You need a side project

For more than a year, I’ve been spending a sizable chunk of my free time — hundreds of hours — as a web designer/developer for Doing that, while unpaid, has been a fantastic experience. Here’s five ways it’s changed my life, and why you might want to think about starting a side project for yourself.

1. Side projects can lead you to a new job was (and is) an online community of people who love to spend time visiting Lake Tahoe, most of whom are based in the Bay Area. Their old website was very spartan, and I signed on to completely overhaul it.

One of the main purposes of the group has been to coordinate ridesharing, which was done by individuals sending an email out to an entire Yahoo Group of 5,000 people. I knew there had to be a better way to coordinate rides, so when I started to redesign’s site, I researched existing options (as any good PM does). I figured, maybe there was some site out there that could let us embed a widget where our community could post and book rides. Turns out that didn’t exactly exist, but I discovered that the clear industry leader in the ride sharing space was a company called Zimride.

I not only checked out their site (which was impressive and pretty unique), but scheduled a call with one of their marketing/biz dev folks, Zac Matthews. I had a great time talking with Zac, and while there wasn’t any widget options, I learned a lot about Zimride and got a feel for the culture.

I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a good idea. A few months later, I spotted a post on Techcrunch about Ridejoy, a Zimride clone that sprung up out of Y Combinator and raised some money. Seeing the similarity, I posted a cheeky comment on the Techcrunch post, ribbing them for the similarity:

Not surprisingly, some Zimride folks read the comment as well, and a few hours later I had a Facebook message from John Zimmer, the COO and co-founder of Zimride:

With my then-employer, Ning, already announcing that it was headed toward an acquisition by an advertising company (an industry I wasn’t eager to work in), I took John up on his offer. I went in once, twice, three times and then a fourth, and was soon talking start dates. Ready for a change and excited about working in the transportation industry, I started at Zimride at the beginning of 2012.

Not to get too Sliding Doors on everyone, but it was clear that Snowpals lead me to Zimride. Without it, it’s unlikely I would have found my job at Zimride.

2. Side projects give you something to own and be proud of

When I first joined Snowpals and used it to find members for ski lease, it was in bad shape. There was no CSS or common design templates, and for users, it was a mess to navigate. While it functioned, it wasn’t a great experience.

However, there was no other place online to post a ski lease and find members, except for Craigslist. So I redesigned the entire site from scratch, coded the new design and built it on top of a CMS, so the Snowpals staff could add and update content without knowing HTML.

I’m extremely proud of what I built:

The new Snowpals site looks great (at least, I think so) and is easy to update. Because it’s something that I built from start to finish, I have a sense of a pride over the project like few other things I’ve worked on. I was there at the beginning, and I’m still there, even though it’s “done”.

I tell people about it, I show it off and I pointed to it frequently in my interviews at Zimride as an example of both the quality of my work and my level of commitment. Knowing that this was something I did on the side, outside of normal working hours, made it even better.

3. Side projects can help others.

Side projects don’t have to just be about you. They can be about others. It could be improving the landscaping on your block, coaching a little league team or helping a friend reach a goal. In my case, working on Snowpals was definitely about helping the community of people like me, skiers/snowboarders who go to Tahoe, have an easier time finding rides, deals, rentals and ski leases.

Rebuilding the Snowpals site has turned it into THE destination for ski leases or “ski shares” in Lake Tahoe. So not only have I made it easier for me to find members for my own ski lease, but I’ve made it much easier for anyone else who’s organizing a ski lease to find members.

It’s not curing cancer, but it’s making something I love (repeated snowboarding in Tahoe) much more attainable for Bay Area residents. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars to rent a hotel for a weekend, joining a ski lease promotes friendship and allows people to have “their own cabin, when they need it” in Tahoe for $500-1500.  And the feeling of knowing I’ve made it easier through my hard work has made the Snowpals project incredibly rewarding.

4. It teaches you new skills

I’m a product manager by trade. Being a designer and web developer for a decently large, CMS’d web site like Snowpals meant learning a hell of a lot of new stuff.

First up, I had to sharpen my design skills. Then, I had to do a ton of research on how to build exactly what we needed. Building the site itself was tough, but building in a concept of a section of “Ski Leases” (each with its own common attributes, like price and region) was pretty tough for a light web developer like myself.

I spent hours upon hours tinkering, researching and posting questions on the Web. I picked up a ton of new skills, from CSS to php to WordPress mastery. It came in handy in job interviews, and it’s kept my brain sharp for my day job. And the skills I sharpened working on Snowpals (information design, analytics analysis, etc.) come in handy daily at Zimride.

If you’re not feeling challenged at work, challenging your brain outside of work on a regular basis can really keep you sharp.

5. It could turn into something big.

Last but not least, side projects might just end up not being side projects. They might just take over your life.

I don’t forsee that happening with Snowpals, but it’s happened for a lot of people. Zimride itself started out as our co-founder Logan Green’s side project, and many companies have started the same way. It could lead you to a new friend, a new wife or maybe even a massive, multi-million dollar business like it did for Pete Cashmore, founder of Mashable.

You never know. And you won’t, unless you get out and try.

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