The Startup Side Project Bubble

I hate to break it to you, but there’s currently a startup side project bubble. Yes, it’s true.

Everyone from designers to developers to UI/UX to biz dev thinks they’re an entrepreneur and has a side project going on. Why is this happening, you ask? It’s because everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, but they’re not quite yet ready to commit.

This creates a big problem.

It’s a problem because side projects create a talent bubble of people who aren’t fully engaged and are just doing enough at their “real” or full-time job to get by until their startup is up and running. This means their productivity suffers at their full-time job, an expense the employer ends up paying. The side project owners justify it by assuming it will only be for a short period of time.

But when it comes down to what actually happens, startups often take longer than expected to get up and running all while the job and the startup limp on. The employee doesn’t excel at his job nor does the startup take off.

And actually, we need to be honest. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Part of being one is accepting the risk of starting your own company and taking the leap to be committed full time. It’s not good for startups or for companies to have employees that are partially engaged in both and committed to neither.

Thom Ruhe, vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, had this to say about the criteria needed to be a successful entrepreneur as quoted in the Editor’s letter of the April 2013 edition of Inc. magazine:

“‘Unless there are real consequences for failureuntil you’ve personally guaranteed a line of credit and tried to sell your product to an actual human being,’ says Ruhe, you won’t have the motivation needed to build a business that matters.”

The worst part is that a lot of the side projects end up being another attempt at the next social network or a new project management app. Here’s a quick tip: there are plenty of those already. If you do want to start a company, work on building a real business, not a side idea that’s hoping to be the next Twitter/Facebook/Instagram combination or a better version of Basecamp.

On top of all of this, lean startup principles create a problem as well. Lean principles are great, but they’ve created a group of people who take them as a license to create cheap or low-risk projects on the side. Yes, you can use lean startup principles to lower risk and find a minimally viable product faster, but you still need to commit to your business and give lean principles the effort they need to power your company to success. And always remember: lean doesn’t mean you get to create a crappy product; it means you iterate and experiment quickly in order to find a product that resonates with your customers faster.

The biggest problem with side projects is that the lack of commitment dilutes the startup talent pool, hurts the side project or startup, and in turn kills great startups from succeeding. If you’re looking to start a business, take some time to consider whether or not you’re ready to be all in.

Yes, you can save some money to prepare yourself for the eventual leap. And yes, you should consider carefully whether or not you’re ready to start a business. But don’t shoot yourself in the foot by stringing your employer along and delaying the leap to becoming a full-time entrepreneur. The choice is yours, but too many people are making the wrong one. I hope you have what it takes to commit and become a real entrepreneur.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment to discuss.

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