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From Side Project to Not So Side Project

In the last article I wrote for 24 ways, back in 2009, I enthused about the benefits of having a pet project, suggesting that we should all have at least one so that we could collaborate with our friends, escape our day jobs, fulfil our own needs, help others out, raise our profiles, make money, and — most importantly — have fun. I don’t think I need to offer any further persuasions: it seems that designers and developers are launching their own pet projects left, right and centre. This makes me very happy.

However, there still seems to be something of a disconnect between having a side project and turning it into something that is moderately successful; in particular, the challenge of making enough money to sustain the project and perhaps even elevating it from the sidelines so that it becomes something not so on the side at all.

Before we even begin this, let’s spend a moment talking about money, also known as…

Evil, nasty, filthy money

Over the last couple of years, I’ve started referring to myself as an accidental businessman. I say accidental because my view of the typical businessman is someone who is driven by money, and I usually can’t stand such people. Those who are motivated by profit, obsessed with growth, and take an active interest in the world’s financial systems don’t tend to be folks with whom I share a beer, unless it’s to pour it over them. Especially if they’re wearing pinstriped suits.

That said, we all want to make money, don’t we? And most of us want to make a relatively decent amount, too. I don’t think there’s any harm in admitting that, is there? Hello, I’m Elliot and I’m a capitalist.

The key is making money from doing what we love. For most people I know in our community, we’ve already achieved that — I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who isn’t extremely passionate about working in our industry and I think it’s one of the most positive, unifying benefits we enjoy as a group of like-minded people — but side projects usually arise from another kind of passion: a passion for something other than what we do as our day jobs. Perhaps it’s because your clients are driving you mental and you need a break; perhaps it’s because you want to create something that is truly your own; perhaps it’s because you’re sick of seeing your online work disappear so fast and you want to try your hand at print in order to make a more permanent mark.

The three factors I listed there led me to create 8 Faces, a printed magazine about typography that started as a side project and is now a very significant part of my yearly output and income.

Like many things that prove fruitful, 8 Faces’ success was something of an accident, too. For a start, the magazine was never meant to be profitable; its only purpose at all was to scratch my own itch. Then, after the first issue took off and I realized how much time I needed to spend in order to make the next one decent, it became clear that I would have to cover more than just the production costs: I’d have to take time out from client work as well. Doing this meant I’d have to earn some money. Probably not enough to equate to the exact amount of time lost when I could be doing client work (not that you could ever describe time as being lost when you work on something you love), but enough to survive; for me to feel that I was getting paid while doing all of the work that 8 Faces entailed. The answer was to raise money through partnerships with some cool companies who were happy to be associated with my little project.

A sustainable business model

Business model! I can’t believe I just wrote those words! But a business model is really just a loose plan for how not to screw up. And all that stuff I wrote in the paragraph above about partnering with companies so I could get some money in while I put the magazine together? Well, that’s my business model.

If you’re making any product that has some sort of production cost, whether that’s physical print run expenses or up-front dev work to get an app built, covering those costs before you even release your product means that you’ll be in profit from the first copy you sell. This is no small point: production expenses are pretty much the only cost you’ll ever need to recoup, so having them covered before you launch anything is pretty much the best possible position in which you could place yourself. Happy days, as Jamie Oliver would say.

Obtaining these initial funds through partnerships has another benefit. Sure, it’s a form of advertising but, done right, your partners can potentially provide you with great content, too. In the case of 8 Faces, the ads look as nice as the rest of the magazine, and a couple of our partners also provide proper articles: genuinely meaningful, relevant, reader-pleasing articles at that. You’d be amazed at how many companies are willing to become partners and, as the old adage goes, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

With profit comes responsibility

Don’t forget about the responsibility you have to your audience if you engage in a relationship with a partner or any type of advertiser: although I may have freely admitted my capitalist leanings, I’m still essentially a hairy hippy, and I feel that any partnership should be good for me as a publisher, good for the partner and — most importantly — good for the reader. Really, the key word here is relevance, and that’s where 99.9% of advertising fails abysmally.

(99.9% is not a scientific figure, but you know what I’m on about.)

The main grey area when a side project becomes profitable is how you share that profit, partly because — in my opinion, at least — the transition from non-profitable side project to relatively successful source of income can be a little blurred. Asking for help for nothing when there’s no money to be had is pretty normal, but sometimes it’s easy to get used to that free help even once you start making money. I believe the best approach is to ask for help with the promise that it will always be rewarded as soon as there’s money available. (Oh, god: this sounds like one of those nightmarish client proposals. It’s not, honest.) If you’re making something cool, people won’t mind helping out while you find your feet.

Events often think that they’re exempt from sharing profit. Perhaps that’s because many event organizers think they’re doing the speakers a favour rather than the other way around (that’s a whole separate article), but it’s shocking to see how many people seem to think they can profit from content-makers — speakers, for example — and yet not pay for that content. It was for this reason that Keir and I paid all of our speakers for our Insites: The Tour side project, which we ran back in July. We probably could’ve got away without paying them, especially as the gig was so informal, but it was the right thing to do.

In conclusion: money as a by-product

Let’s conclude by returning to the slightly problematic nature of money, because it’s the pivot on which your side project’s success can swing, regardless of whether you measure success by monetary gain. I would argue that success has nothing to do with profit — it’s about you being able to spend the time you want on the project. Unfortunately, that is almost always linked to money: money to pay yourself while you work on your dream idea; money to pay for more servers when your web app hits the big time; money to pay for efforts to get the word out there. The key, then, is to judge success on your own terms, and seek to generate as much money as you see fit, whether it’s purely to cover your running costs, or enough to buy a small country. There’s nothing wrong with profit, as long as you’re ethical about it. (Pro tip: if you’ve earned enough to buy a small country, you’ve probably been unethical along the way.)

The point at which individuals and companies fail — in the moral sense, for sure, but often in the competitive sense, too — is when money is the primary motivation. It should never be the primary motivation. If you’re not passionate enough about something to do it as an unprofitable side project, you shouldn’t be doing it all.

Earning money should be a by-product of doing what you love. And who doesn’t want to spend their life doing what they love?

About the author

Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is also the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces and, more recently, the co-founder of Viewport Industries. He lives and works in the countryside between Bristol and Bath, England.

Photo: Samantha Cliffe

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