Side Projects for Fun and Profit

July 16, 2014,   |   Business
Agile League

When someone comes to me with a side project idea, I ask them to classify it under one of the following categories:

  1. I’m doing this for fun.
  2. I’m doing this for money.
  3. I tell myself I’m doing it for fun, but maybe it will get big and then…?

Of all these reasons, Just-for-Fun is my favorite and For-Fun-But-What-If… is my least favorite. Here’s why:

Just for Fun

A project solely for fun has only a single metric: Am I having fun? You can futz around with a new technology, play with an idea, make a joke, write goofy songs, make hilarious Youtube videos, or any of a 1000 different things. You might find yourself staying up late to get one more line written or add one more kooky animation. My latest project, Smiler, is a lot like this. I wanted to learn about D3 and Ember, so I decided to make a goofy project. It is rough, unpolished, and has zero commercial viability, but wow is it fun to play with.

When can you quit on just-for-fun project? The answer is simple: When you’re no longer having fun. If you get bored, or you want to try something new, just drop it and move on. The time was well spent, like reading a good book or playing a video game. You had fun, and most likely you learned something. If you’re extremely lucky, perhaps you attracted some attention to yourself and can leverage that in the future for a new job.

Just for Money

If you go in with your eyes on the financial prize, the goal is easy to understand even if the work is hard. You’ll need to do all kinds of business-y stuff like market analysis, customer discovery, product-to-market fitting, creating a business model, and dozens of other totally not fun things.

And before I go too far, I should say that it’s definitely possible to do a for-profit project with a subject matter you love and have fun with. I’m not saying you have to hate your business, just that you need to realize that it is a business, not just a fun toy to goof off with.

When can you quit? It’s not nearly as easy to determine as the just-for-fun projects, but it’s still fairly clear. Perhaps your overall business idea isn’t panning out, or growth is too slow, or your market is too small. These are all valid reasons to shutter a business and move on. It’s almost guaranteed that many days you won’t be having a ton of fun, especially if you’re truly focusing on it as a business and not as a personal toy. Knowing when to quit will be a gut-wrenching decision, and you’ll have to base it on all kinds of factors, with “Not fun enough” probably being below things like “Customer acquisition too expensive” and “Value proposition was incorrect from the start” being more important.

For Fun, but What If…

These projects are a trap. They will start out fun, but eventually you’ll get dragged down by frustration when the money never appears. Even if you get massively popular, the chances of converting that popularity into commercial success are slim to none. Still, the most likely outcome is that you’ll never get massively popular in the first place and instead attract a small fan community. That’s great if you’re having fun, but in most cases the fun is poisoned with the thought in the back of your head, “I should be getting rich here, just like <Penny Arcade, ICanHazCheeseburger, some-iPhone app, etc.>.”

A great example here is 5secondfilms. Despite the odds, they created something immensely popular. However, they’ve made it clear that they really don’t make any profit, and definitely not enough to live on. They’re lucky to recoup some of their costs, pay for new camera equipment, and buy some props. Otherwise, it’s just a labor of love. And they actually made it to the promised land of Internet fame, which is amazingly hard to do.

What’s poisonous about these projects is that you’re subconsciously hitting yourself with the double-whammy of wanting it to be fun while also hoping to make a buck. Either one of those is hard enough on their own, but put them together and it becomes fantastically difficult. You’re hoping for success to just happen because of the core product you’re making, whether it’s a webcomic or a Youtube series or a cool new app or whatever. You tell yourself it’s just for fun, so you don’t need to go out and market yourself, advertise, network with others, and do all the other un-fun business-y stuff. But when business success doesn’t appear, you’re frustrated. This perceived “failure” can suck the fun out of an otherwise great side project.

Just Be Honest

The point here is that you need to be honest with yourself about your goals when jumping into a new project. Having fun is great goal. So is making money. Just try to pick one and stick with it. If you hedge your bets and try to live somewhere in the middle, it muddies the waters and makes you miserable. Some amount of misery is required to build a business. But misery on a for-fun project is unacceptable.

Luckily, recovering from that misery can be as easy as telling yourself, “I really, truly don’t care about money for this. I’m going to do it strictly because I love it.” Giving yourself permission to do something solely, unapologetically for fun removes the shackles and just lets you do your thing.