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Home > Publications > Quill > New Year, New You: Master the Art of the Side Project



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Tuesday, December 9, 2014
New Year, New You: Master the Art of the Side Project

By Mark Briggs

My name is Mark Briggs, and I’m addicted to side projects.

I’m not aware of any 12-step programs to help individuals deal with such addictions. And, really, there’s no need. Anyone with a similar affliction can tell you, the benefits of side projects far outweigh the costs.

I remember one particular morning in 2006, the alarm sounded at 5 a.m. I grabbed coffee and headed downstairs to my computer knowing I had two hours of uninterrupted time to focus. At 7 a.m. it would be time to wake the kids and get them ready for preschool and kindergarten while simultaneously getting myself ready for work. I opened a blank Word document and thought to myself: "How in the world do you write a book?”

Weeks earlier I had signed a contract with Jan Schaffer of J-Lab to write a guidebook for online journalism that would become Journalism 2.0. I had no idea at the time that, thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation, the free PDF version of the book would be downloaded more than 200,000 times and translated into five languages.

But that’s the thing about side projects: You never know where they will go. For some people, there is something exciting, even beautiful, about that uncertainty. For others, it’s another reason to never start a side project (in addition to lack of time, lack of subject matter expertise, lack of funding, etc.).

Fast forward to 2013 on a hot August morning in Las Vegas. The alarm sounds early as usual, this time so I can go running outside when it’s still “cool” (in the low 90s). After I shower, it’s time to polish my pitch. My latest side project had been selected as part of the South by Southwest V2 Venture conference, and I would have five minutes to explain to a panel of judges and an audience of investors how a smartphone app for food photography called Fork would propel a high-growth company.

Yes, the alarm still sounds early most mornings. My kids are now in junior high. I spend some mornings writing, but more often I’m working on Fork (website: GetFork.com). Of all my side projects, it’s probably my favorite. Partly because it was inspired by my daughter (that story in a bit) and, mostly, because it’s the furthest afield of my area of expertise, meaning it’s the one that has taught me the most.

POWER OF THE SIDE

The power of side projects has been well documented in the tech startup community. Google valued side project work so highly that the company instituted “20 percent time” years ago, mandating that employees spend at least 20 percent of their work time pursuing and developing ideas not related to their primary functions. Google News, Gmail and AdSense, the advertising platform now producing roughly a quarter of Google’s revenue, all came to life as a result of 20 percent time.

“The things people are enthusiastic about and the things they work on every day sometimes differ, to put it mildly,” Ryan Tate wrote in "The 20% Doctrine, How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business.”

“Twenty-percent-style projects are a way to let employees work on projects they find emotionally resonant," he wrote. “Not only is this good for morale, it’s good for the resulting projects as well.”

Like most people in journalism, I have never worked for a company like Google, or Facebook, LinkedIn or any other legendary Silicon Valley tech titan where this culture is commonplace. Permission, not 20 percent of my paid time at work, is what I have needed from my bosses. Permission to explore passions, test ideas, create new things. Permission to make stuff.

My collection of side projects includes writing, teaching, organizing events, serving on nonprofit boards, launching a startup company and developing a smartphone app for food photography. And that doesn’t include the one-offs, like public speaking, consulting and organizing events.

TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL PURSUIT OF SIDE PROJECTS

SET YOUR ALARM

Are you a morning person? Neither was I. But it didn’t take long to form a habit of rising early to be productive once I realized it was the best time — for me, anyway — to be focused and productive.

TURN OFF YOUR TV

How many hours of TV do you watch each week? How many of those hours could be allocated to a side project? Even if you’re only willing to give up one hour of TV time per week to a side project, you could spend 50 hours on a project this year. But think bigger: Could you give up one hour a day?

START SMALL

Creating space in your life for side projects should be done in stages. Try waking up just 30 minutes earlier three days a week. Or give up one TV show. Give yourself the sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving a small goal and it will make you want to do it again. And again.

FOLLOW YOUR CURIOSITY

Journalism is, at its core, a profession of curiosity. Tap into that innate quality to find something you’re passionate about and start exploring it. Learn as much as you can. Then look for opportunities to contribute by creating.

DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE ROI

Side projects rarely pay well. And money is not the reason to do them. Remember that when you start and then be surprised by all the collateral benefits. Writing journalism textbooks, for example, hasn’t made me rich, but I’ve traveled to places like China, Holland, Denmark, Portugal, Dubai, Azerbaijan and even Maui to speak at conferences based on my work on those books. I had no idea, nor any expectation, any of that would happen when I started.

I think of my stint as adjunct professor at Seattle University as my first professional side project, which I did from 2002 to 2006. Teaching a 300-level course on graphic communication made sense for someone managing newspaper web sites. As did writing a book about online journalism, which I did in 2006 while spending my days as the assistant manager editor for interactive news at The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.

