I encourage reading Mark’s Quill piece before reading my advice. He has had more success on side projects than I have, and provides excellent advice. My point here is to endorse and elaborate on Mark’s points.
I’ve been pursuing side projects for more than the past two decades. I didn’t get paid for them all and I can’t claim success in all of them. But I think they have boosted my career at least as much as the work I’ve done on my actual job responsibilities.
I’ll share some advice on pursuing side projects, but first, I’ll make four overall points about your real job, your life and the side projects:
- The primary job is your first work priority. You need to give your primary job responsibilities at least full-time attention. If side projects start causing you to shortchange your primary job, before a project is ready to support you and deserves full-time attention, that could harm your career more than your side projects help. I spent a week visiting Mark’s newsroom in Tacoma in 2007 and could see that he was tireless in his primary work and respected by his colleagues.
- The side project can be part of your primary job. As Mark notes in his piece, some of Google’s most successful projects started in the company’s requirement that employees spend 20 percent of their time developing ideas that aren’t part of their regular job. When the bosses are seeking volunteers for new projects, be eager to jump in. Or take the initiative by proposing something you can work on, either full-time as a short-term project or on the side for the longer term. The Des Moines Register hired me in 1998 and the Omaha World-Herald hired me in 2000 primarily for reporting positions. But in both cases, I negotiated to spend part of my time as a writing coach, a regular side project that eventually would propel me to a new full-time job.
- The side project can be completely separate. Let your bosses know what you’re doing and work out reasonable agreements about what you can or can’t do, what might be a conflict of interests and how much you can or can’t mix work with outside projects. An outside project or how you pursue it should never be a surprise to your boss.
- Family comes first. I like how Mark mentions working on side projects around family responsibilities and even involving his children in one. When our sons were home, I did most of my side-project work in the early morning, before they were awake. My side projects took off in our empty-nest years, and Mimi frequently comes along for travel related to my side projects, so the extra time I spend on them at home pays off with fun together (such as trips to Italy the past two years).
Now for some advice on pursuing and managing side projects:
Make daily progress
My side project from the early 1990s — a novel — was not a success, judging from the rejection letters I received from agents and publishers. It was never published and never will be. But I learned an important lesson in writing it: Daily progress pushes your project along.
If I had planned to write that book on weekends or occasional bursts of activity, I never would have finished. And when I tried to work on it in the evening, I was never getting around to it: dinner, kids’ activities, TV, end-of-the-workday collapse all pushed it aside.
I started making progress — and finished the first draft in six months — when I decided to wake up an hour early each day and write for a solid hour while the family was sleeping before hopping into the shower to get ready for work. The hour of progress that I made each morning propelled the project along (and the momentum from that daily progress pushed me to do more writing in evenings and weekends).
Mark also tells of writing his books, starting with Journalism 2.0, in the early-morning hours. He started writing two hours before it would be time to start waking up kids and getting ready for school and work.
Getting up an hour or two early might not be the key for your side project, or may not work (you might have to collaborate on your project with people who aren’t awake yet or interview sources working normal hours). But the point is important: Find a way to commit daily time and make daily progress on your side project.
I still do most of my work on my blog (more on that shortly) early in the morning before I turn to the responsibilities of my day job. I regard the novel as a huge, if unpublished, success because it taught me how to make daily progress on other projects. On the side projects that are part of my job, I try to make an hour or two of progress early in my workday, too.
Learn to promote yourself
Journalists tend not to be promoters. We tend to think our work should speak for itself. But your side projects might require some promotion. I encourage you to recognize the need to overcome your reticence and learn to speak up for yourself.
Promotion did not come easy to me, but my career as a journalism trainer never would have happened if I had not learned to promote my work, pushing past my personal tendencies and wishes every step of the way. I developed a flier (amateurish, I can see in retrospect, but it helped land my first few gigs and I got better), created a website, touted my services in conversations on a list-serv of newsroom trainers and published all my workshop handouts on the No Train, No Gain website, for which I volunteered to become content coordinator.
