side project

Why Personal Passions and 'Side Projects' Are So Important for Entrepreneurs

Richard Branson loves to kite-ski. David Heinemeier Hansson is a race-car driver. Two other entrepreneurs worked on a sporting goods product for years -- then sold it to Timberland.
Why Personal Passions and 'Side Projects' Are So Important for Entrepreneurs
Image credit: James D. Morgan | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Serial Entrepreneur • CEO at Amerisleep • CEO at OCLU
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Entrepreneurship can be an insular experience. Founders find so many disparate elements of their companies competing for their time that they can't respond adequately to all of them, let alone make time for projects, personal or professional.

Related: Meerkat Was Just a Side Project. Here's How it Became a Viral Sensation.

Yet this attitude can ultimately be unhealthy, and lead entrepreneurs to shut themselves off from the people and pursuits they care about the most.

Personal passions are beneficial for your mental health.

If you are the leader of an organization, you've likely found that you’re expected to operate at peak performance. To meet the challenges that await you, you need to recharge, by taking time for personal pursuits. Not only is this time well spent because it's good for you, but you owe it to your customers and employees not to jeopardize your mental health by getting burned out out on the job.

Burnout occurs because the natural response to feeling professionally overwhelmed is for overworked entrepreneurs to throw themselves more deeply into their work. This is a double-edged sword, because not making time for activities they enjoy will likely increase their stress levels and make it more difficult to be effective leaders.

David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the web development framework Ruby on Rails and founder of Basecamp, wrote on his blog Signal v. Noise that he accomplishes both his personal and professional ambitions by “manufacturing quality time.” With this strategy, he wrote, he is able to work 40 hours a week, sleep eight-and-a-half to nine hours a day and make time to pursue his personal passions. Those passions? In addition to being a best-selling author, Hansson is also a champion race-car driver.

Then there are those semi-professional "side projects" that David Hieatt described on Medium as "You know, those ideas that just won’t go away. That little idea in the back of your head that just keeps bugging you."

Your pursuits help connect you to your family and friends.

The key to strong connections is shared interests and values. These commonalities give you built-in activities to do with others, opportunities to attend social gatherings and topics of conversation interesting to all parties involved. Shared personal interests are among the most important bridges that connect you to your loved ones, and it’s important if you're an entrepreneur to put work into maintaining these personal relationships.

Related: 6 Business Moguls With Seriously Expensive Side Projects

After all, you will need support from these people as you navigate the complicated journey of creating and operating a business. While your friends and family may not be familiar with the specific difficulties you face, they know you well and can comfort and assist you when the need arises.

For billionaire and serial entrepreneur Richard Branson, for example, exercise is a daily must. As a result, Branson can be found kite-surfing. And when he invited Barack Obama to Necker Island, the entrepreneur used their shared love for water sports to bond and unwind.

Personal projects can be a substitute for work ambitions

People who work traditional 9-to-5 jobs talk wistfully about the possibility of becoming entrepreneurs in order to do something they are passionate about. That's a nice idea in theory, and in some cases it works. But people who have actually taken the steps to start their own company know entrepreneurship is more often driven by customers and markets than it is personal passions.

So, while the dream of turning a hobby into a successful company still prevails, many business experts will remind you that the market is driven by opportunity, not personal interest.

That’s one more reason why it’s important for you to adopt pursuits outside of running your businesses. After all, you may be passionate about serving your customers, but the day-to-day realities of managing the company are sometimes going to drain you of your enthusiasm.

Consider David Hieatt, the writer of the Medium article who owns Hiut Denim Co., with his wife Clare started their hockey tape business Howies as a "side project" in 1995.

They didn't make money off it until 2001. "It was our ‘side project’ for six years before it became the thing that put food on our table. How did we fund ourselves over that time? Simply, by keeping our day jobs," Hieatt wrote.

Eventually, that little side project paid off. It got sold to Timberland. What did the couple use the money for? More side projects.

"For me, the importance of ‘side projects’ is to allow that precious time for a young idea to be protected from the world," Hieatt wrote. He described those side projects as something into which he and Clare can channel their creativity and passion, without the financial stress of having to grow revenue or even turn a profit.

After all, there are no deadlines, and risks are permissable. And, most importantly, these personal projects can be a source of fun and happiness. In growing my own company, Amerisleep, I learned that my business can only thrive when I’m successfully balancing work responsibilities alongside my personal interests.

Related: Starting a Side Business? Here are 5 Steps to Avoid Getting Fired

By regularly enjoying personal pursuits, you’re better able to maintain passion for your work and feel fulfilled personally and professionally. There is a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, and it demands respect and attention, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend every waking hour solely devoted to making money.

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