Side projects are like children

It all starts with that special spark, that glimmer of hope. You have an idea! But you have enough to focus on already, and you’ve been down this road before, so you put it on your list of ideas and get back to work. Things are OK for awhile, but that damn idea just won’t stop pestering you. Someone raises millions for something similar (but obviously inferior). A friend bitches about a problem for which your solution would be perfect. You try to ignore it, but the more you think, the more obvious it is: your new idea is brilliant. In fact, it’s probably the last great idea you’ll ever have. What if you miss this chance at greatness? Finally, you crumble, and before you know it, you’ve mapped out your data model and registered a domain name. It happens so fast, you almost don’t realize what you’re doing before it’s over.

This is how side projects are born. But how do you get rid of them? If you’re lucky, they just fade away as soon as you realize they’re going nowhere. If you’re really lucky, they turn into full-time projects and you make tons of money. But if they’re like most projects, they don’t go big and they don’t just die. Instead they get a little traction and a few users, maybe even bring in some money. It’s exciting at first, but it eventually gets to be a bit of a burden. Sure, you learn a lot. You probably also have fun along the way. But these zombie projects take a psychological toll over time, because they’re never really finished or dead. And there’s always that little bit of hope in the back of your mind that if you just did x, y, and z, they could be still be big. Maybe they could, but sometimes we should be honest with ourselves and kill things off. Obviously, working hard to build something slowly over time can be amazing, but it’s unlikely to happen with more than one or two projects at a time. Success is hard enough with focus, and having the distraction of a dozen little projects bouncing around in your mind definitely slows you down.

So the next time you’re in a bar and someone gives you that special look, or you’re in the shower and you have that “aha” moment, think for a minute about the potential consequences of what you do next, and how you’ll handle them. Children and side projects can both be sources of tremendous joy, but they’re much easier to start than to finish.

PS – While I think we should kill off side projects we’re no longer pursuing, that’s where the “side project / child” metaphor breaks down. In no way am I advocating filicide.