How a Side Project Can Advance Your Career

A few years ago, I got a new boss. When the company-wide email introducing him went out, it had the usual flow:

"John was at company whatsit where was responsible for over 60% growth in et cetera and so forth, leading to their acquisition by someone or other. Prior to that, John was the head of all that stuff at a similar company where he..." 

You've probably read that email at some point...impressive credentials but not too surprising. It was the last sentence in the e-mail stood out to me:

"In his free time, he likes entering competitions on Kaggle."

Kaggle, now part of Google, hosts competitions for data scientists and other hard-core quants. It is many things, but a breezy way to spend your leisure time is not one of them. It showed John's (not his real name) intensity and enjoyment for the work more than anything else in his bio, in my opinion.

How a person spends their free time says a lot about them. As a hiring manager, I'm interested in what people do when they're off the clock. There's no wrong answer; whether you like to cook, knit, run marathons, read books, or race cars, we're all entitled to spend our free time however we want. But I'm most drawn to people who stretch themselves through their side projects, and I'd say that goes for most hiring managers. 

The glass-half-empty view of this is that even your free time is now part of your CV. But I focus on the positive: an impressive side project can do things your résumé can't. That gives you a lot of freedom to build your brand when you're trying to make a name for yourself.

Create Content or Make Things

It's a classic catch-22: you need experience to get the job but need the job to get experience. You can wait and hope your turn comes someday, or you can break the stalemate on your own.

The beauty of a side project is that you don't need anyone's permission to get started or make big decisions. Your company might not be able to afford to put you in a role in which you'll be mostly learning instead of producing, but side projects let you stretch yourself in any direction that interests you.

If you're looking for inspiration, I think the best side projects come in two main flavors: 

  1. Building an Audience. An audience is one of the most useful things you can have in business -- audiences mean influence. There are endless ways you can build an audience through content nowadays: post on Stack Overflow, publish blog, start a podcast, post on YouTube, write on Quora...we're spoiled for choice when it comes to forms and forums for content creation. The challenge is picking the right medium for your niche.
  2. Creating Tangible Products / IP. When you have the all the skills you need to actually make something digital or physical, you've got practically limitless opportunities for side projects. The millions and millions of apps available in the app store attest to the potential of human imagination (even when it's stupid). Building something for many will always be the ultimate project. 

In other words, create content or make things. Demonstrate real achievement in that area, and your side project becomes an important part of your résumé.

Take It to Market

I've written before about being a failed author -- and I stand by that description of my publishing career. Yet when people hear that I've (self-) published a book few people bought, they're still often impressed. Why? Because putting something you made up for sale signifies a certain level of quality and achievement, even if no one buys it.

The difference between an interesting hobby and a real résumé builder is whether you commercialize it. It's the difference between, "Oh, it says here you like knitting baby clothes..." on one hand and, ""You have an Etsy store for hand-made baby clothes? Tell me about that..." So bundle your blog into an e-book; sell your crafts online. Sell your expertise on Upwork or UserMuse. We're all in business to make money after all.

When someone takes a side project to market, they've flexed a lot of different muscles to get there. Whether you're coding mobile apps or knitting sweaters, commercializing a side project shows several things:

  1. You can identify a market
  2. You developed a skill to the point where people will pay for it
  3. You figured out pricing and promoting your product or service  

In other words, you're showing off your entrepreneurial DNA - something people like to see. After that, everything is a question of scale. The further you take your side project, the more valuable it is. 

Building Confidence

On top of proving your chops to your peers, commercializing a side project is the ultimate confidence builder. The simple fact that you made something from scratch and sold it builds confidence. It allows you to speak with authority on new topics and teach others what you've learned.

Your business card may not say "marketer", "software developer", or "CEO" on it. But once you've taken something from idea all the way to market, who's to say?