Something unexpected happened when my side project crossed $100k in sales:
I didn't want to quit my job.
No urge to blog about leaving the "rat race". No tweet about how becoming a creator "changed my life (and yours can too! Buy my course!)". No Jerry Maguire letter.
I wondered if something was wrong with me. Being on social media exposed me to a lot of hustle porn constantly telling me to quit my job. That freedom is an all-or-nothing nirvana, and once you taste it, you don't go back. Isn't that how this movie script is supposed to go?
I want a new script for Part Time Creators. We need to define what it is, why it's worth doing, make it work, then make it cool.
Making $100k a year has always been my bar for successful "independent income". It's more than my parents ever made at their peak earning, and in most cities it's enough to support yourself and even raise a family on. Even better if totally passive — I harbored dreams of traveling the world and making money in my sleep.
But after 4 years of Learning in Public, I got there — and realized my desires had shifted. Part of this is surely due to the hedonistic treadmill — I had reached Senior level at a FAANG by then. But I realized it was mainly because I enjoy applying myself to hard problems and working with smart people, that I would never have encountered on my own.
Yet, while employment is great, I enjoy the growth that successful side projects afford. It isn't just about the money — side projects do NOT need to make money right away to be successful.
- It's about self-sufficiency: what you learn shipping something from end to end.
- It's about self-actualization: having creative control and autonomy and not ending the week with nothing.
- It's about long term games: building a personal network and reputation that will outlast any employer.
- It's about optionality: having a backup plan if something goes wrong, and incubating dozens of business ideas that could be big, creating luck for yourself.
It's about having a job while not being your job.
I like the term Part Time Creator for what I'm doing. The creator economy has many one-percenters — full-time Indie Hackers making well over $1m a year all by their lonesome. These are remarkable accomplishments and should be celebrated.
But the majority of us will **never* get there.* 90% of creators on Gumroad make less than $20k a year. It's not a full-time income, but they should not feel like failures. They built something valuable on their own and that is awesome.
Because I don't derive all my self worth from my employer, I stand a little taller. Dream a little bigger. Negotiate a little harder.
I want to clearly acknowledge that this path requires privilege and is not for everyone. The cards are stacked against you from the beginning:
- Existing creator platforms mainly reinforce the Economics of Superstars.
- Parents are already achieving superhuman feats balancing family and work.
- Many IP assignment agreements are actively hostile to Part Time Creators — Employers want to pay you for 40 hours a week but own your output for all 168.
- Independent creation has far less health, safety, diversity, accessibility, or other forms of protection offered by traditional employment.
Part Time Creation must get easier for the less privileged, and its rewards must be more equitable, which is why all creator platforms should explore the ideas Li Jin published in her seminal article on the Creator Middle Class, and eventually legal and banking reforms made to democratize access.
Still, being a Part Time Creator is a viable path for many thousands of people, who can feel this possibility and desperately want to figure this out. I think there will be many more Part Time Creators in future, and courses and platforms will evolve accordingly. There's already signs of extreme demand: Ali Abdaal's Part-Time YouTuber Academy sells out in seconds, Ryan Hoover's Weekend Fund specifically invests in side projects, and Andrew Gazdecki's Microacquire makes it easy to sell them.
There are a lot of objections to working outside of work, even if that work is for yourself. Many of them are valid. I only write for people like me, who have the energy and desire to make this work but have been lacking a guide.
The first thing that needs to happen is to get an employment situation that doesn't completely drain you of after hours productivity. I am no stranger to this kind of job — before 2017 I worked in finance, which completely consumed my life and intellectual output. I didn't know this was a red flag because I didn't know better.
If part time creation is something you want, just know that there are companies, like ConvertKit, where side projects are not only tolerated, but encouraged. Your current company may be actively hostile to side projects, but there are plenty of companies that will see it as a plus (though it should NOT be a hiring requirement). If you are open to not working full time, there are plenty of startups that are only looking for part time help.
