Some organisations, or perhaps just individual managers may frown upon the idea of their full time, salaried employees working on side projects outside of the office. For some, it might be hard to imagine a scenario where an employee doesn’t always feel fully satiated by everything that their existing role provides them, but for many – including myself, side projects have provided me with a constant learning and development opportunity, which in turn has increased my value to any current or future employer.

Since we’re on my personal blog, I’d like to share a personal viewpoint on how side projects have benefitted my career and also my employers over the years.

There is a lot of benefits to allowing or encouraging side projects

1. It helps aid employee retention

I work for a really great company, but it just so happens that the company has 100,000 employees, which unfortunately can create situations where my role, and the opportunities available to me, do not fully satisfy the things I am interested in doing in a professional capacity.

My ability to work on fulfilling projects away from my ‘day job’ basically helps to satisfy my interests, and keep developing my skills, without my need to consider a full-time career change. As a result, the company retains me, and I keep developing skills that are in turn able to benefit my employer in some capacity [now or in the future].

2. Develops all kinds of skills

The choice of side project will determine the skills you develop. I always think about skills in terms of hard & soft. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, here are some basic examples of the two types:

Hard Skills Soft Skills
Using Photoshop Stakeholder management
Coding in Python Negotiation
SEO Work Ethic
Google Ads Time Management

Hard skills refer to your expertise in a specific area or tool. For example, being an expert in leveraging Photoshop to complete certain graphic-based assignments would reflect a hard skill.

Hard skills are best mixed with a healthy set of relevant soft skills. For example, a great designer who leverages Photoshop can be drastically more rounded if they also have great time management and work ethic. It will mean their work is both ‘excellent’ and ‘on time’.

From my own personal perspective, I would say that independent side projects are critical for the development and maintenance of ‘hard skills’ over time. I find that working in larger organisations, you typically have limited role scope, which can blunt your ability to develop new hard skills or even maintain those that you had.

On the flip side though, large organisations really push forward the need to develop soft skills, so when you combine the two, it can be a really strong combination.

3. Reduce the cost of L&D without actually losing L&D

A lot of companies spend a fortune on learning & development platforms, courses and so forth. For me personally, I don’t leverage any of the funding available, because I perform my L&D through the side projects that I undertake. I develop in a way that works best for how I like to learn, and the organisation doesn’t have to foot the bill of sending me on courses or to paid events. It won’t work for everyone – some of us really do enjoy the more traditional platforms and classroom settings.

You might have seen this quote flying around LinkedIn 5 million times or so:

CFO asks CEO: What happens if we invest in developing our people and they leave?

CEO says to CFO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

Well, in my case – they don’t have to invest – because I am investing in myself. That is the value of working on side projects.

It’s important of course to respect your full-time employer

I’m pretty sure a lot of employers or managers worry about conflicts of interest, or your ability to appropriately prioritise your time when you’re running additional side projects. These are fair concerns to a degree, but not if you follow two simple rules:

  1. Thou shalt not engage in any work that could be deemed as a conflict of interest.
  2. Thou shalt not engage in any work that could impact the level of attention and output expected of the full-time employer.

In other words, you must maintain a good moral compass that directs you on what is right & wrong. If you think there might be the slightest conflict of interest, don’t do it. If your full-time role is suffering as a direct result of engaging in work away from the office, find a way to resolve it, or stop the side project.

My personal story of side projects in my career

My own career started in 2008 when I joined a great company called Premier Farnell [Now Farnell, an Avnet company] in Leeds, UK. The company distributed around 450,000 electronic component SKUs globally, and at the time of joining, they were doing maybe 20-30% of their revenue via online channels.

I was hired as an eCommerce assistant, supporting the European markets whilst completing my university studies. My manager often joked that the only reasons he hired me were:

  1. Because he thought my email address would be funny ‘brush@premierfarnell.com’
  2. The other guy kept wiping his nose on his dads suit sleeve during the interview.
  3. There was only me, and that other guy.

By any description, I would define it as a pretty old-fashioned company. Every year they’d publish these huge paper catalogues and distribute them around the world to existing and prospective customers. The customers would then call-up or fax in their orders.

I joined at a time when digital transformation was only just starting to happen. In the 6 years I remained at the company, we stopped publishing paper catalogues almost entirely, and we moved 70% of our revenue to eCommerce. This type of situation, for someone like me, was ‘right time, right place’ – but I still had to work hard to develop the skills that would provide me with an accelerated career path in the company.

As I was getting my feet under the desk in the first few weeks, I quickly became interested in search engine marketing and the opportunities that it could provide in terms of paid and organic search. I didn’t really know anything about either, but it seemed logical to me that appearing on keywords that people are searching for, would, in turn, provide a great source of relevant visits to the website.

There was nobody in-house who knew anything about search engine marketing, so it was all on me to make something happen there.

There was plenty of information online about digital marketing [although less so back then] but it’s one thing reading about it, and a totally different thing DOING IT and making others believe that you know what you’re talking about.

So this was what fed my initial hunger for side projects in my early career, I tried a bunch of stuff:

  • Buying domain names, setting-up the web hosting, installing and customising WordPress, researching keyword opportunities on Google, and producing endless articles with the goal of trying to get them ranking in Google.
  • I played around with affiliate marketing, building and funding my own Google ad campaigns and seeing if I could drive a positive ROI.
  • At one point I set-up a little consulting business called ‘ClickITSEO’ just to see if I could rank on competitive keywords like ‘SEO Leeds’ and generate inquiries for my ‘SEO Services’. [can’t believe a new person is squatting on the domain: clickitseo.co.uk].
  • I even started to pick up some small-time consulting work, my first paying client was an Underfloor Heating company based in Doncaster of all places. They seem to be still going strong!
  • An ex-colleague on Twitter reminded me that I also set-up an online football management game [https://worldelitesoccer.com] which still has a small, but very active community of managers.

All of these little projects allowed me to develop and broaden my skills in the areas I needed to push my career forward. I joined the company in 2008 with no experience in search engine marketing, and by 2010 [aged 25] I was running the organisations entire search engine marketing team for Europe, North America, and Asia Pacific. This ‘kid’ who joined on a 1-year student placement ended up running the biggest single acquisition channel for a company with annual revenue exceeding $1bn.

And whilst I was given tons of support and trust by some great mentors, managers, and team members, the valuable part I brought to the table was the ‘hard skills’. It was my technical knowledge in running Google Ad campaigns and optimising a website and content for SEO that gave me the edge. These elements were, to a very large extent, the direct result of my learning and development through side projects.

Since these early days, I have definitely matured in my approach to side projects. I now have a successful digital consulting business helping SMEs get more from digital channels, and I recently set-up a brand new business called FrameIT, that allows people to order custom picture frames online. These side projects are legitimate, money-making operations that have continued to present me with ongoing learning and development opportunities. I will just keep doing more…..because I can’t sit still.

Side projects for the win!

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