Many designers and developers choose to work on side projects in addition to their work as a full-time designer or developer. Whether you are a freelancer, employed by a design agency, or work as an in-house designer, the opportunity for your own side projects is an exciting possibility. With the skills and experience that you have in design and development there are all kinds of opportunities to create your own websites, apps, products, or services.
There are countless stories and examples of designers that have started side projects and built them into something much larger. In fact, Vandelay Design got its start as a side project several years ago. Regardless of whether your ultimate goal is to start a project that could someday become a full-time gig, or if you are just looking for a way to have fun and improve your skills in a particular area, side projects can be the solution.
There are so many different possibilities for side projects that it can be a challenge to choose where to focus your time and efforts. Just some examples of possible side projects:
- Start a design/development blog
- Design a sell stock graphics
- Start your own WordPress theme shop or template shop
- Sell your WordPress themes or templates at existing marketplaces like ThemeForest or Mojo Themes
- Create and sell mobile apps
- Create and sell training courses on some aspect of design/development
- Write and sell an e-book
These are just some of the possibilities, certainly not an all-inclusive list. If you are one of the many designers who is considering starting a side project, there are several factors that you should consider before making a decision to get started.
Photo by Chris Owens
Designers often get started on a side project, but make several mistakes along the way which prevent the project from being successful. Here are 5 main points to consider if you feel your side project isn’t as successful as it could be:
1. You’re Not Focusing on a Subject That Motivates You
As a side project, the assumption is that you already have full-time work, whether it is as a freelancer or through an employer. With this in mind, you’ll be working on the side project in your spare time, probably mostly evenings and weekends. It’s important that you choose a side project that really interests you, otherwise you’ll feel like you’re forcing yourself to work on it rather than doing other things that you enjoy with your spare time.
The sustainability of the project requires that you’ll be motivated to work on it, otherwise it won’t get the attention it needs to reach success. Your motivation could be simply that it is something you enjoy working on. For example, maybe your full-time job requires you to design websites for clients in industries that don’t bring much excitement to your work, but your side project can allow you to spend time working on illustrations that will be sold at stock marketplaces. If you really enjoy illustrating and you don’t get the opportunity to do much of it in your full-time work, this could be a great fit.
Money and the possibility of a change in your full-time work can also serve as your motivation. For example, maybe you freelance full-time and you enjoy working on the websites that you design and develop for your clients, but the thought of being able to earn a living from creating and selling website templates is more appealing to you. In this case your motivation could be more about the money or the chance to turn a hobby into a full-time business than it is about being able to do a different type of work.
Whatever the case may be, you’ll need to be motivated in some way in order to keep pushing forward in your spare time. Side projects can be especially challenging since you are only working on them part-time it can take a while to see the results. Without the necessary motivation you’ll be more likely to decide that it’s not worth the effort.
2. You’re Not Taking Advantage of Your Strengths
When you are looking to maximize the impact that you can have with a limited amount of time, focusing on your strengths is a good idea. For example, if your idea is to start a membership website that offers training and educational videos to other designers, you’ll want to focus, at least at the start, on your areas of strength. If you start on areas where you are not as strong you will either have a product that isn’t as high quality as it could be, or you’ll need to dedicate a lot of time improving your own skills and knowledge before creating the training material.
This seems like a pretty obvious point, but it sometimes gets overlooked when choosing a side project. The idea of focusing on your strengths allows you to take advantage of the skills that you have already developed, and if your project is successful, you will be able to “cash in” on that work that you have already dedicated to building those skills. If you focus on areas outside of your strengths you will need to dedicate extra time in order to reach the level of success that you are after.
As a designer or developer, starting a side project to take advantage of your strengths presents some outstanding opportunities. Regardless of what type of work you do on a full-time basis you have no doubt been developing valuable skills and experience. Side projects allow you to take a look at your own skills, see where your strengths lie, and identify a possible side project that would allow you to put those skills to work in a different way.
