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Start Small, Build Your Creative Business as a Side Project

Are you tired of following other peoples success online? Aren’t you just as talented and filled with just as much potential as they are?

If you’re not satisfied with the status quo of your life, your job, your income, your daily responsibilities, and your creative output, then you need to make a change.

We all have very little time to dedicate to starting a new business and building our skills. Are you willing to set aside even an hour a day to dig in—putting all your concentrated creativity into it? If so, what’s stopping you?

Likely all the numerous options—the sheer vastness of possibilities—has you overwhelmed. That’s certainly what I felt like; that is, until I shifted my viewpoint. You can simplify your approach by framing your creative business as a side project.

Small steps lead to great adventures. It doesn’t require a massive leap to begin a side project and start building momentum.

Sidestep Complexity

Tiny targets are reachable. You can see them directly ahead—sprint towards them and rapidly grab hold.

Tackling something complex is daunting. Where do you start? How many months of work would you have to put in to bring this idea to fruition? What resources would you need to build this?

On the other hand, a minimalist approach to your side project is workable. You don’t need huge resources or big blocks of time. There is just less overhead with little side projects. You can fit the project around all your other commitments and actually make tangible progress.

A Minimalist Mindset

If you have big ideas, and big goals, for your side project, that’s fine. But look at how you can break that down into smaller and smaller slices of that big picture. What is the minimum it would take to prove your creative business concept? What is one area you could improve your creative skill set in?

  • If you’re looking to launch a blog, what topic could you focus on that would allow you to quickly stand out? With a tight focus and writing daily on a narrow topic, you can publish, get audience feedback, and stand out fast.
  • If you’re looking to build a freelance design business, what is a single service you could rapidly start offering? You can ramp up your skills in that area, present a clear offer, provide quality samples, and get quick client feedback.
  • If you want to build a software project, then focus on solving a single problem. I really like the app Clear for example. It’s one of the simplest to do apps available. It solves the problem of working with to do lists really well though. What’s one problem you could focus on solving?

By aiming your creativity more intently, you’ll see your skills grow more quickly in that area. Also, focusing on a small project, with narrow goals, means you can test rapidly, and work on incorporating feedback back into your project—pushing it forward through iteration.

So, what’s holding you back from jumping into a side project?

Expect the Unexpected

All too often we let our fears stop us from trying. We fear that we won’t live up to the expectations we set for ourselves. We place large goals on top of ourselves, like weights that hold us down.

Experimentation is the key to a successful side project. That’s difficult to do, if you frame your project as a massive undertaking with lots of pressure on it.

Instead, approach your side project as a small, passionate undertaking. One you happily jump into, with a growth mindset—a childlike eagerness to learn, play, and grow. You don’t see kindergarteners stressing over their projects; they are too busy having fun painting. This is the kind of energy to bring to your side project.

Experiments Don’t Fail

Paul Jarvis has some great tips on how to treat your side project as an experiment. His opinion is that: “Experiments don’t ‘fail’—they simply prove or disprove a hypothesis.”

When viewed from this perspective, your side project, and each step you take in it, is just a series of experiments. You learn from the results of each experiment—good or bad—and adjust as you move forward. Your project and big picture goals change and evolve with each experiment.

Some experiments result in wins and others will miss the mark. That’s not surprising when experimenting. It’s best to set your mindset accordingly. Lowering your expectations opens up the door for the unexpected to walk through.

Every scientist has a series of failed experiments along the way to a breakthrough, but they really aren’t failures, just steps toward the solution. Every creative has the excess of their boundless enthusiasm showing as colorful half-completed renderings scattered around their studio—only their best work, often filled with happy accidents along the way, making it into their portfolio.

What you’re doing with your side project is positioning yourself for a potential breakthrough. You’re dipping into the unknowable, on a daily basis, and playfully poking at it.

Embrace the Idiotic

Pursuing your passion, and taking an experimental, playful approach to your side project creates fertile ground for you to plant something unique in. This is where you grow from.

At First, Leave Money Out of the Equation

Many of the most successful creative businesses, didn’t start as businesses at all, but rather someone following an obsession well past the point of business sense or with a complete disregard, early on, for earnings. They spent hours learning, absorbing, and just making stuff. This is how I became a graphic designer.

I didn’t jump into design with a clear sense of how I’d make money at it, but rather I just had to learn it, master techniques, and internalize them. I ran through books on design, made all sorts of passion projects—creating characters, brands, sites, and hand lettering—adding more levels of knowledge, and creative confidence, with each step along the way.

