concept. I’m notorious for “great ideas” that sit endlessly without execution because I’m afraid to start them and even more terrified that they will fail.

    Thank you Mr. Jarvis, excellent insight and excellent advice. Many thanks for that, I needed it desperately.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Sweet! Now get out there and make some stuff. We aren’t entitled to the reward, we’re just entitled to the work (it’s a heady concept, but think on it a bit).

  • STRYVE

    I have been doing this for years (seeing side projects as experiments) without realizing it. Graphic design is actually a hobby, that I just happen to be able to earn some extra income for doing. However, I am always looking for some other creative outlet. I started making jewelry recently with my wife, which is turning out to be amazing. What’s more, is that you never know how these side projects will influence your other creative works. Great article!

  • Boggie

    Hey Paul,
    Totally agree with you, great advice. I’ve been a fan of side projects ever since, but always ended up in failure. Recently I started a new side project, but with the focus on just doing it. I have a big picture in mind, but not getting distracted by it helps the project move forward.

    http://twitter.com/yanishen

  • pamela vitale @XYEYE

    thank you : )

  • Shaz Sedighzadeh

    Nothing keeps me happier and more passionate than my weird-ass side projects. Love this article. — Also, from a recruiting point of view…Im always shocked when creatives, devs or even producers don’t have any side projects. Big turn off.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Shaz, I’d agree—side projects force creatives to push their limits and skills like no client project ever could.

  • Steve Haase

    Great article, Paul. I recently launched a side project with my girlfriend to teach “The Yoga of Thriving” to people in Hamilton, Ontario with the vision of rolling it out in other communities facing cultural challenges. It’s at http://aquinyoga.com/project-one-hamilton/. I’ve found that pursuing it is opening up levels of creativity and collaboration between us that we didn’t know was there before. And that’s been a lot of fun!

    Thanks for your thoughts about viewing it as an experiment. Helps keep it light, iterative, and focused on doing.

  • http://catalystsbydesign.com/ De Andrea Nichols

    Thanks for this article, Paul. I’ve definitely been learning a lot of these mentioned lessons while working on “passion projects” like Design Serves and United Story. It takes a lot, it’s scary, but it makes the air worth breathing to see them come alive. And, literally all of these tips you’ve shared are being realized. Thanks for sharing this.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      You’re welcome!

  • Nur Nachman - Eytan

    I built http://sketch-mate.com as an experiment, and projected it in the streets of Tel Avi

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Nice!

  • Jack Long

    Everything I do as “personal work” is experimental. I’m not interested in recreating others efforts, but in breaking new ground. Or to be metaphorically correct…Charting a new course. http://www.behance.net/jacklongphoto
    This experimentation has opened new vistas and expanded my knowledge base within splash and high speed photography. I’ve even had the opportunity to work with high speed video.

    Permission to re-post?

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      You can link to this article (with attribution of course).

  • Jade Hanley

    Great advice, Paul. I really agree with breaking things down. I tried to get back into drawing a few years ago and always struggled as I’d judge my work and focus on the goal of making something good – instead of spending time practicing. Then I started drawing a postcard every day, and by breaking it down to a smaller, quicker task I made it manageable and I can see my skill has improved. http://www.mylifein3by5.com/

    • Holly

      Brilliant work Jade!

      • Jade Hanley

        Thank you, Holly 🙂

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Hey Jade, that’s awesome! Great hand-lettering. I definitely need to practice sketching more…

    • Lloyd

      awesome project! looked at your stuff for ages.

  • Gregory Kerns

    When I’m interviewing writers and art directors, one of the first questions I ask is “what’s your side project?” If you work in advertising, you almost have to have one to protect your creative integrity. My side projects have kept me sane for years. Thanks Paul for supporting my theory.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      I ask the same. I think we need to have side projects to really push ourselves to great work.

  • Francisco Crescimbeni

    Great article, Paul! I always have side projects, and I always try to make them real. That’s it, trying. Only trying I can see if they’re successes or failures, but when I understood that success is just an addition of failures until reaching a result, I couldn’t find stones on the road that could stop me.

    I had a lot of notes and stuff that I had been collecting about “Things that happen on buses”, and once I realized that I wanted to share them with the world. I went step by step, preparing and creating the project, and then launched a Facebook Page that is called “De bondis” (I’m argentinian, and that means “About buses”, but in a really common word here). The initial task was only to write and share smart phrases about them (I’m copy), but now it went much further, and I built a +90k community, having been published on the local TV, newspaper and radio. I never thought about that at the beginning. And that is one of the main learnings about this. The result may differ a lot, thinking big may lead you doing small. Thinking small will make you do big.

    Thank you for your articles! I do really feel inspired with this kind of stuff.

    PD: If you want to have a glimpse, the url is (www.facebook.com/debondis)

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      What a great story, thanks for sharing Francisco and keep doing great projects like that 🙂

  • http://www.illuminazzo.com/ Mario A Niebles

    I’m trying to start a company & the projects associated to it. I have had nights when I didn’t sleep much thinking if I will fail!!! Your advices are very realistic and this is the path that I’m following now. Thank you!!!

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Mario. Those sleepless nights don’t go away, but focusing as much as you can on the present work and not the future outcome does help.

      • http://www.illuminazzo.com/ Mario A Niebles

        will I be accurate if I said that many businesses over the web started like experimental side projects??!! Thanks for replying also!! =)

  • Devin

    Amen. Stop being a neurotic lil bitch and go for it.

  • Letitia

    Paul – this is amazing advice! Thanks a lot!

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thank you Letitia.

  • Samah El Hakim

    Great article, thanks! 🙂

  • Carolina

    exceptional post! You are so right…I’m sure if I had read this before it wouldn’t have taken me more than 7 months to finally get my side project done and go for it. So unsure of myself and the risk of failing, but writing a blog with a specific purpose and the personal goal of discovering the writer inside me has been so far a great experience! and this has been just couple of weeks! I’d like to introduce you to http://thetasteoflifeblog.wordpress.com/ , I’d love to hear your opinion. Thanks,

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Great job on that Carolina. Keep writing!

      • Carolina

        thank you! 🙂

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