Sometimes, the most innovative ideas come not from established companies but from people moonlighting with off-hours experiments. Associations are in a position to capture this energy.
It’s one thing to have an internal side project that you can work on at the office. It’s another to hustle something into being while off the clock. But the effort can bring big rewards: You never know how powerful one little idea might be.
Three decades ago, while on a holiday break, the programmer Guido van Rossum, then an employee at a Dutch research institute, had such an itch he wanted to scratch. And it’s a good thing he did.
That work, as documented in a recent TechRepublic cover story, was on a programming language called Python, which he developed out of frustration with existing options on the market. It eventually became one of the most popular programming languages in the world—a side project that enabled lots of other side projects.
What van Rossum built was important, but what’s especially notable about it is that, for the most part, his employers—including Google and, more recently, Dropbox—made room in his schedule for him to work on Python. He was the language’s BDFL (benevolent dictator for life) until about a year ago; these days, he focuses on mentoring Python developers.
Associations are perfect for leveraging off-the-clock creativity—if they do it deliberately.
Being an open-source project, Python has many core developers these days, and it is a driving factor behind multibillion-dollar companies—including his current employer. Not bad for a side hustle.
Projects like van Rossum’s are having a moment culturally, in part because entry barriers are lower than ever. A decade ago, when trying to scratch an itch, people might have started joke Twitter accounts or blogs. Now, they’re starting newsletters or building apps—with built-in business models.
New @weekendfund experiment:
Let us help you turn your side project into a company. Introducing Weekend Build. 😊https://t.co/KNfj8CJ4QJ
— Ryan Hoover (@rrhoover) July 14, 2019
And people with connections are taking notice. On Sunday, Ryan Hoover, the founder of Product Hunt (itself a famed side-hustle launchpad) announced that his investment firm, Weekend Fund, was launching a program specifically targeting off-hours side projects.
“There are accelerators for nearly every stage and company focus, but we believe there’s a gap in the market for side project makers,” Hoover wrote in a blog post. “Our bet: Many of today’s side projects can become big businesses with the right support and resources.”
There’s something to like about Weekend Fund’s willingness to embrace the weekend experiment, and I think it’s a mindset that associations can learn a lot from. Personal side projects, if nothing else, keep individual members sharp and often inspire new ideas that can be brought back to the day job. They’re incubators—and occasionally, incubators come up with a big idea.
Associations are perfect for leveraging this kind of off-the-clock creativity—if they do it deliberately. A few ways I can see organizations building on it:
Offer introductory membership tiers. Often, people working on side projects are exploring something outside their traditional field, and they may not be in a position to jump in whole hog on an investment like full membership in a professional society. But by creating introductory membership tiers, similar to those for student membership, associations could make that barrier a little easier to leap across.
Put on a hackathon. Side projects typically aren’t built in a bubble but come from an outside spark. A hackathon is one way to generate that spark and encourage smart thinking. By creating opportunities for ideation, you might just inspire side projects among your members, who may take those ideas even further after the event.
Treat your chapters like a farm system. A side project might be just the thing to present at a chapter get-together, where peers can offer feedback and help build momentum around an idea.
Create “maker spaces.” Earlier this year, I wrote about a cool public-private collaboration between the Freelancers Union and the city of New York, in which the group would create a space for freelancers to work and learn new skills. Freelancers Hub is a smart idea—and it’s one that could be translated to member needs that go beyond business hours.
Cover the little guys, too. Smaller innovators are often at a disadvantage when it comes to drawing attention, as larger companies or better-known figures often take up much of the oxygen. Through your publications or other communications channels, your association can raise the profile of little makers with interesting ideas, creating value for members who could use the leg up to get their message out.
Lean on your mentoring resources. People working on side projects often need someone to talk to about their work. This is where associations can lend a hand, particularly by connecting makers with mentors. It might be a resource they can’t find anywhere else.
Not every idea is going to set the world ablaze, but it might bring unexpected benefits. Maybe that side-hustler will get a job in your field or build a bridge between the industry they’re currently in and yours. Maybe they’ll be your next new member.