On side projects, money, motivations and human connections

The other day I landed on this post by Jeffery Vaska. I don't know him personally, and I never interacted with him. But his blog post is the reason why I'm currently typing this. He worked—still works?—on a project called Indexhibit which is something I heard about years ago but never used personally. It looked like an interesting and niche project, and I remember checking the site every couple of years to see how the things were going. If you read his post, you'll see a situation that's all too familiar if you've ever started a side project online.

The side project loneliness

The majority of side projects are a one-person enterprise. Sometimes there are a few people involved, but the vast majority is entirely run by single human beings that need to take care of everything. And usually, there's no light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know why other people start side projects, but I'm going to tell you my story.

You probably know that in addition to this blog I also run three other side projects, two completely solo—thegallery.io and moments.manuelmoreale.com and one in collaboration with Carlmnmll.ist. I also developed—and I'm involved with—the Visual Journal, Minimalissimo, Minimalism Life and Designed Space.

I'm pretty sure that, combined, all these sites have generated millions of views. At a glance, you'd probably consider these successful side projects. And you'd think it must be super fun to run sites like these. And in a sense, it is. But it's also tough to keep going year after year. Especially when you're the only person working on a project. If you followed my gallery, for example, you've probably noticed that I don't post regularly. And that's because sometimes I don't feel like taking the time to update it. It's a constant roller coaster. Side projects are often a reflection of the state of mind of the people behind them.

Money vs Human Connections

It's inevitable for a side project to reach the point where you start thinking about ways to monetise it. And that's fine. Running a site can be expensive and time-consuming, so it makes sense to find a way to earn something from it. But that's where I struggle the most. I am a terrible business person. I feel bad asking for money, and I value human connections way more than money. In the past few years, I tried a few different approaches for my gallery but ultimately decided that was not worth the effort. I took what can be described as the fatalist approach to monetisation and realised I could die tomorrow so who gives a shit if I earn a few dollars a month from advertising or referrals or whatever. As I wrote before, somewhere on this blog, I like kindness as a business model. I'm naïve enough to believe that if you're kind to the people you randomly encounter on the internet, they'll remember you and maybe they'll decide to support your work.

But maybe that's just that: naïve. As Jeffery's post shows, sometimes people will expect you to keep going, for free, forever. And that's unsustainable and the perfect recipe for burning out. That's also a failure in communication. We all love to create brands for our side projects and to hide behind a logo and a fancy website. But at that point, there's no difference between a mega-corporation running a business and me just updating a site in my spare time, doing the best I can.

Do your part

So what can you do, to not being part of the problem? Well, the first thing is to support the sites and the projects you use, if you can. And if you can't, take the time to get in touch to the people behind the projects and let them know that you're out there, using their creations and enjoying them. Kindness from strangers is often overlooked, and a few words of encouragement go a long way.