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Side projects as a lever for professional growth
and why employers should embrace side projects
Hi - I’m Mike Wilner, the writer of this post which is part of my weekly newsletter, Getting Shots Up. The newsletter includes frameworks, analyses, profiles, and musings about building entrepreneurial careers. This isn’t just startup advice – it’s a zoomed out view of how entrepreneurial people can think about constructing a career that results in a lot of high quality shots on goal.
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Side projects as a lever for professional growth
A year ago, Lattice announced their Invest in Your People Fund – a fund that set aside money for Lattice to invest in our own employees who go on to start their own companies.
In the post announcing the fund, they addressed the limitations of employers being able to provide their employees with professional growth:
Employee-job fit is crucial for satisfaction and productivity. We work hard at Lattice to help employees find a role that they can thrive in and also meets their own professional growth needs. This is a moving target since the company’s and the employee’s goals can quickly change. Often we’re able to continue to keep meeting this need, but sometimes we’re not — and that’s okay. When Lattice employees realize it’s time for them to start their own entrepreneurial journey, we want to be there to support them emotionally, tactically, and financially.
Entrepreneurship is not just about creating products or jobs – it’s about creating upward mobility for ourselves. It can be a pragmatic lever we can use to accelerate our professional growth with more autonomy and upside than relying fully on traditional employment.
Lattice’s Invest in Your People Fund embraces that entrepreneurship can be the solution to unlocking professional growth when the company cannot meet an employees’ professional growth needs. While starting a company is certainly one way to address professional growth needs, it’s not the only way. Side projects can be a more accessible lever that we use to unlock professional growth while keeping a job. Those of us who embrace side projects as a lever will be able to advance faster in our careers and not rely on our day jobs to meet all of our professional growth needs. Employers who embrace this will gain an advantage in attracting and retaining talent, and will amplify their employees’ contributions to the company.
Side projects can improve job satisfaction and retention
If you find yourself in a day job where there’s perfect alignment between your professional growth needs and the job, then it makes sense to be all-in and not diversify into side projects. But that perfect alignment is hard to find.
When there’s a gap between your professional growth needs and what you get from your day job, diversifying your time into side projects can fill those gaps, alleviating the the itch some may feel to find new opportunities when an existing job is not meeting all of their needs. Additionally, having harmony between your day job and side projects – where your day job feeds into your side projects which feeds back into your day job – drastically increases the value you’re getting from your day job. That harmony will keep you incentivized and motivated to stay, as it will continue to feed your side projects (I wrote about this effect in my post about personal flywheels).
I discussed this with a friend Joe Morrison, who recently made a move to become the Head of Product Success and Impact at Umbra, a space-based radar satellite company, after 5.5 years at Azavea, a geospatial technology company.
Azavea has a 10% Research and Learning policy, which goes beyond Google’s 20% policy which encourages employees to spend 20% of their time on personal projects within Google. Azavea’s policy enables employees to spend 10% of their time on projects that didn’t have to be work-related at all. For Joe, that included writing a blog that examines the modern business and technology of mapping. Joe stayed at Azavea for 5.5 years (he originally expected to stay for 2). And it was his blog that propelled him into his next gig.
Joe added that two Engineers left Azavea around the same time as him, with 6 and 7-year tenures respectively. They both stayed 30% longer than they would have without a culture that celebrated and encouraged side projects.
Companies that enable side projects (even if they do so in less explicit ways than Azavea) will have happier employees who will stay longer. Even if you work at a company that doesn’t have an official policy, working on side projects can fill those professional growth gaps and give you more control over your own job satisfaction.
Side projects can create qualifications and credibility out of thin air that open up opportunities
I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the biggest force multipliers on my professional growth was writing a book on fundraising. By most measures, the book isn’t all that successful. It doesn’t receive any press or notoriety and we haven’t made any money on it (though it has been read a couple thousand times).
But being able to say that I wrote a book on fundraising that lots of folks have read created qualifications and credibility out of thin air.
It gave me just enough startup credibility to join the Startup team at AWS. As a 28-year-old trying to build trusting relationships with successful entrepreneurs and investors who ran accelerators and incubators, it gave me a higher starting point for credibility, which facilitated the rest of my job. Six months into my tenure, when AWS needed someone to do a presentation on seed stage fundraising, I was among the most qualified people on the team to create one (which was essentially just the cliffnotes of the book). This presentation snowballed into a series of workshops I helped our team create to help early stage startups with early stage challenges.
Writing a book on fundraising a few months before I joined AWS ended up enabling me to accomplish in 2 years what would have otherwise taken me 3+ years. Not only have I benefited from my writing a book a few years ago, AWS has benefitted as well.
Side projects can also help people make lateral leaps in their career – I’ve seen this with a few friends, including Shilpi Kumar.
Shilpi started her career in VC, with the first two years of her career at the VegasTechFund and as an Analyst at First Round Capital. She then spent the next 4 years as an operator in the hardware space before moving back over to VC as a Venture Partner at Urban Us. It would be a head-scratcher for someone (just) under 30 to become a Venture Partner at a VC after 2 years as an Analyst fresh out of college, followed by 4 years as an Operator.
But that’s not the whole story. While Shilpi was an operator, she was also a Network Leader for Village Global (Village Global’s term for on-the-side Venture Partners). While focused as an operator, she was investing in startups on the behalf of Village Global on the side. Through this side project, she created her own credential and qualification as an active investor, making the move from operator to full-time Venture Partner at a VC more of a small step than a big lateral leap.
With Joe, myself, and Shilpi, our side projects were not prequels to starting a startup. That’s not what side projects need to be about. Side projects are levers that people can use throughout their careers to fill gaps in professional growth needs that their employer cannot address, to create qualifications out of thin air to create upward mobility, and to bridge the gap for lateral leaps in a career path. I think in the years to come, we’ll see more employers figure out ways to embrace this truth and use it to their advantage to attract and retain talent.