What would you do in this situation?

"We had no money. We changed our business model and had three months worth of cash left to turn things around. If we didn't we were toast. Done. We needed to find customers. But no one knew who we were. A marketing budget? Please. We were just trying to keep the lights on."

These grim circumstances will be familiar to many startup veterans, but in this particular case the rapidly dwindling bank account was the problem of Mikael Cho, founder of Crew. In a long and fascinating post about how he started to turn the problem around on the Crew blog, he recounts the possible solutions that ticked through his brain (they're probably the same ones that are ticking through yours): Content marketing? Word-of-mouth? Both are great, but both generally take more time than Crew had runway.

So what did the Crew team do? Buckle down and try to slam out posts or build viral momentum at a superhuman rate? Nope, forget focus. They built a side project instead. Using some leftover photos from a photo shoot they did for their website, the team put together a site that gives away high-res images for free and posted about it on Hacker News.

Wait, what, you're probably thinking? How on earth was a distraction unrelated to their core business a good idea?

What happened next

"Apart from maybe a few hundred visitors to the site, I didn't think much would come from posting the link to HackerNews. I moved on with my day until I got an email from the photographer who took the photos. He wrote, 'Dude, happy you enjoyed the photos! I don't know what you did with them but there's a ton of people on my portfolio site right now!'" Cho recalls. "I went back to HackerNews to check what might be going on. Unsplash was featured as the number one site."

Visits to Unsplash, the photo site, "came pouring in," Cho continues, and the interest didn't stop at the free images. "We then saw a huge spike in traffic to our homepage for Crew. A large number of customers came. And a whole lot of love. Substantially more than we ever got from any ad campaign or blog post... This all came from something that took less than an afternoon to create. It seemed like magic."

Why it worked

You might hear this story and wonder if Cho and his team got lucky. Good for them, some might say, but what's the lesson for me? But Cho actually thinks there is a general takeaway for other founders to consider--side projects can be great marketing.

"Marketing should be so good that people would gladly pay for it if they were asked. To have customers and fans, you need to create value first," he explains. "When you create value first, people pay attention." And side projects--often derided as just distractions--are one great way to do this, Crew has found.

"The psychological benefits of side projects, like improved collaboration and better ideas, have been documented," Cho writes. "But there's also a measurable impact from side projects. In the past year and a half since we started Crew, we made four projects that are separate from our Crew domain." Three of these projects are now the number one, number two, and number five referral source for Crew, and the other has drawn coverage from the likes of VentureBeat and Lifehacker. So who are you calling distracted now?

Cho goes into great detail on the ROI of these efforts, additional benefits, how side projects stack up against other types of marketing he's tried, and tips to do side projects right, so check out the complete post if you'd like more info.

Could this sort of side project have similar benefits for your business?