3. You’re Not Looking for Opportunities for Growth and Development of New Skills
Although you want to take advantages of the strengths and skills that you already have, developing new skills and growing is a good thing too. This may sound like it contradicts the previous point, but it doesn’t have to. One of the things about side projects is that if you are working alone you will be wearing a lot of different hats. Certain aspects of the project will fall into your areas of strengths, but other aspects will challenge you and allow you to develop new skills. For example, one of your strengths may be in design and front-end development, so you consider the possibility of using that strength to create website templates. However, maybe you have very little experience in marketing or selling a product. Creating your own template/theme shop would allow you to use your strengths, but you would also be challenged by the new experience of marketing and selling the templates.
Another example would be if you decide to create a series of training videos to teach designers how to use Photoshop. Maybe you’re a Photoshop expert and so the video content and material is easy for you, but perhaps you have very little experience creating videos. Working on your own video course would allow you to focus on your strengths as a Photoshop expert while also adding some new skills and experience through the process of creating the videos.
Just about any side project you choose will involve some things that you either don’t have much experience with, or areas where you are just not as strong as others. If you choose your side project carefully you can work on developing the types of skills that you think would be most beneficial to you in the future, which can be a great step forward for your career.
4. You’re Not Considering Time Requirements and Flexibility
Since you have other full-time work that will take up the majority of your time, side projects ideally will only require an amount of time that you are willing and able to dedicate on a part-time basis. Keep in mind that your schedule and availability can change, so it is ideal if you can also have some flexibility to increase or reduce the amount of time dedicated to the side project if your schedule and work load changes. You wouldn’t want to dedicate a few months of hard work to get a side project up and running only to have to abandon it because your schedule changed and you can no longer put in the time needed on an on-going basis.
Not all side projects are equal when it comes to time commitments. Some things like designing stock graphics and writing e-books will involve a little more flexibility as you can work on them whenever you have the time available. If your availability decreases, these types of projects can be put on hold, or you can just dedicate a little bit less time to them.
On the other hand, some side projects like running a design blog, running a membership site, or running a WordPress theme shop are likely to have less flexibility when it comes to time requirements. If you want to be able to build a substantial blog audience you will need to put in time on a consistent basis. Stopping for a month while you are really busy is not an option if you’re trying to get a new blog off the ground. Pretty much the same situation applies to membership sites. If you want to retain your members you will need to consistently put in the time to make the site valuable enough that the members will not cancel. If you’re running a theme shop you will likely need to provide customer service and support on an on-going basis, so disappearing for a while is not good for repeat business.
Be sure to take the time requirements and flexibility into consideration before deciding on a side project. The types of projects that will involve significant amounts of customer service are often not the best choices for side projects when you already have a busy schedule with your full-time work. If you are going to start a side project with higher on-going requirements for your time, my recommendation is to make sure that it has the potential to transition from a side project to a full-time income at some point in the future.
5. You’re Not Working Towards Building Your Profile in the Industry
One of the best things about side projects is that they can provide you with opportunities to increase your exposure and to build some name recognition while developing a reputation in the industry. It’s possible to do this with any of the types of side projects that we’ve discussed. The key, of course, is doing a great job with the side project so that it gets noticed and gains the respect of others in the industry.
Building your profile can help for landing new job opportunities in the future, increasing freelance work, and creating strong networking opportunities. Having more options in your career is always a good thing, and with a strong profile in the industry you will certainly have more options.
Side projects provide plenty of great opportunities for designers and developers, but there are plenty of challenges as well. In my opinion, every designer should consider a side project and determine if it would be the right fit for them. Most designers can benefit significantly in some way be focusing on a side project, and they can also be a great way for designers to get more out of their career if they’re not happy with their full-time work situation. Choose your own side projects wisely, put in the necessary work, and there are plenty of ways that your career will benefit.
For further reading I would recommend our e-book Freelance Designer’s Guide to Multiple Income Streams, which is free for anyone who subscribes to our newsletter.