Saturday, September 5, 2009

Side projects overtaking the main project, and thoughts on failure

I was reading this Louis Gray post about a Blogger 10th anniversary panel and saw this quote from Evan Williams, formerly of Pyra Labs and now of Twitter:

We started Blogger as a side project, which we wanted to draw attention to our real product. It took me a year to shake that notion and kill the other product.

That other product, by the way, was called Pyra and was intended to be "a web application for project management, to-do lists and contacts." But the original product, Pyra, eventually went away. Actually, it didn't - you can still find Pyra.

Anyway, Pyra the web product went away and Pyra Labs became known for another product, Blogger.

Sound familiar? It should. A few years later there was a company called Odeo that was into podcasting. And here's how Evan told the story in a March 2009 New York Times article:

Several years ago I started Odeo, a podcasting company, with Noah Glass, another friend. I ran that company for 18 months. We started Twitter as a side project within Odeo during that time.

I didn’t like the direction Odeo was going. For one thing, Apple made a lot of what we worked on obsolete when it introduced podcasts into iTunes. I bought Odeo back from the investors and moved the assets to another company of mine, Obvious, a Web product development lab now on hiatus. In 2007, I sold Odeo and spun off Twitter into a separate company.

Now you can't find Odeo at IKEA, but these two examples from @ev's life are just two examples in which someone was really working at developing something...and ended up having success with something else instead. Perhaps these projects could have been killed, and the bosses could have demanded that the employees work on the "real" product...but they didn't.

In fact, Google (who employed Ev after Pyra Labs was sold) has pretty much institutionalized the idea of working on side projects. Known as "20 percent time" or "innovation time off," the New York Times explained why this works so well for Google:

It sounds obvious, but people work better when they’re involved in something they’re passionate about...

And the results are impressive:

...and many cool technologies have their origins in 20 percent time, including Gmail, Google News and even the Google shuttle buses that bring people to work at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Of course, I'm sure that 20% time has also produced a load of less-than-viable ideas. But Tha Mama Bee argues that even failure is good:

These activities may benefit the company’s bottom line – as in the case of Gmail, Google News, AdSense and Orkut. But more importantly they keep employees challenged and engaged in ways that aid retention and keep staff learning and growing....

Imagine a scenario where you could spend 20% of your time on projects that you think could benefit your company or world, and that you “own.” That could stimulate you to think differently and passionately about the other 80% of your work, leading to a more fulfilling professional experience.

And Mama Bee says the following regarding failure:

In some ways innovation, like so many other things, is a numbers game. You throw up 50 projects, and maybe one or two stick. Most will fail, but you can’t know which will work unless you try. Failure is a critical p[art of true innovation.

Now there are certainly some environments in which failure is not an option, but for many environments, failure can be a wonderful thing.
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