Designing the future


How Side Projects Are Changing the Way We Market

Pick your poison: Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. It doesn’t matter.

Your feed is overloaded with content.

Updates from your friends and family mix with company messages and the latest media propaganda.

If you’re trying to market your business, you’re no longer just competing with other companies, you’re competing with the people closest to your customers. If you want to cut through the content clutter, you need to meet your customers with a new approach.

Presenting the hustle to your side hustle

In marketing, we like to flaunt the word “value”. We think value is something we can easily give our customers through writingbut blogging can require months of work before you see any real traction. The old gold standard of marketingblog posts, webinars, and infographicsjust won’t cut it when you need to build your audience base quickly. So what can you do instead to offer something useful to others? You need to build a tool.

A great example of this is the company behind the free stock photo website, Unsplash. The company who built it, Crew, had three months of cash left and needed to find customers fast. After searching through crappy stock photo websites for a website header, one of the company’s founders, Mikael Cho, was fed up and hired a professional photographer instead. Since Crew had leftover photos from the shoot, they decided to give them away for free. A $19 Tumblr theme and 3 hours later, Unsplash was live and featured 10 photos that linked back to Crew’s homepage.

After sharing the link for Unsplash on HackerNews, visitors came pouring in. In less than an afternoon, 50,000 people had visited Unsplash and today the website grosses over 11 million users a month.

The new tools of marketing are tools

Unsplash was created as a side project and managed to provide a seamless, shareable solution for people seeking high quality photos. No accounts are required to download photos and the website URL isn’t even associated to Crew’s domain name. This is subtle marketing, it is useful without being suffocating.

Worried about the ROI and time that you have to put into working on a marketing side project? Well, if you focus on projects that are low-risk, low-pressure, and a labor of love, you’ll find that their shelflife far outlives your other marketing efforts.

If you’re looking to start a side project for marketing, consider these 3 steps:

Start Small

Your marketing side project shouldn’t take a lot of time or money and it should offer your target audience something useful. Designer Jessica Hische found a way to do just this in the competitive world of freelance design by creating ‘Should I work for free’ and ‘Daily Drop Cap’ in her spare time. Both of these projects act as resources for other designers and helped Hische launch her career into lettering.

By offering small, easy to use resources you can build something quickly that has a lasting impact.

Listen to Repeat Requests

Tina Roth Eisenberg follows the mantra “don’t complain, create.” She was frustrated by the lack of human intimacy computer screens create in our relationships. Instead of complaining about it, she built CreativeMorningsa breakfast lecture series for the creative community. She started the series in New York City and didn’t have any plans to expand it, but attendees were so enthralled with the idea that it soon grew to Zurich, San Francisco, and beyond.

People kept asking Eisenberg for more and more of these events and she listened. CreativeMornings now hosts 157 chapters in cities across the world. If people repeatedly ask you a question, find a way to build a tool that answers their request. This will not only save you time from answering the question again, but it’ll creating a lasting resource for clients and prospects alike.

Tie Them Into Your Brand Values

The strongest side projects align to your brand, allowing you to experiment with product ideas and attract new opportunities. InVision’s UI kit, Do, is a great example. Finding beautifully designed and easy to use UI kits is a pain for designers. InVision addresses this with Do by offering a free resource that doesn't integrate to the InVision platform. At first this might seem counterintuitive, but InVision understands the immense value that Do provides designers. This allows InVision to show how dedicated they are to UX/UI design and create a buzz around their brand.


Don’t wade through the sea of existing content and continue to create the same stuff as the next brand. If you want to build something useful for your customers and standout from the competition, start making tools.