Modern Mechanix Cover.jpg

What hobby or skill would you develop if you could find the time and energy to work on it every day? The answer to this question may provide a major level-up for your creativity, career and company. 

So many of us are so busy being Professionals that we forget to be Amateurs.  The word Amateur comes from the Old French meaning "lover of", and ultimately from the Latin amatorem meaning "lover". But these days being called an amateur is often a put-down. 

Many great companies and products have grown out amateur hobbies and side-projects though. Yuppie Chef, the popular South African e-commerce company, is a good example of this. It grew out of a side-project at Live Alchemy where staff were playing a game to see who could conceptualize and launch a business in a day - and a couple of kitchen-geeks in the team did that and just kept going. 

Jamiix, a South African IM support business that is now operating in four countries, grew out of a young man's desire to help curb drug addiction in his neighbourhood. 

Woothemes, one of the world's top Wordpress theme development companies, was developed after-hours by Adii while he was working for a large printing company. He offered the CEO the opportunity to buy-into his side-venture and to run it as a business-unit within the company but his offer was declined. Within a year Woothemes was making more money every week than Adii originally valued the whole venture.

Twitter grew out of a side-project at the now-defunct podcasting start-up Odeo. 

Apple Inc. grew out of a border-line-illegal little blue box that the young Jobs and Woz built that basically hacked telephone networks so you could make free long-distance calls.

And if you want to know what the start of this process called "innovation" looks like, read the following two forum posts:

Here's Linus Torvalds announcing Linux 

Hello everybody out there using minix -

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing
since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on
things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
(same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons)
among other things). 

Larry Sanger posted about the experiment that would turn into Wikipedia as follows:

No, this is not an indecent proposal.  It's an idea to add a little

feature to Nupedia.  Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the

idea objectionable, but I think not.

"Wiki," pronounced \wee'-kee\, derives from a Polynesian word,

"wikiwiki," but what it means is a VERY open, VERY publicly-editable series of web

pages... 

On the front page of the Nupedia wiki we'd make it ABSOLUTELY clear that this is experimental, that Nupedia editors don't have control of what goes on here, and that the quality of articles, discussion, etc., should not be taken as a reflection of the quality of articles, review, etc. on the main part of the Nupedia website. Does anyone have an objection to our trying this out? Larry

I think that’s what the beginning of innovation is like - not really sure of itself, perhaps a little cheeky, but backed by a person's commitment. Also note that the authors of these posts above aren’t trying to keep their idea secret, not asking readers to sign NDAs, just trying to get the support of others.  

The thing is, it's not the idea that succeeds. It's that you manage to put it into practice and help it gather momentum. 

What about big established companies? These are the hardest to change, because of the many established routines and practices that people have. 

Google has a process called "Innovation Time Off", where employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on side-projects. This practice has given rise to products such as GMail, Google News, Google Transit, and their main money-maker AdSense. 

Sometimes it's not even that radical. Say, for example, you want to do more gardening but you're stuck at work the whole day. So you start a little guerilla gardening around the office - it starts with a pot-plant, then a window-box, then others join you. Soon the office is blossoming, literally, a company herb garden is estabished, people's moods and productivity improve and a greater awareness of the natural environment is fostered. Do you think that this could make a difference to the culture and results? I believe so. 

Another great example of this kind of small but significant change can be seen in the Standard Bank's "Takkie Day". Branch Manager Maggie Lesele started helping customers get served while they were still lining up outside the branch on pay-day, and soon expanded this service ethic to getting her staff to start wearing running shoes instead of high-heels on these days in order to serve customers faster. This has been a resoundingly successful initiative that has spread to other branches around South Africa, while providing a brand-boost to Africa's largest retail bank. 

So, Im interested in your next small idea. That little something in your world that you think you could improve, or that project you want to do because it might just turn into something (or not).

Have you ever had a side-project or experiment turn into something bigger? Please share and help inspire others to start on theirs.