Soon after, I pitched an idea at work for an interactive mapping platform that a friend and I had conceived “on the back of a napkin” at a bar. (Where all good ideas begin, right?) There wasn’t much interest in developing it at the newspaper, so I started working with some friends, and we built a software product we named Newsgarden. In 2008, I quit my job at the newspaper to launch a company called Serra Media and work on Newsgarden full-time.

Shortly thereafter, CQ Press invited me to write a new version of Journalism 2.0 for use as a college textbook. Suddenly I found myself carving time out of my startup company — which began as a side project — to dedicate time to a new side project. “Journalism Next" was published in 2009.

Serra Media wound down in 2010 (it turns out 2008 was a really bad year to launch a company), and I signed on to become the director of digital media at KING, the NBC affiliate in Seattle. At the same time I accepted an offer to serve as a Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism at The Poynter Institute, thanks largely to the work I had done on my third book, “Entrepreneurial Journalism.” I still remember those conversations with my boss at KING, Ray Heacox, and Bill Mitchell at Poynter, negotiating the acceptance of both positions at the same time (while battling the internal voice that kept telling me “This is crazy!”).

Looking back, it’s clear: I would not have been qualified — or considered — for either position if it weren’t for my side projects.

I made having a side project an essential part of my employment at KING. As a former tech entrepreneur himself, my boss understood the benefits of side projects and has honored that commitment for the past four and a half years.

The connections I made and the ideas I worked on in the two years I served as a fellow at Poynter helped my job at KING. And my work at KING directly influenced the entrepreneurs I helped at Poynter. Several of them were developing products and services they hoped to market to news companies, so having someone like me, who evaluates such opportunities on a regular basis for KING, was invaluable. I could help them understand the market, the competitive landscape, pricing and a host of other issues facing a startup company since I’ve been on both sides of the equation. (One of the startups we were advising, Localocracy, was acquired by The Huffington Post.)

I went from advising entrepreneurs on their ideas to developing another one of my own as Fork became my primary side project following the Poynter fellowship. The original inspiration came from my daughter, Ellie, who was 9 at the time. I’m a single dad, and she and my son, Sam, call my house “Dad’s Steakhouse” because, apparently, I used to make a lot of steak.

One night she created a restaurant “sign” out of a Post-It Note and put it on the wall behind where we eat dinner. Then she added a new note for every dinner I served that week and a column for her and her brother, where they added their comments about what I’d made each night. So after a few days I had a wall full of Post-It Notes with information and ideas about what to make for dinner — and what my kids liked. I thought, “I wish I had that on my iPhone.”

I approached some friends — including Lauren Rabaino, who was at The Seattle Times then and is now at Vox — and we started working on it. We spent a year, working nights and weekends, honing the concept of the app, defining the product vision, building the code and design and brainstorming business models.

The Fork app hit the iTunes Store in August 2013, and we held a launch party the following month. We watched the user base grow following positive reviews on a handful of sites, including USAToday.com, and I began meeting with investors about funding our vision.

NO REGRETS

We still haven’t found a way to grow the app into a company, so it remains a side project. I have poured countless hours into it, and a chunk of my own money, and have absolutely no regrets. Building an app from scratch into the source of a passionate community, however small, is rewarding and fulfilling in a way that salary, titles and promotions will never be. People have told us they are eating better food at home because of Fork. People who eat better are usually happier and healthier, and that makes it all worthwhile.

Another benefit was seeing the look of pride on my kids’ faces when they first saw their dad’s app in the iTunes store. Priceless. Even if Fork doesn’t go anywhere from here, the lesson I was able to teach my kids about taking an idea and turning it into something real has power that I would never have been able to buy in any store or from any service.

Did it help me professionally? Absolutely. My understanding of the mobile app ecosystem, critical to my day job, grew exponentially during my work on Fork. I also know a lot more about marketing mobile apps, managing a user community and even organizing live events — all thanks to Fork. (For the one-year anniversary of our launch we hosted The Big Melt, a grilled cheese festival, that drew more than 400 people.) These are all areas I’m currently working on in my day job at KING.

The collateral benefits of starting and maintaining a side project span a wide spectrum of personal and professional growth. Having a side project can make an employee more creative and more efficient in their day job. Side projects expose people to new tools, new software, new people, new ideas and new opportunities.

“If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” It’s such an accurate aphorism. People with side projects are undeniably busy people, but they are also the people most likely to get stuff done. You have to be efficient with your time, be productive with your actions and believe in the power of doing a side project, not for its outcomes, but for your own personal and professional growth.

In the end, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.

Mark Briggs is director of digital media for KING-TV in Seattle and author of three books on digital and entrepreneurial journalism. Contact him at mark@journalism20.com. On Twitter: @markbriggs

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