I have a confession to make. I'm a side project lover, I can't help it! I feel that I need to start working on at least one new idea every month.
Most of the time, I'll spend a few hours thinking about one idea - what it would look like, and who the customers or the beneficiaries would be. Then a couple of hours spent considering ways to monetize it. If it's a software idea, I may even go as far as drawing interfaces in my notebook, do some mockups on my computer, and start coding. Often, it won't get further than that. Either because I'll have to invest too much time in it (my priority is to work on my company), or because I simply lose interest in it.
For a long time, even though I kept doing it, I was considering this behavior as bad. Probably because of what people were saying. Their take on it was, that I was just wasting my time because I was not finishing these projects. It made me feel a bit guilty.
Until one day. I was at lunch when my phone rang.
It was a friend, working in a company that I'd been trying to convert into a customer for more than a year, calling to ask for my help to build a small web application that would be used by almost 200 people in his company. Nothing huge, but a great opportunity to establish a customer-provider relationship. We were pretty busy at the time, but I asked anyway,
"Would you give me a few days to design and code a prototype?"
By asking this question, I realised it was something I could now do, thanks to all the time spent learning web development and playing around with side projects. I had the expertise, and so I was able to build this tiny prototype in less than a week.
A few days later, he validated it and we signed our first contract with them - a huge reference for a young company like mine.
This is one simple, yet concrete example, of why side projects are so important to me. If I should stop to think about it, there are tons of other examples like that in my 13-year career. When I was a teenager, I wanted to create a hosting company, so I spent a lot of time installing servers (well, old desktop PC's), learning GNU/Linux and hosting software. I never had one single customer, but that's how I landed my first job at the age of 17.
So, what makes a side project worthwhile?
It's almost impossible to guess beforehand if a pet project is ever going to be relevant to your main line of business. As I stated, the one rule I strictly follow is to always know what's my priority. It's OK to have side projects, as long as they stay on the side.
That said, here are four questions to determine if it's just for leisure, or invested time.
Am I learning something?
Investing in yourself is important. Whether you're an entrepreneur or not, knowledge is your best asset.
Is there any connection with my main project?
Can you see a clear link between your priority and this project? A good hint could be whether the knowledge or skill you'll develop is one that you sub-contract for today. If the answer is yes, mastering it will increase your revenue by removing a third party.
Is it helping you recharge your batteries?
If the side project motivates you, or helps you to relax (I find it very good to focus on something different for a change), then you might have a winner.
Is it a (not so) clever way to procrastinate?
I know, I know. This one isn't so easy to answer sincerely, but you'd better be sure you're not using the side project to sidetrack you from your main project / company. I really encourage you to think about this.
A lot of famous and successful entrepreneurs are advocating extra focus on a startup, and I can only agree with that. Startups, and companies in general, do require all your attention.
This rant isn't in praise of unfinished projects. I am just defending the idea, that the time spent on thinking about new businesses, or ideas, is almost never wasted. You stimulate your brain to be creative, and you learn new skills. More often that not, you get fresh ideas for your main business. So don't feel guilty!