Freelancing

Why freelancers should have side projects

Freelancing is great. It really is. The people you meet, the work you do and the money you earn, doing what you love. What about when it isn’t? Freelancing is hard work.

The work you love to do becomes work you tolerate because it pays the bills, creativity is thrown out the window because the client doesn’t have the budget for anything but safe, or when scope-creep keep you up all night coding. You’re depressed, anxious and fearful. Every time you check your email you hold you breath, bracing for the bad news your inbox might contain. You’re burnt out. Freelancing is bloody hard work.

My name is Stewart Ritchie. I am a freelance web design and developer. This a story of burnout, depression, anxiety and rest. Over the last few months I have come to a realisation about myself, creativity and freelancing. This post is the first in a short series on freelancing and why freelancers should have side projects. Looking through the process of how I used a lull in client work to launch a side project (The PressList) and how you can and probably should do the same (but don’t copy my idea, okay!).

“Side Projects are your playground”

– Lee Munroe

Have Fun & Experiment

Ever wanted to build something, just for the sake of it? Did you do it? Why not? Didn’t you get into freelancing to do what you love? Maybe “for the fun of it” isn’t a great reason for you, Don’t worry – a lot of people out there feel the same. How about to try something new? Maybe you’ve been dying to try some flat design but the style guide where you work or your clients don’t like that style? Go do it your self! – http://www.flatguitars.com/.

Maybe you want to experiment with a new technology or learn something new? When I started The PressList part of my goals where to learn more about MailChimp, WordPress Plugin Development and the WordPress community. How about doing a small project using Sass or CoffeeScript? If you like it then use it on your next client project and probably do the job faster. Side projects are where we learn, where we grow, where we develop, where as creative we find our passion and keep the spark that drives us alive.

Make some cash

I appreciate as freelancers our time is precious. We have a very direct relationship with the hours of work we do and our earnings at the end. With a great side project you stand to earn some more on the side. Who says these things have to be free? Ever fancied making a WordPress Theme? Sell it on theme forest! Icon set – sell it your self! Maybe, if you’re brave, make a new web service or app (niice.co, sidebar.io). Maybe it’s just me but the appeal of having money that isn’t tied to the whims of a particular client is very, very attractive but the opportunity cost of making it great is pretty scary.

Exposure

“Side projects are the new resume”

Ximena Vengoechea

When I started freelancing one of the things I heard over and over again was “only take on projects you ‘like’ and never do a project you don’t believe in”, well, That’s fine for Merlin. What about me? I have bills to pay and need the cash, I’m not exactly beating of requests for work with a stick. “Only take on projects you like” is great advice, it’ll make you a happier person but the problem is your portfolio is full of projects you don’t like and now that’s what perspective clients see and hire you for. A good side project will fill your portfolio with work you LOVE and allow clients to hire you for the right kind of work, work you love. What’s even better? A good side project can drive massive exposure to your blog or portfolio. Check out the .net awards best side project category.

Combating burnout

Sometimes you just need a change. On a personal level I burned out really badly recently. I admit it was my fault, I was working long hard hours or projects I didn’t believe in and then some bad news finished me off. I was done and I couldn’t do any more. I needed to take some time and find out what I like to do again without the demands of clients or pleasing anyone but myself. I’m still not back to full enthusiasm for freelancing but I am getting there, taking on small jobs for friends and better clients of old but in the mean time Presslist is giving me a reason to get out of bed. I’m finding what I like again.

Making the decision

Do side project or not? I’m obviously biased that you should but there is a downside as well. There are only so many hours in the day and everything you say yes to is a demand on you time and attention.

“When you say yes to one thing you may have to say no to one hundred others”

– Merlin Mann.

What should you do then? Like all creative decisions have a process in place that will help you decided and if it’s a substantial sized project or something you hope you make money on then always validate the idea (both subjects we will over in the future). Look at what you could make money doing, what would scratch an itch you have day by day, what needs to be said in the community, what technology you would like to try out but mostly listen to what sets your heart on fire and what you think you can ship.

These are the projects that’ll make it.

  • Rich Smith

    Nice article mate, ill definitely be doing some side projects in my down time – it would be rude not to seen as I have so many ideas kicking around my head lol.

  • Justin Reynolds

    Thank you Stewart, a good honest article. The ‘go freelance and only work on projects you love’ platitude is widespread, and needs to be exposed for the nonsense that it is. The absurd notion that ‘freelance = creative freedom’ and ‘paid employment = mechanical slave wagery’. No: both involve good and bad.

    I agree with all that you say about the value of side projects. As you say, once you become associated with a particular type of project, taken on through necessity, it’s hard to break out of that pattern. Side projects done for love can help rebalance things.

    I’d add that there’s nothing wrong in taken a break from design altogether every now and again, so far as is affordable. Shuffling text and image around on a screen has its satisfactions, for sure, but there’s much more to life than that. We might be designers, but we are people too.

  • Scott O’Hara

    While not a full-time freelancer (i only do occasional jobs here and there), I totally agree with starting side projects to keep yourself creatively stimulated.

    I recently changed workplaces and ended up in a role that was far more design than development. I’ve been keeping myself happy by making sure to take time out of my day to work on side projects that are more development focused to give myself some much needed balance.

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