Nine years ago this month, in a small spare bedroom in Stoke-on-Trent, I started my own side project. Frustrated with the impact of the global recession and how fellow creatives were struggling to find and win work, I wanted to do something to help. To champion those who deserved to be heard. So Creative Boom was born.
I didn't borrow any money. I just bootstrapped my little venture using what skills and spare time I had to get my online magazine going. It was July 2009. Back then, I had no idea Creative Boom would become the platform it is today.
With half a million monthly readers, over 220,000 followers on social media, a reach that spreads to all four corners of the globe and subsequent paying advertisers – it's exceeded my expectations. It's also benefited my business, Boomerang, which has since established itself in Manchester and attracted clients such as Manchester City Football Club and BBC.
A side project like mine can definitely bring many benefits and one day, like Creative Boom, yours could turn into a business in its own right!
But you don't have to start a magazine. You could start anything! How about something like Women in Print? An ongoing exhibition and cause organised by illustrator Jane Bowyer that has opened many doors for her. (She's currently collaborating with the National Trust, don't you know!) Or how about creating and selling some prints via an online gallery? Like Nine By Nine, a joint project dreamt up by Corryn Boyes and Adam Oldfield, which is proving to be a success.
Like these other creatives, I have always been determined. I wholeheartedly believe in my side project. And this month, I'm celebrating its ninth year. How did this happen? Here, I will attempt to share what I've learnt since its inception. The highs, the lows, and how I kept going.
Ditch the negative inner monologue
If you're paralysed by the thought that your side project won't work, or that too many others have already made a success of a similar idea, do it anyway.
When I came up with the idea for Creative Boom, there were plenty of wonderful blogs and magazines already specialising in art and design. Juxtapoz was one of them. Colossal was another. Lost at E Minor too.
But there's always room for more. Don't let those negative thoughts stop you from starting something that could ultimately change your life. Ditch the procrastination. What small step could you take today to begin your side project?
Find a niche
By all means, be inspired by those other side projects that you admire. Just don't copy them. Instead, find a niche. Something that sets you apart.
For Creative Boom, I started to write tips articles, covering career, freelancing, marketing, clients and self. These proved very popular and posts I've written five years ago still attract high traffic today (this being one of them).
No one else at the time was covering both inspiration and tips. It was either one or the other but never mixed together. This concerned me somewhat. Was I making things complicated? Did people really want to see articles on the latest illustration projects alongside tips on how to be happy? Turned out, they did.
Have a mission
What's the driving force behind your side project? If someone asked you why it exists, what would you say?
For me, Creative Boom celebrates, inspires and supports the creative community. I can elaborate on this and explain that my audience is mainly graduates, independents, freelancers and agency owners, working in the creative industries (all true), but the very core of my magazine's existence is to champion creativity everywhere.
What's your mission? Why should people engage with your side project? Because without authentic passion behind your venture, you're doomed to failure. This has to be something you not only believe in but is something that you feel could make a difference in people's lives.
Believe in your venture
If I could give you just one tip when it comes to side projects, it's this – have faith in what you're doing, even when others don't. Believe that you're going to succeed with all your heart and soul. It's this rock-solid belief that will carry you through those hard times and moments of self-doubt.
Here's an interesting story for you. Whilst freelancing at an agency many moons ago, I shared a sneak peek of Creative Boom to someone who worked there. He laughed. But not in a kind way. Skip ahead a few years and that same chap emailed, asking to be featured.
I could share many similar stories. Not many people have believed in Creative Boom over the years. Saying that the media industry is dying and it'll never work. I've always just shrugged my shoulders and thought otherwise. Because it is working. It's making money. It's giving me a voice... connections. It's sending me around the world. Most importantly, I enjoy every single minute.
Remember, people have high expectations these days. Unless you're making millions, they don't see the point. (More on this later.)
Have a voice
If your side project was a person, who would they be? How would they speak and behave? Are they friendly and fun? Or serious and corporate? Who do you think your audience would prefer hanging out with? Having a clear persona in mind will inform everything you write, tweet and create. And it will help you emotionally connect with your audience too.
With Creative Boom, I imagine it's a very friendly kind of person. One you could enjoy a pint with, down your local pub. I consider it to be positive and light without any judgment. It certainly doesn't take itself seriously. And I try and keep it that way.
The creative industries can suffer from a little pretension. We all know that. But I didn't want Creative Boom to come across that way. I wanted my magazine to feel like a warm hug. A safe place. One that champions and celebrates creative people without any negativity. Somewhere even the freshest folk could feel welcome.
Choose your own voice. Something that appeals to your target audience. And don't lose confidence or go off track. Be bold and know your side project like an old friend. Stick to your values and your reputation will grow.