The Crackle of Creativity

I really admire successful creatives that make side projects that resonate with buzzing energy, those passion projects that were created because they just had to made, such as Jessica Hische’s side project of drawing drop caps. She created experimental, illustrative alphabets to push her skills. You can see not just her care in this project, but her obsession with each letter in it. Her letters drip with creative love.

All that effort, while not originally a business pursuit, led to several jobs and clients for her (including The New York Times, Penguin Books, and Google). These are the kind of doors that will open for you, if you put your energy into a passionate side project, one that is really personal and engaging to you. To get started, you don’t need a clear business plan, just a drive to create. Your business plan will emerge along the way.

The Spark of Serendipity

Don’t be afraid to be a bit stupidly serendipitous in your side project pursuit. It works for Tobias van Schneider, read about his advice over on Fast Company on the benefits of letting yourself be stupid in your side projects.

That pure, naive creative meandering is where magic comes from. It’s the spark that ignites a creative business.

Dig In

You don’t need truckloads of time to make something creative, cool, super-personal, and that captures the spirit of your endeavor. You do need to dig in and commit though.

Make a Commitment

Sit down today and look over your calendar. What hour a day can you block off and make a concentrated effort in?

If you can’t make a daily commitment, then you’ll never get off the sidelines. You’ll continue to watch others increase their creative skills, release projects that lead to bigger gigs, and open up new doors for them. You’ll continue to watch their creative businesses grow, while you stagnate in inaction.

  • If you’re a stay at home parent, then work on this when the kids are distracted—in those short-lived down moment you can carve out.
  • If you’re a freelancer and looking to tackle more creative assignments, then first assign that ideal project to yourself. Use it as a showcase to land the projects you want.
  • If you’re a blogger, then write daily. Release your ideas onto the world. Write an ebook or launch a niche blog as a side project. Take risks and push every piece of content out as a new experiment.
  • If you’re a student, don’t settle for your teachers dictating your growth. Set the parameters for your own side project—one that will push your creativity and pull together your personal interests.

Whatever your goals are, you can narrow them down to fit into the time you do have for your project. You can accomplish a lot on the side, without doing a whole lot more.

Create with Consistency

You can aim small, as long as you are consistent in your pursuit.

Work on making repeatable creative habits. Get into a routine. This idea of the scatterbrained creative is a myth. The more organized and diligent you can be with your creative pursuit, the more consistent you’ll learn, and the greater your output will be.

Many successful creative businesses started as tiny side projects, without an initial full-time investment. Think of this project as your creative outlet, that time you look forward to every day, as something very precious and special you can work on daily.

Your ideal time may be early in the morning before your primary job. Or it might be on nights and weekend. Ultimately, a side project, by it’s very definition fits around all your other commitments. Make this little time you have matter.

Pursue with Purpose

Side projects are purposefully small. They are produced on the side of the rest of your life, before your full-time gig, or after your core responsibilities for the day are taken care of—in that bit of time you can carve out for them.

Allow Your Side Project to Develop Naturally

Few successful businesses start as massive projects with unrealistic goals. Any business requires a tremendous amount of effort to breakthrough. If you frame your creative business pursuit as a side project, you’ll reduce the complexity, as well as the fear, and leave room for the unexpected to arrive. It’s through creative leaps and a succession of a number of small, simple experiments that your project will unfold.

You can bring a determined focus to a small side project. In time, this project will become yours—you’ll grow to own it. You’ll know every nuance of it at a cellular level, having run your hands along every detail of it daily.

This project is your outlet—one you have a need to pursue. It’s not just your passion, but your obsession. It’s the topic you cant wait to write about. It’s the craft that you can’t not work on. It’s the tiny business you can’t wait to experiment with everyday. It’s you banging your head against your computer screen—loving and hating every minute of it.

Your Creativity is a Catalyst

Making something small does not make it any less meaningful. Also, it doesn’t mean it is any less likely to grow. The more energy you put into your side project, the more personal and meaningful work you fill it with, the more likely it will transform into something unique and noteworthy that is packed with potent potential.

If you’ve been thinking about starting a creative business, but haven’t jumped in, then now is the time to do it—make that first small step toward creating your side project today, then be sure to keep it moving.

Graphic Credit: Lego designed by jon trillana from the Noun Project.