We've already talked about the value of toys for both marketing and motivation. And if toys are our playground — our outlet for exploration — then our side gig is undoubtedly our (not so) super secret science laboratory. As entrepreneurs and creators, often we know what we should be doing in terms of experimentation, but sometimes it's difficult to execute experimentally (especially if that work may impact a client). This is where your toys and your side gigs really have an opportunity to shine.
The beauty of these, usually smaller, endeavors is that they can be beat up, kicked around, updated at a moment's notice, and generally burned to the ground (only to rise from the ashes, of course) all in the name of trying things. Side gigs afford us the opportunity to learn new coding frameworks, try out new design patterns, experiment with product enhancements, and test the conversion funnel in an environment where the only people who feel any negative repercussions are ourselves (well, and our users). Essentially, these projects offer an opportunity to Fail Beautifully in a worry-free environment.
For the last six months or so, my side gig has afforded me an opportunity to combine my interest in vehicle-supported camping (aka "overlanding") with the creation of physical-meets-digital products and no-code tools to create an e-commerce experience with a funnel driven primarily by social content. Put simply, I design cargo/sleeping platforms that fit in the back of popular SUV's and then sell the DIY build plans as digital downloads on a squarespace commerce site to which I drive traffic via facebook and instagram.
At face value, this might sound like a bit of a "shrug" when compared to the complex applications, systems, and digital products that we design and build at Apollo 21. There's little difficulty from a software engineering perspective because I'm using purely no-code tools to pull everything together. However, the exercise of designing a platform plan for a new vehicle and writing up the DIY manual is an utter masterclass in UX design, and a creative outlet in and of itself. And the market validation efforts and funnel conversion metrics function in the same manner that they would for many other efforts.
Perhaps more importantly, at the same time that I'm learning how to build the Apollo 21 business, I'm experimenting with how to build and grow the business around GX Basecamp. Let's be clear, I'm not raking it in by selling DIY platform plans for a few camping vehicles. But if the best way to learn is by doing, this nights-and-weekends effort embodies a learn-by-doing approach while air-gapping that learning process from the most important business focus in my life (Apollo 21). It provides me a reason to explore tools that might benefit our clients and to understand social and advertising ecosystems in relation to customer acquisition and conversion.
Obviously, not all of the problems and learning experiences cross over between the two. But I know that I can use GX Basecamp as a worry-free testing zone. That's the point. If GX Basecamp blows up tomorrow or if the site goes down for a few hours because I made a stupid mistake, that's ok. It's better that my side gig/playground bites the dust than anything related to Apollo 21. But when I find something that works, I have the freedom to adapt that success to the needs of Apollo 21 and our clients.
Other folks on our team follow this pattern as well. For example, one of our lead engineers has created a mobile app that helps fans of alternative healing keep track of the crystals and essential oils in their collection, their primary uses, how to care for them, and where to shop for more. He became aware of the need by learning about a friend's interest in the space and decided to use it as an opportunity to explore Flutter as an alternative to React Native for quickly creating dual-platform mobile applications. The resulting application, Cure Crystals, has given him a means to explore mapping API's, revenue-driving features, and conversion tactics — all of which will carry over to his other projects and inform our decision-making about how we build mobile applications in the future.
If you haven't already, find your own science lab. Not sure where to begin? Start with something you're interested in and then create a project that lives adjacent to that interest. By starting with something you're personally interested in, you'll help to ensure that you don't lose momentum on the side project. Use your effort as an excuse to create a brand, drive traffic, meet people, and experiment with new tools. Your "main gig" will benefit from your efforts on your "side gig" (as long as you don't let the side gig eclipse your primary focus), and you'll instill in yourself a learn-by-doing mentality that will serve you well.
This side gig as science experiment approach is also highly reminiscent of lean startup methodology. If you haven't already, read The $100 Startup which deals heavily in the notion of side-gig-as-startup-opportunity. In fact, this book has come to mind for me often because one of their key examples is an e-book which is, in essence, the same thing as a digital build manual like those that I sell.
You may Fail Beautifully along the way, but that too is part of the learning process. If at first you don't succeed...