Branding should take priority
If you're going to invest, spend money on your brand. Make your venture have an appealing visual identity and roll it out across all your channels. Your aim is to become memorable, instantly recognisable, trustworthy and credible.
During the early days of Creative Boom, I couldn't afford to spend money on good design. I used Wordpress themes and templates to get started. It wasn't ideal. But further down the line, I started to hire designers and that's when the web traffic started to go up significantly.
Our latest iteration has been the most successful to date. And, thanks to income made from sponsored articles and advertising campaigns from brands like Adobe, Yahoo and Samsung, we've been able to create an identity that we're really proud of.
When you look at branding, think about your project's voice and how your identity and name might reflect its personality. For us, we created an 'eyes' icon that follows the mouse cursor around the screen or rolls back and forth on mobile, as though reading the text below. It injects a subtle hint of who we are: fun, positive and friendly.
When considering a name, choose something catchy. One that's available as a handle on all the major social media networks and as a web domain.
Creative Boom is certainly a catchy name. I actually spent two minutes coming up with it. But I didn't think about the long-term... As in, would I have access to the '.com' domain? Would the username be available on Twitter? Turns out, they weren't. Although I did end up purchasing the 'creativeboom.com' for a rather large sum several years ago.
Keep going, even when things get tough
Perseverance alone won't make your side project successful, but it has a very important part to play. When things aren't working, perseverance will encourage you to try a new approach.
Take Creative Boom, for example. It's changed enormously since 2009. I've tried different sections and types of content as well as various designs. It's been a process. A journey, if you will. Lots of trial and error has led to its current version. And, thankfully, it's working. For now. I'm not resting on my laurels. And you shouldn't either. A side project, like any venture, is a journey. You have to continuously find new ways to move forward, particularly in this demanding digital era.
Don't be afraid to try new things. Test everything. Even ask your audience what they think. Become savvy with Google Analytics. Analyse stats on social media too. There is no excuse. The data is there to explore and decipher. Use it to your benefit to keep improving your side project.
See the benefit of consistency
Once your side project has been perfected to suit your audience, it's time to be consistent. People are creatures of habit. They find comfort in routine. With this in mind, you'll want your side project to be something they can rely on for consistency.
For example, with Creative Boom I run tips every Wednesday, interviews every Thursday and my weekly newsletter is fired out every Tuesday. On Instagram, I share regular updates like #MondayMotivation or #ThrowbackThursday. It's a routine my audience has come to expect.
Consistency evokes quality and reliability. It becomes part of people's routines. Whatever your side project is, you can find a way to be consistent and remain on your audience's radar.
Celebrate and shout about the achievements
I admit I've had mixed feelings about Creative Boom over the years. There have been times when I've been embarrassed by it. Thinking it's not good enough. That others are doing a better job. Still do, occasionally.
That's only natural. Even the brightest and best amongst us have moments of self-doubt. It's how we keep going. It's how we succeed. But we shouldn't put ourselves down or dismiss our successes. You have to pat yourself on the back when you deserve to. Celebrate the little (and big) achievements along the way.
What's more, don't be shy – shout about them! Tell people how well you're doing. Put some impressive stats out there. It's not showing off. It's simply a way to attract a larger audience and impress your boss or attract new clients. You've got to hustle. And self-marketing is part of that.
Remember the golden rule: it's not about money
If you're going to make this side project work, then you have to love it with all your heart. Why? Because you're going to have to roll up your sleeves and work very hard, often without any financial return. Which means that if your only motivation is money, you're just going to fail.
Passion (not forecasted profits) for a side project will encourage ongoing grit and stubborn determination like nothing else. The very ingredients that will ensure success. (You're going to lose evenings and weekends, believe me!)
With Creative Boom, I've spent 108 months, 3,240 days and 20,000 hours dealing with over 250,000 emails, writing thousands of articles and sending millions of tweets and updates. Today, I've got a team of writers and legitimate ad revenue but it wasn't always this way. I'd say at least four years of Creative Boom was voluntary.
It's not easy. Which is why you should remember the golden rule. Your side project isn't primarily about making money. If your only goal is to get rich, then it won't work. No. Your side project should be something you enjoy. And if you love it, you'll naturally make it happen. You won't mind the sacrifice or the late nights. (It won't always be like that – it gets easier!) Then, if your venture starts making a profit in future, it's a huge bonus.
Why should you start your own side project? It's a great way to raise your profile, add something impressive to your CV or attract new clients if you freelance. It's a way of giving something back and opening up a network you didn't have access to before.
It's a conversation starter. Something a little extra to talk about before people's eyes glaze over. It's another tick in the box. A chance to showcase your skills. It demonstrates character. It builds skills and experience you never thought possible. It could even take you around the world. So, here's the big question... What side project are you going to start today?