“When someone tells me I can't do something, I say, 'Thank you, now I'm definitely going to do it.'”
“When you’re working on a side project, you have the time and the choiceto invest in learning new things,” he says. “You can also be choosier about the feedback you take. When you do take it, it’s because you truly want toget better at something.”
A lot of people face negative feedback in their jobs, whether it’s judgmentfrom managers or co-workers or the anxiety of running out of time. “If you adopt a ‘side project’ mindset, you can turn this into constructive energy,” Van Schneider says. “Think about it. If you love your side project, even if someone says that it’s shit, you still love it. So take the feedback, figure out how it can make you stronger, and go with that.”
Two years after he opened his own studio, he started working with three other designers, and got hired to do a job by one of the universities that had rejected him not so long before. “There was this moment where Irealized how important it was that I trusted myself all that time.”
How Companies Can Support Stupid Side Projects
The best thing a startup can do to maintain its creative edge and keep its most talented employees invested in the company is make time and space for stupid side projects, van Schneider says. While larger companies like Google and Apple can build this into people's jobs on a regular basis, more and more startups are providing time in the form of hack weeks and hack days.
“At Spotify, we host week-long hackathons which are basically paid vacations during which people can hack on anything they want,” says van Schneider. “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.”
This is a fairly classic narrative. He cites the example of Tina Roth Eisenberg, creator of design blog and studio Swiss Miss, who created the site Tattly to sell tasteful, well-crafted temporary tattoos after her young daughter came home from school with a poor facsimile on her arm. “At no point wasshe thinking, I’m going to scale this like crazy and get rich,” says van Schneider. As a company, you want to appeal to the people who simply want to do something cool and fill a gap.
“Companies underestimate how important it is to give employees the timeand space to listen to their hearts and explore the things they are interested in,” he 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.”
“Humanity is trying so hard tomeasure everything. We have to resist this attitude.”
“At Spotify, we’ve tried really hard to establish this philosophy. With our Hackathons, we do our best to tell people to trust themselves, go crazy —we absolutely don’t care if what they produce turns into anything. We try to make this very clear.”
The corollary to this is that a company needs to have a system to take the ideas produced by Hackathons and do something productive with them. In general, Spotify chooses the top three ideas, and entrust the teams whocreate them with making them a reality. “There’s nothing morediscouraging 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 itand 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. Gratitude goes a long way toward keeping people fulfilled and investing their full hearts in their work. You’d be surprised how many people come up withideas at hack events and then decide to pursue them on their own whenthey don’t get support, van Schneider says.
Right now, Spotify is working to develop one of the projects that came outof a recent hackathon. The three people responsible for the idea weregiven a full year to flesh it out and implement it — they own it end-to-end.
“This is the best case scenario because you know these people are super passionate about what they are working on,” says van Schneider. “Wemade room in the product roadmap for these ideas. 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.”
He sees it happen all the time. Employees see that Spotify has invested in developing employee ideas and they suddenly can’t wait for the next hackathon to roll around. “When you have this kind of energy, you want totell 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.”
“If people find the time and have great ideas, they will do it anyway. They will be gone.”
Extremely talented people are the first to resist being locked into any environment. Van Schneider points to the team that created startup 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. Most oftheir work was shelved,” 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. Those are the main ingredients for great projects.”
Facebook is a good counter example. They also had a talented team that wanted to try out something different. The result was Facebook Paper, a new app that experimented with new concepts but was not intended to replace the current mobile app. The company gave the team the resources to turn it into something real. “When people at Facebook see things likethis happen they get inspired and motivated to pursue something new too. Their projects don’t have to be standalone products or financial successes, and the company will stand behind them. Just having creative people at your company is rewarding and high-impact.”
Creating a ‘Side Projects’ Culture
As with everything related to culture, this starts with hiring the right people. As van Schneider puts it, there are two categories of hires: 1)People who you could put in a room, get out of their way, and they willcreate remarkable things with little oversight; and 2) people who get stressed out when they don’t know what the next step is or whatdeliverables are expected of them.
“Some people completely freeze when you tell them that they can doanything,” he says. “It’s something good to ask in an interview todetermine where people lie on this spectrum. It’s the difference betweenhiring someone who needs to be given targets to hit and someone whowants to create their own targets.” The latter category is usually moreambitious.
The key is to figure out what candidates’ primary drivers are. “What is themain reason they want to work with you? Is it the money? Is it their long-term goals and how your company fits into their career? Is their plan coming from somewhere else? Are they living someone else’s life? Theirparents’ life? Their friends’ life? A lot of people are. These things are so easily buried under data and titles and equity.” A lot of this information can be mined by asking more personal questions in interviews, taking an interest in how people live their lives outside of work, and observing what kind of compensation package they would choose.
“In the end, people's greatest side projects are themselves and their careers.”
The most successful companies in the future will be the ones that respect this. Van Schneider counts Spotify among their ranks.
Case in point: He landed his current job through connections stemming from a side project that he was deeply passionate about. He reimaginedand wrote extensively about a new type of Mac email client that henamed.Mail (dot Mail), completely rethinking how a mail application couldhandle attachments, calendar invites, and more.
“I just put these ideas out there and it got featured everywhere. Fast Company was writing about itand they called it email reinvented. It just went viral,” he says. “It’s fascinating to me, because before I published it, 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 getting picked up by the likes of Wired and other major publications. 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 still 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, a challenge that compelled him.
The irony of .Mail is that so many people asked, even implored him orsomeone else to build the model he described in the article he published, and while he hacked on it for a while he ultimately gave it up. “I realized Iwas passionate about thinking about the problem, but not actually fixingit,” he says.
“I didn't build it because it stopped being fun. It stopped being stupid.”