~ 6 min read

There's No Such Thing as a Side Project

As a freelancer who has worked with clients using non disclosure agreements in the past, it’s often difficult to showcase or build a portfolio of my work. I’m not alone on this, I know. Sarah Parmenter for one has posted about this problem as a designer.

As a developer, I sometimes feel it’s impossible to easily show a concise representation of my work in a public arena anyway. How can I convey my role in what will usually be a complex process involving many other parties? How can I show what’s involved in selecting and iterating on a simple idea to reach a final build? How can I wrap up all the knowledge I’ve learnt about a domain if the reader knows nothing? How can I do all this when the final product isn’t available to interact with anywhere? The short answer is: I can’t.

Somehow, despite all these problems of showing off my past work, I’m still able to find clients. In fact, often I’m lucky enough to have clients find me. I put this down in part to twitter, where people can find and follow me and learn more about my skills and character. The six degrees of separation really helps me out…

Using By-products to Sell Yourself

But there’s another weapon any designer or developer has in their arsenal that can be used to demonstrate why we should be hired and that’s our own projects. I’m pretty sure that without showcasing any projects of my own, I’d never have got my first job in the industry as I had no client work to put in my portfolio.

You may wonder why I don’t call such endeavours ‘side-projects’? After all that seems to be the convention. Well, in the case of my portfolio, they serve as much of an example of skills as any of my paid work. It seems a disservice to belittle them by classing them in such a way. Everything I’ve done is a project in it’s own right.

Jason Fried of 37signals has written in the past about selling your by-products. Well, any project I create could be considered a by-product of working within our industry. I could choose to sell any one of those, but equally I can use them to sell myself.

There are some caveats that go along with using our own projects in this type of way. Firstly, we need to make it abundantly clear when listed that these are our own. We don’t want to confuse potential clients about the nature of any project. On my own site, I list the two underneath one another, titled ‘work’ and ‘projects’ respectively.

Secondly, we need to treat them with the same level of professionalism as we would do for any client based work. This can be difficult given we’ve not faced any restrictions on how to approach a task. As developers we’re constantly told to ‘ship early, ship often’, but we I’d balance that with ‘don’t ship too early’. There’s no point in showcasing any projects that you yourself aren’t proud of. I find a top tip here is to track my projects as I would do for any client. Knowing I’m officially on the clock whilst pursuing my own endeavours makes me think differently about them.

In thinking about my entire body of work as a whole, I’ve gained new perspective the value of everything I create. In fact, I’d argue the projects I spend my own time on better illustrates where my abilities and interests lie. In turn, this will hopefully attract clients who share the same interests. There’s also something to be said for keeping our brains active and solving problems, even when they’re our own. I much prefer this than incessantly looking to plug gaps in in my calendar.

I can already hear a bunch of you clambering from the rooftops, reeling at the thought of doing work for nothing and that actually, you’d prefer to be paid for what you’re good at. In an odd sort of way, isn’t this spec work? Really, working hard on your own projects should be treated as an investment - the payoff being future work you will be offered as a result of demonstrating you’re capable. If your portfolio is bare, then working on something to showcase is of use to get you to the next level. If not, then working on your own projects allows you to, as Jessica Hische so eloquently puts it: ‘exercise parts of my brain that go unused during client time’. I personally find that having the freedom to be able to bounce my ideas around and get feedback from friends one thing that motivates me to push onward with them.

Projects as Businesses

There’s also the opportunity for your projects to become your sole business. Dribbble, Gumroad and TeuxDeux are all great examples of successful self initiated projects. Simon Willison and Natalie Downe sold their fantastic startup Lanyrd to Eventbrite. The story of how they created this whilst travelling the world is really quite a read. Lanyrd started out as a small project and eventually ended up receiving funding from Y Combinator. I’m not saying you should create projects with a view to them being acquired, but if they’re good ideas, hey who knows what may follow?

If your own projects enjoy moderate success, there’s also scope for making a little extra income over your client work. Given they’ve been approached in a professional manner, it could be possible to wrap them up as commercial products. If you work with open source, you might consider selling a commercial licence for your handiwork. That may not mean you can retire on the profits or move away from client work altogether, but with enough of these projects, you may be in a position to adopt a more comfortable working situation. Certain members of our industry have a knack for pulling this off well. Drew Wilson and Sam Soffes are two sickeningly prolific projectors to take note of, who both have built up a stack of projects which together earn them enough not to worry about client work.

Value It All

So let’s not worry about the value of building side-projects, or as I prefer, ‘projects’. Don’t feel like that your work is ‘just’ a side-project, or you’ll end up treating it as such. There’s going to be value in any project you embark on, either directly or indirectly, short or long term, through skills or financially. Just get out there, make great stuff and show it to people.