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Spotify's Design Lead on Why Side Projects Should Be Stupid

Tobias van Schneider lives his life like one big side project. Here's how it can help your company stay competitive.
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This post originally appeared on First Round Capital and has been reprinted with its permission.

Tobias van Schneider lives his life like one big side project. Today he designs and builds new products for Spotify in New York, but he couldn’t have predicted that when he dropped out of school at 15 to work as an apprentice in a computer shop in Austria. He couldn't have predicted that when he applied to graduate schools and design schools and was told repeatedly that he didn't have enough training or talent to build a career. And he couldn't have predicted that even when he turned his side passion for visual and product design into a full-time job by opening up his own studio. He didn't know what to expect. But from that point on, side projects have marked his path like bread crumbs, leading him to where he is today.

As van Schneider grew up, teaching himself new skills after work and on weekends, the idea of "side projects" became a foundational myth in the tech world. Products like Gmail, Craigslist, and even Post-Its can trace their roots back to work that was developed on the side. As a result hackathons and other strategies have become standard practice at large companies and even startups to bottle this spirit and keep technical talent engaged.

This is great, van Schneider says, but not if it becomes a cliche. His argument: In order for side projects to truly succeed, they have to be stupid. Here’s what he means, and how it can help your company stay creative and competitive.

Let Yourself Be Stupid

"The only way a side project will work is if people give themselves permission to think simple, to change their minds, to fail--basically, to not take them too seriously," says van Schneider. "When you treat something like it’s stupid, you have fun with it, you don’t put too much structure around it. You can enjoy different types of success."

Side projects include everything employees do outside the bounds of normal work hours or within bounds if they work at a company that sets time aside for employees (think Google's famous 20 percent time rule). At a certain point, about 50 percent of Google's new projects were born from this time. New companies have emerged too, with first-time entrepreneurs like Artillery CTO Ian Langworth turning weekend experiments with friends into full-time jobs. At the start of any and all of these projects, no one had a grand plan for turning them into massive, profitable ventures. As van Schneider puts it, "If you think that way, you lose the magic."

"Side projects are great because you don’t need to know anything. You get to be a beginner because no one is watching you and there are no expectations," he says. "If you don’t have an idea, don’t stress about it, just go do something else. It’s this attitude that it doesn’t matter that allows us to be inspired and to work on only the things we truly want to work on."

Sounds great, but as van Schneider points out, keeping side projects stupid can be really, really hard--especially in an industry where everyone talks about funding, scale, and data-driven decision making. If you’re not careful, you can forget why you ever wanted to work on something in the first place. Below is a list of valuable lessons both companies and individuals can learn from their side projects.

Take One Step at a Time

Because he's immersed in the New York startup scene, van Schneider is surrounded by people working on countless side projects, and he, too, is constantly drawn to new ideas. The advice he gives to himself and others is to keep things as basic as possible, for as long as possible.

"Think of the very, very first step you would take to realize your idea," he says. "I think when people work on ‘stupid’ side projects, they spend more time thinking this way. You have to chunk out your time to work around your day job, so you’re constantly thinking about the minimum thing you can do to push the project forward. You think in terms of very small next steps."

The benefit here is that you’re prevented from overthinking. When you work on something because you feel like you have to, not just because you want to, there’s a tendency to overreach. "A lot of people ask themselves questions until they're so scared of the future they'll never do anything new." 

These questions probably sound familiar:

How do I scale this thing?
Can I really find financing for this?
Do I have a decent chance of being successful?
"Oh my god, someone else out there is doing exactly the same thing! What now?" 
Who has already done this better, faster, or smarter than me?

"All of these doubts kick in, overcomplicate things, and kill projects that could have become something," says van Schneider. "When you’re focused on just taking that first step, or that next right step to keep things in motion, you won’t ask yourself all these questions."

"Just Do it." 

There’s a famous Steve Jobs interview where he talks about the moment he realized the world was defined and built by people who were no smarter than him. It was the same moment he knew that he was free to make anything.

"I love that interview because that’s not how most people learned things in school," says van Schneider. "We’re taught from the beginning that we have to sit there and learn from people who are smarter than us. Sure, there might be people who are more experienced, but they also had to learn and fail to get there, and we often don’t get to see that part. I think once you embrace this reality, so many doors open and failure doesn’t matter anymore."

Being immune to failure is another hallmark of successful side projects. You’re not depending on them for your livelihood, so you have the luxury of failing or starting over when things aren’t going so well. "If you can remove all fears and go one step at a time, you will find things that will guide you along the way," says van Schneider. "You will learn new things, absorb new information, meet people, get feedback, see demand in different areas--new doors will open up for you."

When he’s talked to people who have built successful side projects, they mostly said the same thing: "I was just living life and doing what I loved. When I saw something happening, I reacted, but I didn’t force it."

Ditch Your Obsession With Growth

Side projects aren’t about rapid scale.

Van Schneider is a fan of another entrepreneur: Sophia Amoruso, founder of online fashion store Nasty Gal. Today the company employs hundreds of people and brings in over $100 million a year--and it began as a hobby.

Amoruso loved collecting vintage clothes and selling them on eBay. It was fun, a personal challenge. When she realized people were were willing to pay quite a bit for some of her products, she gradually amped up her inventory and re-prioritized her life until she was running the company full-time.

A lot of people talk about the importance of "doing what you love," but what’s important is all the meaning packed into the word "love," van Schneider says. Love is not just talk or professed passion. It’s hard work. It’s focused dedication at odd hours, trying new things, knowing every step of the way that chances of traditional success are slim. It’s being fine with staying small. "You do it because you’re enjoying yourself. When this is the case, you don’t give up when you don’t see growth; and when you don’t give up, anything can happen."

