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Sparks and Experiments: The Right Way to Manage and Execute Side Projects

Balancing boundary-pushing side projects and client work requires a structure for innovation.

As usual, B-Reel started out with an absurd question: “What if you could control a toy with your mind?”

After a few weeks of tinkering and collecting hardware, the New York-based digital production company (and AdAge’s production company of the year) eventually created Mind Scalextrics, slot cars controlled solely through an apparatus that measures brain activity. The more the player concentrated, the faster the cars traveled. It was crazy straight-from-the-movies stuff.

Normally, after a project like this, the B-Reel team would look forward to glowing reviews from the client. But this time there was no client. It was strictly an experiment, a side project conducted on company time.

As individuals, there is little stopping us from picking up a hobby or creating a project just for ourselves. But when it comes to an entire organization, it’s a bit harder to work on something “for fun.” There are clients to serve, deadlines to make.

Like many agencies, B-Reel became concerned when it noticed that interesting internal ideas were being squashed by the steady stream of client work. Sure, the creative restraints of contract deadlines can lead to additional innovation (and pay the bills), but it can also suffocate other ideas.

“When you constantly have client work, it’s easy to let your other ideas become zombies.” says B-Reel creative director Riccardo Giraldi.

So they wondered, what would happen if they made themselves the client? What if they created an entire product division, meant to execute internal “what if…” and “wouldn’t it be cool…” ideas?

Think of it as a take on Google’s “20 percent” time, but fit within an agency. It’s a structure fluid enough to foster free-flowing collaboration and a model they think can be duplicated by others.

The structure is always changing, but here’s how B-Reel makes those internal ideas into full-fledged projects like mind-control cars or a video game that makes it impossible to stand still:

1. Capture loose ideas as “sparks.”

Ideas stemming from internal conversations are recorded in a company-wide Google Doc as a “spark.” B-Reel advises that you record every idea, no matter how trivial.

“Maybe an idea seems like a bad fit because we don’t see the opportunities, or maybe because the market is not ready, or the technology is not ready,” says B-Reel executive producer Clemens Brandt. “But having this pool of sparks is a really strong asset.”

2. Improve the idea.

On a weekly basis, Giraldi and Brandt comb through the sparks and select the ones that have potential to be turned into internal projects or experiments. To determine this, they ask themselves a handful of questions:

  • Is it scalable?
  • Is there a market here?
  • Can it eventually help our clients?
  • Will it build buzz or press?
  • Can it become a stand-alone product?

They then assemble an internal team to execute the idea. Participants are assigned according to interest, not job title, and are often designers or developers with some downtime between projects.

Riccardo Giraldi controls a slot car with his mind

Riccardo Giraldi works on Mind Scalextrics while wearing a headset that measures brain activity.

3. Suggest a short experiment.

The team delivers an “experiment suggestion” to a rotating board of nine senior employees. Each experiment suggestion must list its measurements for success as well as the opportunities for the firm. The board approval acts as a reality check against groupthink by subjecting the ideas to people who’ve never seen them before.

4. Execute a limited test of the idea.

Now, the fun part. All experiments have a strict limit of two to three weeks and are given resources just like any client project. Some projects can be done with just one person, others require a larger team.

“At the same time, rules are meant to be broken,” says Giraldi. “If one project we had showed a lot of potential, we would gain the confidence to invest a little more time and hours.”

5. Analyze the results and measure success.

After the experiment is over, the firm looks back at the original experiment suggestion document and measure its success.

“Sometimes new doors open and new opportunities appear. Sometimes it’s hard for direct evaluation between our expectation and what happens at the end,” says Giraldi. Mainly, they ask: Did the firm gain knowledge? Did a product emerge? A chance for good press?

Using the above process, the company recently unveiled Escape Flight, a flight search engine designed to make planning a weekend getaway from London easy. If all goes well, it will also be expanded to other cities.

In the frenzy of creative work, it’s easy to neglect our own projects, or to think side projects are only a luxury enjoyed by larger organizations. But every organization, no matter how small, likely has idle resources to use for experimentation.

And side projects have side benefits: they maximize the existing team’s talent and ideas. At best, the team creates a product that can be shown to the world. At worst, the side project reinvigorates the team’s creativity.

How about you?

How do you balance side projects with other work?

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (6)
  • Tushar K Motwani

    Well collated thoughts. Love the ‘Escape Flight’ website

  • Josh Long

    Sean, I really enjoyed this article. You made some really good points. We literally wrote the book on this topic: Cheers!

  • Startup animations

    Currently trying different approaches as we were finding we were flipping from one idea to the other and not gaining momentum. Read this article which has given us some ideas of how to focus our experimental time and to believe that eventual this will result in something tangible

  • PetravanBerkum

    Thanks for the inspiration, I like the positivity. But you know…there is limited time for your ‘own’ idea, especially with today’s economic status…I feel like I can’t take the risk to develop my own idea for real. It costs lots of time, it’s like a luxury thing to do, whenever you have the time next to client work. But if you even don’t have client work, it’s pretty hard.

  • Wena

    I have been struggling with this ever since I graduated and honestly, your article stood out to me because I needed a lifeline. The fear of failure is huge and the weight on my shoulders to be a provider over fulfilling my dreams makes me choose the safe route. However, you are showing that both are possible. Thank you,

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