My willingness to learn promotional skills and take on something that didn’t feel natural propelled me from obscurity to prominence in newsroom training. I was learning and growing as a trainer and making good connections, but I couldn’t have moved to a full-time training position with the American Press Institute without doing the promotion as well.
Don’t undersell yourself
Pricing your services on a side project, such as consulting or freelance writing, can be a huge challenge. Your work has value, and you should charge clients in a way that reflects the value. But it takes a while to develop and learn the value, and to understand your market.
I started out charging $250 per day for writing and editing workshops in 1997 and ’98, probably less than my services were worth even starting out, but I needed to break into the market, get some experience and prove my value. I raised my rates steadily as I gained experience and prominence and was charging $1,000 a day (and getting more work than I got at $250 a day) by the time I joined API in 2005.
At API, our basic fee for a full-day on-site seminar for a news organization (usually on topics such as leadership, rather than writing and editing workshops, and often involving more trainers than just me) was $6,000. I worried about who would pay such high prices. But I found that I was able to line up plenty of clients by delivering strong programs, measuring the results and showing those results to clients. Meanwhile, I raised my rates for writing workshops on the side to $1,500, and the demand continued.
When we launched Newspaper Next, our president, Drew Davis, set the price for a one-day N2 seminar at $11,000 (or $18K for a two-day seminar). I was initially skeptical that we could book much business at those prices. But we had developed a good product that the newspaper business wanted, and an effective seminar to help organizations understand and use the product. I was able to book several dozen seminars for news organizations. The demand was stiff enough that Steve Gray, the full-time leader of N2, couldn’t handle all our bookings, and Elaine Clisham and I had to handle several seminars.
(On the other hand, after a busy 2007 presenting the seminars, demand waned and we could no longer continue booking at that cost and that rate.)
You can’t charge more for your services than the market will pay. But don’t undersell the value of your services. Test the market and adjust as you need to. But don’t apologize for charging for the value you deliver.
Understand the value of free
While I was learning to price my services, I also learned the value of generosity. When I was publishing all my workshop handouts on No Train, No Gain, clients occasionally would ask me how I could afford to give that work away. My response was that I couldn’t afford not to give it away.
I could have put all those handouts into a book and charged for it, and probably wouldn’t have made enough to cover my costs of publishing the book. And my book would have become outdated the next month when I developed a new workshop. Giving the materials away built my reputation and promoted my paid services much better than advertising in an industry magazine or website would have.
At the same time that we were charging $11K for a full-day seminar for newspaper companies, API sent me to dozens of press association conferences for just $100 plus expenses, to present a one-hour Newspaper Next overview. We were essentially giving away a glimpse of the program (and the full N2 report was available free). But those nearly-free promotional appearances resulted in most of those five-figure paid gigs.
I charge my full fee for most of my workshops and appearances, but I occasionally waive (or discount) my fees for nonprofit groups. I may do it for the promotional value or just to contribute to an organization I want to support. I’ve never regretted generosity, and I’m convinced that the services I have “given away” have helped my market value and my income.
Develop a distinctive voice
I have never been paid a nickel for this blog. But it may be the best — and best-paying — side project I’ve ever done.
I started blogging when I was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald more than a decade ago, and continued blogging at API, then launched this blog in 2008 as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and have maintained it through three more jobs since then. Through that time, I was never hired to be a blogger and it was never my primary job. It was either a side project of my primary job or a side project outside the primary job.
This side project gave me a voice in discussions about where the news business was heading and how journalists needed to pursue the future. I used the voice in social media as well, and in guest pieces for several journalism magazines, reports, books and websites (each guest piece being a mini-side project in itself).
That voice I developed in the blog and other side projects propelled my career (including some nice pay raises) beyond what I could have achieved just from my primary jobs.
Chemotherapy is my side project for the first half of 2015, so I have canceled speaking engagements and am curtailing other side projects. I will continue this blog (and worked on this post in the hospital), but blogging might also be sporadic.
What’s your advice?
I welcome you to share your experience with side projects as well, either in the comments here or in a guest post (email me at stephenbuttry at gmail dot com). What projects have you undertaken? How did they boost your career? What did you learn from your successes and mistakes?