Airbnb, which is now valued at over $25 billion, started as a side project so the founders could pay their rent.
Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, the founders of Airbnb, posted photos of their apartment online one weekend and sold three people on the simple idea of spending a night on an air mattress with breakfast in the morning for $80.
Many startups often start as side projects just like Airbnb.
A side project is a fantastic opportunity to experiment with an idea and to discover a team you love to work with.
This isn’t an original thought.
Paul Graham, founder of the startup accelerator Y Combinator, says,
Don't force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.
That’s all a side project is: working on something you like with people you like.
It just happens to be something you do outside of your full-time job.
How To Start A Side Project
To start a side project, all you need to do is pick an idea and ideally find at least one other person to work on it with.
That's all there is to it.
Starting a side project is easy, but finding the time to consistently work on a side project is a major commitment.
This consistent grind is how side projects can become startups, and eventually, big companies.
While it's damn hard, making time to work on a side project is possible, and I'll share the tactics I've used to make it happen.
I think about “making time” by thinking about what has to happen each day.
A day has 24 hours. Sleep is necessary.
On weekdays, my job requires I work eight to 10 hours.
The nice thing about this problem is you can figure out almost exactly how much time you can dedicate each weekday to working on a side project.
For me, I took 24 hours and subtracted the eight hours I try to sleep each night, as well as the roughly 10 hours I spend at work, including things like eating lunch and transit.
That leaves me six hours each weekday for everything else.
Now I can "make" more time by playing with the different variables.
I can't increase the number of hours in a day, and I can't work less on my full-time job in short of going part-time or quitting.
This leaves sleep as the only thing I can reduce to "make" more time in a weekday.
I tried sleeping less and went down a rabbit hole of trying to optimize sleep.
I've found that sleeping in 90-minute chunks works best for me, so I usually aim for seven and a half hours of sleep, with the occasional six-hour night when necessary.
Now that you have free time that’s ready to be allocated, you need to determine what you’ll be doing during those hours.
To get things done on a side project, you need to guard your free time and make sure that each chunk of time you allocate to something other than your side project is absolutely necessary.
This leads to a much harder step toward making time to work on a side project, which is pruning other commitments.
I've found that it is impossible to do all of the things I want to do in a day or week.
At first I tried to do it all, but this resulted in elevated stress levels that bled into my personal and professional life.
I wasn't making substantial progress on my side project.
Something had to give.
I was dedicated to pursuing my side project, so I started saying no to things that fell outside of that.
"Want to go to a concert tonight?"
"Are you coming to the office-wide happy hour after work?"
I sound like a fun guy, huh?
This sucks, especially as someone who loves interacting with people.
Even worse, it doesn't stop sucking. But if you care enough about what you're working on and who you're working with, it's absolutely worth it.
While I just advocated for saying no, it's important that you have one or two commitments in your life other than working full time or working on your side project.
These should be things that are most important to you, like spending time with someone you're in a relationship with, playing a sport, playing an instrument, exercising or cooking.
The thing that differentiates these activities is that they are conscious decisions you’re making proactively, not reactively.
Everything else, though, should default to no.
You can make exceptions, but do so sparingly to keep yourself on track.
On a typical weekday, I have roughly four hours to allocate to my side project after subtracting out time from other commitments.
I don't always get four solid hours of work in, but I have four hours that I know I can allocate to working.
How To Make The Most Of Your Time
So now that you've carved out time to work on a side project, how can you make the most of it?
I'm a huge advocate and proponent of timeboxing, which is mapping out your entire day into chunks of time dedicated to specific tasks.
Cal Newport has an excellent article on Study Hacks Blog that details how to timebox effectively.
This is a great tactic for all of your working hours, but you can try to use it just for your side project as you get going.
Allocating your time accurately takes practice.
I overestimated how much I could get done in one day when I first started doing timeboxing, and I still suffer from this on occasion.
But it has been massively better than having a general idea of what I was going to accomplish on my side project each day.
Timeboxing for my side project has been crucial to both understand how much time I have, and to help motivate me to get things done.
These tactics have helped me balance work, life and a side project.
I hope they get you thinking about how to be more effective as you take on a side project.
Though this entire post is about side projects, I believe the best way to start a startup is to be working full time on a problem with a team you love working with.
This isn’t always feasible, so a side project is a fantastic way to build toward a startup while working full time at another job.