side projects

I’ve been a long-time sucker for side projects, even before side projects became sexy.

Since launching my marketing consulting business in 2008, I have been involved in seven side projects:

The Canadian Blog Directory: I thought that creating a place where people could discover Canadian blogs would be a huge hit. Technorati was modestly successful in the U.S. so I figured a north of the border version would resonate. Sadly, I was wrong.

Good Wine Cheap: Even though the LCBO has a stranglehold on wine sales in Ontario, my partner, Jason Nykor and I, figured that selling and delivering reasonably priced wine would work with people seeking convenience and value. We did sell several cases but eventually shut it down. At the end day, there wasn’t enough interest or demand.

Hot Startups: Another attempt at a directory. With a friend, Mike Fox, we compiled a list of the “hottest” startups in Ontario. The problem was keeping the list up-to-date was difficult given the strong growth of Ontario’s startup ecosystem. The upside: it was a good brand building exercise.

Bang & Crash: A friend, Brian Teeney, created his own recipe to treat the aches and pain from playing hockey. The product, an all-natural anti-inflammatory, works well – at least we think so. It continues to sell but needs a big sales and marketing push to build momentum, as well as some Amazon.com expertise.

Storytelling for Startups: Everyone seemed to be writing books so I took the plunge. The book did well from a sales perspective. Even better, it was a terrific way to build my brand and differentiate myself from other consultants. I’m working on a second edition.

Hockey swag: Jason Nykor, who vows that we’ll do side projects until we hit it big, and I have sold hats, sweatshirts, jackets, and toques to the guys in our local beer hockey league. This year, we finally turned a profit!

Catalyst: Another itch I needed to scratch. When you’re surfing the Web and come across an interesting article, video or service that you want to share with someone, Catalyst lets you do it without cutting the pasting the link into an email. I’m still hoping Catalyst will be discovered, receive amazing reviews, and become wildly popular.

Story Spark: An online video course that I recently launched. Of all my side projects, it has the biggest potential for success. So far, there has been a lot of interest in a free mini-course, and I’m seeing sales of two paid courses. The big lesson: the easy part is creating the courses; it’s way more work to market and sell them.

Here are some of the key lessons that I have learned along the way about side projects:

Create a product or service that solves a problem or meets a need. Catalyst, for example, is a neat utility but I’m not sure enough people are cutting and pasting links into emails. The same applied to Good Wine Cheap. The LCBO has locations everywhere, as well as a huge variety of wines. When you’re competing against Goliath, you can’t be a nice-to-have service.

Do your research: For many entrepreneurs, enthusiasm and optimism often trump logic. Many of my side projects were spontaneous adventures. They seemed like good ideas but maybe it would have been better to think things through before jumping in. That said, spur of the moment decisions (e.g. getting married, buying a house) have worked well over the years.

Be committed: Side projects requires a healthy investment of time or money. Success is difficult when a side project sits on the sidelines while you’re focused on the other parts of your life – work, your partner, children, friends, hobbies. I think some of my side projects would have done better with more TLC.

Decide whether it’s a hobby or a business opportunity: If I had to be honest, most of my side projects are hobbies. They’re something I do with friends. It’s an excuse to get together, have a few drinks and dream about hitting it big. That’s fine if you’re content with, at best, modest success. If you’re serious about creating a business, it requires a different mindset. You need to determined, resolute and willing to go all in.

Have a sales and marketing plan: In many cases, side projects scratch an itch. You’re really happy to launch them. In fact, I’d suggest having them go live is a success for many people. But a launch is just the beginning. You need a plan to market and sell your product. It needs to be more than a wing and a prayer or hoping it you build it, they will come.

Be patient: As entrepreneurs, we expect side projects to be embraced right away. After all, we’re so enthusiastic about them that everyone should be as well. But in most cases, immediate success is elusive. Even if it’s a good idea or product, it takes time for people to know your side project exists. And even then, you need a lot of awareness to gain significant traction.

What have you learned from doing side projects? For projects that have been successful, what have been the keys ingredients? Leave me a comment as you never know when my next side project will materialize!

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