For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a project on the side from my main job. This habit started many moons ago, making websites for local bands, customizing their MySpace pages (giving away my age now!) as none of us could afford a real developer. Since then, I’ve worked on products in my spare time in a range of spaces, including fitness, minute taking, football prediction and even Dungeons and Dragons. Why would I spend my time working on this stuff when most of it won’t see the light of day? Read on adventurer…
I don’t just mean engineers
The barrier to entry for most engineers to kick off a new project is very low; many are able to jump straight into the code and start to bring their idea to life. I have found this to be both a blessing and a curse. I love that I can start building immediately, but I often get so excited by the idea that I don’t bother validating it first - I have a very large graveyard of half-started projects. I imagine a lot of developers are in the same boat. Build it, and they will come - the reality is they often don’t.
The upside to not being an engineer is you’re more likely to spend the time testing for market fit before getting someone technical involved. I spoke with a founder recently who had the idea of using text messages (SMS) as a financial summary generator. People would text in their income/expenses and every week, they would get a report sent to them. To test the idea, she set up a new phone number, and wrote up the reports herself and texted them back to her customers - without writing a line of code. Once she saw people wanted the service, she found a technical co-founder to partner with to help make the dream a reality.
The takeaway here is if you’re not technical, but you’ve got a concept for a side hustle, there is no reason you can’t get started on the validation process. Think outside the box for ways to test your idea, write them down and get stuck in!
Sidenote: I’m ok with having a large graveyard of dead projects; I still got learnings from all of them - so don’t let this put you off getting started either!
With that out of the way, these are the reasons I think everyone should start a side hustle.
1. It deepens your learning within your discipline
I’ve been an engineer for more years than I care to count, and I am extremely grateful for all the opportunities provided by the companies that I worked for. I have learned a ton from the amazing teams I’ve worked in and the skilled people I worked alongside. However, these skills and learnings were very specific to the niche that I worked in (namely frontend development) and I became very proficient in that area.
What I learned from working on my side projects however, was very different. From a product perspective, I found myself responsible for the design, the frontend, the server, modelling the database, setting up AWS, deployments and everything in between. Now, my skills in all these other areas are far from perfect. I’m sure hardcore backend developers would be horrified by my API design and seasoned DevOps people would shake their head looking at my shameful AWS infrastructure! It does give you a genuine appreciation for these skillsets, as well as an understanding of the entire end-to-end tech stack. It’s very easy to work in a silo on your slice without seeing the bigger picture.
2. It broadens your horizons outside of your discipline
As mentioned before, most of my side hustles never saw completion. Either an amazing competitor hit the market, or I ran out of passion building it solo. However, the few that I did launch then started to present their own set of challenges. How am I going to tell people about this product? I guess I need to learn about marketing. Ok cool, and how am I going to price it? It seems like I need some sales advice here. Doing this stuff well is really hard, a lesson I have learned a few times.
It gave me a commonality and talking points with people that worked in those teams to learn how they approach these problems. While I’ll never be a marketer, I at least now understand the fundamentals of what to think about. If you’re someone that loves to learn, it is definitely a crash course in that.
It is very easy to over-value your own teams’ contribution to a product, assuming that they provide the most important part, but by venturing outside of that comfort zone it brings home how the rest of the pieces fit and puts perspective on your chosen discipline.
3. It allows you to work on something you’re passionate about
Do you know how many jobs there are looking for engineers to work on a Dungeons and Dragons inspired app? I’ll tell you. Zero.
That’s why I started my own and I loved every minute of working on it. Starting your own side project allows you to create your own role and work on something that you actually care about.
I know countless people working on finance or legal products that have no love for those industries. I personally find it is hard to really get invested if I feel no connection to the market I am targeting. The feeling of creating something that makes a direct difference to a problem I’m facing is an incredible driving factor.
4. It’s a good excuse to try new technologies and software
Marketing didn’t form part of my day job so putting my own products into the wild allowed me to lean heavily on tools that were new to me. I used software like Mailchimp for sending out my emails and Canva for putting together social posts. Learning how these great companies handle different design decisions and UX patterns widened my perspective and gave me insight into what other tech companies were doing. Without creating my own product I likely never would have used either of these tools.
This is probably more tech leaning, but if you’re looking to learn a new programming language or new design software, what better way than to do it on your side hustle? If your company is using Sketch and you’ve always wanted to give Figma a go, it’s a great excuse to do it. If you’re an engineer and you’ve always thought Vue or Golang looked interesting but you don’t use them at work - use them on your side project and put them to the test. By actually creating something from scratch you’ll learn way more than following an online tutorial.
5. It enables you to make the rules
One of the most exciting things about having your own side hustle is that there are no limits to what you can do. There is no boss breathing over your shoulder checking that you are working on the right thing.
Surprisingly, this autonomy actually helped me to be more disciplined. I had to create my own deadlines, schedules and decide which piece of work took priority. Being responsible for the whole project and not just a slice really forced me to consider what is important and what would have the biggest impact.
6. It gives you awesome interview ammunition
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve fallen back on talking about my passion projects in an interview situation. I also love it when I interview someone that tells me about their side hustles. They tend to talk with a lot more passion about those projects and have great stories about the obstacles they had to overcome. I get a real sense for what the candidate cares about and how they think about problems.
It shows that you love what you do and means you can fall back on the wealth of experience you’ll have picked up wearing a thousand hats. You may even discover your interviewer has their own side hustles and open up a whole new avenue of conversation. I was interviewed once by a fellow roleplaying nerd who loved my Dungeons & Dragons app idea. Definitely more interesting than the stock standard interview questions!
If you’re not sure where to start, a good way to dip your toes in the water is by contributing to some open source projects or asking your colleagues if they’re working on anything you can be involved in.
There are so many benefits to kicking off a side project, and who knows - you might even make some extra money or turn it into your business. But the main driver for me has always been that it is really fun! What are you waiting for? Get your hustle on!