The second is to get your proverbial shit together and make time. Talk is cheap. Your actions are the real vote for what you want to be. If you say you want to be a Part Time Creator but spend almost 40 hours a week watching Youtube/Netflix, then you're really a Full Time Consumer. Make the time. I have some pointers below, but here are a few thematic inspirations for you:
- Five for Them, One for Me: aka the "Weekend Warrior" approach. Pick Saturday or Sunday, but do take one day to rest. This is a long game; do not burn out.
- Personal 20% Time: Google is famous for allowing employees to work on side projects 20% of the time, but employees joke that it's really "120% Time" because they still have to do their full day jobs anyway. That works out to an extra 1.5-2 hours before work.
- Batched Time: Ben Orenstein is known for taking Codecations - holidays where you work on shipping a side project. Take a week off work (and family) obligations and just go ham. This is a great option for those who simply cannot make a weekly commitment, or if you must accumulate context rather than context switching every day or week.
For those extremely worried: You don't have to make money right away. There are plenty of ways to create valuable personal assets without monetizing right away, from writing a newsletter to building a YouTube channel. The point is to learn to create, and build your network. Have a chat with your manager if in doubt — you may be surprised how okay they are with this. Some may even offer you an intrapreneur opportunity, like Jenn Hyman before Rent the Runway or Ben Orenstein before Tuple. As the Part Time Creator movement grows, this will be increasingly accepted.
This post is already longer than I intended and borders on generic productivity advice you can find elsewhere, so I'll just drop six principles and resources on you:
- Before Work: Alex West (my Creators interview here) and Swizec Teller both note that working on personal projects before the day job begins is the best way to ensure you actually work on it (this is what I do). Of course the opposite - 2 hrs after the family goes to bed - works for some folks as well.
Start Now: It's easy to desire something long term, but have barriers short term. I have news for you: There's never going to be a perfect time to start.
Pretend you've already been a Part Time Creator for 5 years straight and run into whatever your situation is today. Would you stop? If no: then why put off starting? Figure out how to make it work even when things aren't ideal, because things are never ideal.
Keep Shipping: It's natural to want to sink a lot of time into creating something great, and many people find success doing so. However I find that most people get stuck in a perfectionist loop, and never ship. I explored the Quality vs Consistency tradeoff in a separate post, but TL;DR, when in doubt, choose Consistency, and work your way up to Quality rather than expect to jump there from a cold start. Ship at least every month. If you can't, scope down until you have no excuse not to ship. Part Time Creator is an identity, and you are what you do repeatedly. If you repeatedly find ways to not ship, that's what you are.
Productize Yourself: Part Time Creation is distinct from taking on a Part Time Job where you sell time for money like you do in the day job. Focus on formats that deliver value disconnected from your time. Friendcatchers, Writing, podcasting, drawing, and some categories of software. If you are a developer, apply to teach for Egghead.io - they take extremely good care of their part time creators. I still get $100-300 a month from courses I made 3 years ago. Note: Most beginners aren't able to productize right away — they need to stair-step up to it with some sweat equity. That's normal.
Shameless Plug: My book has an entire chapter dedicated to Side Project ideas and productivity methods!
Part Timers will never get their due as long as they are perceived to be the minor league shadow of Full-Timers. Customers instinctively equate "part time" with "not committed". Of course, you can dispel that notion by doing your thing for 10 years. But that'd take 10 years.
To really make a strong case for Part-Time Creators, it's interesting to consider what Part-Timers can do better than Full-Timers. The best way I know how to phrase this: The work informs the side hustle, the side hustle informs the work.
Everyone draws the line on what is acceptable. You should definitely NOT compete with your employer or share trade secrets. But there are a zillion other ways to create without conflict of interest, in a way that also adds value to your employer:
- Oren Ellenbogen runs Software Lead Weekly, one of the most popular newsletters on engineering leadership. This surely helps in his day job as a VP of Engineering. Likewise with Rosie Sherry's work on the Rosieland community informing her work as Community Manager at Indie Hackers.
