Learn Test Optimize is turning three years old this month and it has grown from a small email newsletter to a few dozen colleagues to now reaching thousands of readers each week. It has been a very rewarding side project and I’m excited to keep it going and growing.
In fact, if you’re reading this, I recommend you start your own side project. There are lots of great benefits to having one, no matter what your skillset or job title is.
Learn New Skills
My newsletter needed a website to get subscribers. Getting a website to have the design and features I want has forced me to improve and learn skills I use every day. Managing my own website means I’ve gotten to understand DNS records, web hosting, WordPress, plugins, and more.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s easier to learn on a website that’s OK to break every once in a while. Having your campaign website go down is bad, but a few minutes of downtime for your side project isn’t the end of the world.
Try New Things
In order to grow the LTO newsletter and foster the community around it, I’m constantly trying new tactics, new platforms, and new tools. Some of them don’t work, some of them do. The ones that prove effective, I then bring into my other projects.
And just as important, I get to learn the limitations of implementing a new strategy or technique before trying it with a broader audience or a bigger platform.
Understand the Mechanics
Just as I’ve learned new skills, I’ve gotten a better appreciation for the mechanics of how all of the pieces of my side project fit together. For example, I know that writing blogs like this and sharing them on my social networks is the best way to drive traffic that leads to signups. I’ve tried lots of other methods, including some paid ads, but this is the strategy that’s consistent and scalable for me.
In short, my side project – LTO – has become a sandbox for me to learn, test, and optimize.
As an additional bonus that I honestly didn’t anticipate and has been a pleasant surprise, it has helped me grow my network and build meaningful connections – it’s a welcome mat for new and interesting people to reach out to you and work together.
Tips for Getting Started
I hope I’ve convinced you of the benefits of having your own side project, so here are some tips for getting started:
Begin with a narrow focus. Address a challenge or opportunity you can get your arms around. For me it was helping my professional network better understand the trends and news shaping digital politics. If you start too broad, you’ll get overwhelmed.
Do one small thing really well. Once you’ve identified the “what” of your side project, come up with a very specific “how” with which you will address it. This should take the form of something you produce – a newsletter, an index, a report, an app, a database – and focus on making it as good as it can be.
As you work on that, other opportunities will come into focus. In my case that was a newsletter that morphed into a website and blog then later on training and speaking.
Make a commitment – public if possible – and stick to it. Every Thursday evening, wherever I am or whatever I’m doing, I put together the LTO newsletter. Sometimes this means late nights or searching for a wifi connection, but consistency has helped me grow the newsletter audience and the project overall.
Don’t be afraid to let things die. Sometimes when you try new things, they don’t work out or you learned what you could from them. It’s OK to let aspects of your side project go. Longtime subscribers will remember the jobs board, the forum, the meetup, and research white papers, all of which I’ve tried and put aside.
Create a roadmap of skills you want to learn and can use. Identifying what you’d like to learn can help guide you to the aspects of your side project that you want to build out.
If you’re interested in starting a side project and have questions, don’t know where to start, or want to bounce some ideas around, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Mark Christian whose post “Why You Should Have a Personal Website” prompted me to write this one.