Remember, success also comes in the form of learning new things, meeting the right people, and feeling personally fulfilled, he says. You don’t know what will happen next. Perhaps your side project will lead you to your next job, your spouse, or a sustainable living that gives you the freedom to explore.

There are so many startup success stories now that people think there must be a recipe for a multi-million dollar exit. In fact, a lot of blog posts, books, and speakers tout these formulas. But van Schneider disagrees. "When I look at examples like Sophia and Nasty Gal, I couldn’t write down a plan, give it to someone else and have them repeat it. With the biggest successes, that is never the case."

Side projects only get bigger when you want them.

"Sometimes your project might grow so that you have more work than you can handle by yourself, especially if you still have a full-time job," says van Schneider. "When this is the case, you have the chance to think about success looks like to you. You can bring people on to work with you, if you want."

As a byproduct, you also get to be more thoughtful about who you bring into the fold. When you love what you’re doing, you'll want to work with people who are on the same wavelength as you and believe in the project and its potential as much as you do.

Trust Yourself 

"When you feel real ownership for a project, you become more confident in your decisions," says van Schneider. "You might change your plan, and that’s okay. You are always right when it’s your project."

Promising projects die when you sidestep risk and doubt your abilities. Van Schneider--who is 100 percent self-trained in design--has experienced this firsthand. Despite all the rejection letters he received from graduate programs, he didn’t get discouraged. He opened his own studio, anyway. 

A lot of people face negative feedback at work, whether it's judgment from managers or the anxiety of running out of time. But "if you adopt a 'side project' mindset, you can turn this into constructive energy," van Schneider says. 

Support Stupid Side Projects

"Companies underestimate how important it is to give employees the time and space to listen to their hearts and explore the things they are interested in," van Schneider says. "This is something that is impossible to measure, which turns a lot of people off in this very data-driven business. But when you look at people like Sophia from Nasty Gal, you can just see how much heart is involved."

In fact, "a lot of what gets made comes out of frustrations--things people want the product to do, or things they have always wanted to make possible," he says. He cites Tina Roth Eisenberg, creator of design blog and studio Swiss Miss. She created the site Tattly to sell tasteful temporary tattoos after her  daughter came home from school with a poor facsimile on her arm. "At no point was she thinking, I’m going to scale this like crazy and get rich," says van Schneider. 

When Spotify hosts week-long hackathons, it chooses the top three ideas and entrusts the teams who create them to build them. "There’s nothing more discouraging than saying, ‘Oh, you worked hard on that for a week? That’s nice, now go back to work.’ Even if you tell them you’re going to archive it and come back to it later, that’s something."

Most importantly, companies need to thank hackathon participants for their effort and for pouring their passion into these projects. You’d be surprised how many people come up with ideas at hack events and then decide to pursue them on their own when they don’t get support, van Schneider says.

Right now, Spotify is working to develop a project from a recent hackathon. The three people responsible for the idea were given a full year to flesh it out and implement it, meaning they own it start to finish. 

“We made room in the product roadmap for these ideas," says van Schneider. "We take the risk that we might fail, but we make it clear that it’s okay if we do. It’s worth it to us as a company. We will pay three people to explore something risky for a year because this culture and attitude is so important to us. When you do this, people stay at your company and their motivation becomes contagious.”

Employees see that Spotify has invested in developing employee ideas and they can’t wait for the next hackathon to roll around. "When you have this kind of energy, you want to tell people that they don’t have to wait for the next hack day opportunity. Give them permission to take one or two hours out of every day where you’re paying them to innovate and pursue things they want to do. Build in ways for people to share this kind of work with their peers and their managers. Make them feel rewarded or you risk losing them."

Talented people are the first to resist being trapped in any environment. Van Schneider points to the team that created FiftyThree, makers of the Pencil stylus and Paper iPad app. "Many of them came out of Microsoft tired of what they were working on and they didn’t have the freedom to take their products to the next level," he says. "You have to tell people so that they will believe you: ‘You know what, you can do this thing exactly the way you want to at our company. Give them the trust and responsibility and remove their fears." 

Creating a 'Side Projects' Culture

There are two categories of hires: People you could leave to build remarkable things, and people who get stressed when they don’t know the next step. "Some people completely freeze when you tell them that they can do anything," says van Schneider. "It’s the difference between hiring someone who needs to be given targets to hit and someone who wants to create their own targets." The latter tends to be more ambitious.

The key is figuring out what their drivers are. "Is it the money? Is it their longterm goals and how your company fits into their career?" Ask more personal questions in interviews, taking an interest their lives outside of work, and observe what kind of compensation they'd choose. "In the end, people's greatest side projects are themselves and their careers."

The most successful companies are the ones that respect this, and Spotify is among them. As a case in point, van Schneider landed his current job through connections from a side project he was deeply passionate about. He reimagined and wrote extensively about a new type of Mac email client that he named .Mail (dot Mail), completely rethinking how a mail application could handle attachments, calendar invites, and more.

"Fast Company was writing about it and they called it email reinvented. It just went viral," he says. "It’s fascinating to me, because before I published it, I showed it to so many friends who said they didn’t think it was anything special. And I just decided, You know what, I’m going to do it anyway."

Suddenly he was being picked up by the likes of Wired. People who ran large email clients at Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft reached out to him, asking if he wanted a job. He forged relationships with many of them that he maintains today. In the end, it led him to Spotify and the opportunity to reinvent how people interact with music on web and mobile interfaces. The challenge compelled him.

The irony of .Mail is that so many people asked, and even implored him or someone else to build the model he described in the articles. Ultimately he gave it up. "I realized I was passionate about thinking about the problem, but not actually fixing it," he says.

IMAGE: Courtesy First Round Review
Last updated: Jun 18, 2014




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