- Julia Evans built a massive following writing programming comics based on surprising facts based on generalizable lessons from her work at Stripe. She's since left, but her work surely helped Stripe burnish its reputation as an attractive employer.
- Kent C. Dodds bootstrapped his Consume-Build-Teach cycle at Paypal for 4.5 years, where he generalized lessons from solving Paypal problems into popular open source, and a successful teaching career. Both these "extracurricular" efforts improved the engineering culture at Paypal, which was only too happy to let him do his thing.
- Janel Loi's authority putting NewsletterOS and PodcastOS together with No-Code tools informs her new job at On Deck, where she will meet more creators to serve, and also serve them better because she has her ongoing side projects.
- Jack Conte's bands Scary Pockets and Pomplamoose give him the deep empathy, credibility, and outlet he needs in his day job as CEO of Patreon.
- Troy Hunt blogged and wrote online for years before finally finding his ultimate niche as "the Security Guy" with his side project HaveIBeenPwned.com. It isn't a straight line to success - you have to allow for months and years of wandering in the wilderness before you find your thing. Stay employed.
For Part-Time Creators, the ultimate source of synergy with the day job is expertise. Expertise is specific and tacit knowledge. Everything that cannot be taught: all the judgment you hone by doing, all the untold stories and relevant data recalled at your fingertips. Your work history will also give you credibility, although you must not over-represent what you can speak to.
- If you can deliver your expertise concisely, you are now a viable consultant.
- If you can package it into a repeatable process, you have a productized service.
- If you can create something valuable disconnected from your time, you now have a product.
- You don't have to choose; you could offer all three as three different tiers (1x, 2x, 5x) to suit different customer needs, also known as Do It Yourself, Done With You, Done For You pricing. Higher revenue, but more complexity.
The other side of the feedback loop works too. Venture Capitalists often hire "Entrepreneurs in Residence" — former or future CEOs who simply sit in on meetings, give counsel, and look for ideas. I'd like to see a democratization of this to all sorts of employers and expertise fields. The power dynamic completely shifts if a Part Time Creator is hired as an "Expert in Residence" rather than being "given" a job.
Lastly, Part-Time Creators with "real" jobs are infinitely more relatable than Full-Timers. This lets them stay grounded and avoid the Meta Creator Ceiling. This is a trap that many premature Full-Timers run into, because they run out of interesting problems and unique expertise.
I think there's a LOT of folks that want a middle way between being a "My Company is My Life" salaryman and "Stick it to The Man" ronin. We indulge the social media escapism, but we kind of like our normie careers.
Yet, the days of spending 45 years with one company and retiring on a pension, like our parents' parents were promised, are long gone. We need to establish independent value because our employers simply do not have our long term interests at heart.
I'm hopeful for growing acceptance of Part Time Creators from employers, but ultimately, I think more people can already be Part Time Creators in their existing situations. This is not only viable today, but sorely needed. We are all fed up with over-SEO-ed content and generic lowest-common-denominator products. Part Time Creators can offer far more diversity, creativity, and unique expertise to fulfil every niche need of humanity. And they can make money, share valuable knowledge, and have more dignity doing so.
This is my utopian dream for a thriving Creator Middle Class. There's already dozens of us doing it. Join us!
- Steph Smith's You Don't Need to Quit Your Job to Make has some important mindset shifts to undergo this process.
- The usefulness of Purposeful Side Projects by Mark Birch
- Zeno Rocha's journey to 100k in a year with Dracula Pro
- Weekend Club is a paid community of weekend warriors - I have not personally tried it.
- Ask HN: How do I find energy to work on hobbies after the work day ends?
- Working on random side projects may have helped Claude Shannon invent information theory https://timharford.com/2021/05/cautionary-tales-fritterin-away-genius/
- My AMA on long tail infoproducts as a Part Time Creator