Question: What do Craigslist and Albert Einstein have in common?
Answer: Their big idea started as a side project.
1905. Albert Einstein worked six days a week full-time in an office, examining patent applications. He dedicated all his remaining hours to studying and experimenting with physics. One day, the Theory Of Relativity was conceived — completely off-the-clock.
1993. Craig Newmark, employed at an investment company, started an email list in his spare time to allow him and his friends to update each other about different events in town. Eventually, the list grew so much that there wasn’t enough space in people’s inboxes: it was time for a website. Enter Craigslist.com.
2018. A small sideline has the potential to morph into something huge. With reliable internet access and enough devotion, a nugget of gold becomes a rainbow.
Many of the world’s most successful companies started as an afterthought in someone’s spare hours, while the ‘real work’ chugged on in the background.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Uber, Product Hunt, Unsplash, Pinterest, GrowthHackers, Groupon, Trello, AppSumo, Etsy, Hubspot, Gmail, WeWork, Buffer… The list goes on and on.
Even Apple was born in a garage, not an office. College dropouts Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak could only work on their DIY personal computers AFTER their 9–5 had finished.
Something brewing behind the scenes can turn into your life’s work.
The story of my startup followed a similar path.
I started building products as a hobby in college. While working full-time as a programmer, I patched together pockets of time to water and trim my fledgling products. It wasn’t until five years later that I quit my day job and went all-in.
Back then in my dorm room, I could never have predicted that one of my products, JotForm, would have 3.2 million users and 100 employees— without receiving a single dime of outside funding.
When a project first calls your name, who knows where it will take you?
It may inform or enrich your core business. It may transform your core business.
And sometimes, it will BECOME your core business.
There once was a multiplayer game called Glitch. Glitch was not a success. In fact, it was doing so badly that its founders decided to shut it down altogether.
On the cusp of despair, they contemplated the internal chat system they had been building for fun while developing the game. It was clunky, but functional.
With nothing to lose, they decided to launch the chat as a product in itself.
Slack was born — and it became the fastest-growing business app in history.
If you’ve got a side project that beckons, what’s stopping you?
Side projects increase creativity
A buzzing side project will not take anything away from your business. It will energize it.
After Google launched its 20 percent rule (employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time exploring side projects), the result was that the remaining 80% became more productive.
Secure those pockets of time. Protect them in the way you protect other things that you prioritize. Don’t double-book them in your diary. Put a ‘do-not-disturb’ sign on your door.
At the same time, don’t put too much pressure on yourself in terms of setting deadlines. This is the area of your life to be expansive, not restrictive.
Kevan Lee of Buffer knows side projects march to a different beat than 9-to-5 work. They target a separate part of the brain and therefore follow their own rules. His #1 rule? Be ok with missing deadlines.
Just go and hang out with your project. Make it like date night.
Finding the need: deliver extreme value
Finding a pain point to soothe, an unmet need or an unfilled gap doesn’t have to be something complex or fancy.
“The only way a side project will work is if people give themselves permission to think simple, to change their minds, to fail — basically, to not take them too seriously.
When you treat something like it’s stupid, you have fun with it, you don’t put too much structure around it. You can enjoy different types of success.”
So make it something that you’re into. Because, for the time being, the enjoyment and satisfaction that you get out of your project will be your only reward.
Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com