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Why side projects are essential for creatives—and employers should embrace them

October 5, 2023

Last week, an internal memo from Shopify’s CEO leaked, stating that the company is tightening its policy about employee side projects. Here’s a blurb from the memo, written by Tobi Lütke:

Shopify is like a professional sports team that requires our unshared attention. When you're at Shopify, we are building the entrepreneurship company for millions of entrepreneurs around the world, and that is our main quest. We all need to…think and act like founders, and build Shopify as if it is our own.

Although I understand this point of view, I think it’s a big steaming pile of BS. Here’s why.

Nearly eight years ago, a friend and I started fiddling with the early ideas that turned into Hello Weather. At the time, we were hungry to learn about building iOS apps, but our day jobs didn’t have a way for us to do that. So we decided to try making something in our spare time.

The project wasn’t intended to go anywhere, but we immediately had a lot of fun working on it. It felt new and energizing, since we had freedom to make weird decisions that would never fly in a corporate environment. We had to wear multiple hats, and learn about aspects of product development that we hadn’t personally experienced before—like setting up a business, doing marketing and promotion, deciding on pricing models, and a million other things.

Eventually, the app was real enough that we wanted to put it in the App Store, but there was a big problem: our employer had a tough policy about side projects.

The policy was a bit vague, but it was spiritually similar to Shopify’s new stance. The gist was, please don’t do stuff on the side. The company mostly wanted you to devote your attention and creativity to them alone.

I was feeling terribly anxious that our app would be blocked by the policy, so I reached out, explained the situation honestly, and asked for permission. Thankfully, the company was cool about it, and they revised the policy to be much more supportive about this sort of thing. We were able to launch the app and continue working on it for years after.

I’m so glad that happened!

That project is my favorite thing I’ve worked on in my 20+ year career. This modest little app remains the purest expression of how I want to make software.

It’s been a valuable creative outlet, and a useful contrast to the strenuous complexity of working on massive-scale products. It also gave me a much deeper appreciation for what it takes to run a company, and what it’s like to make all the tough decisions. (It’s really hard!)

Ironically, all of this made me much better at my full time job. I wouldn’t be nearly as versatile or empathetic at work without this experience. The feedback loop between the two has been ovewhelmingly positive.

Now onto the “founder’s mindset” that Tobi alludes to in his memo.

To be frank, this is nonsense. If you aren’t the founder of a company, you don’t get any of the benefits of being a founder. Expecting employees to act like company owners is extractive manipulation.

This ideology tends to take much more from employees than it gives back. They’ll develop an unhealthy mentality that their total dedication—and likely overwork—is essential to the company’s success. But it’s not, and most employees will never see personal returns like a founder might, regardless of how much they believe in the mission and grind it out.

Tech companies aren’t sports teams, either. No one is getting international notoriety and multi-million dollar endorsement deals because they’re great at programming a website! Let’s be real about this.

And on the subject of ownership: when an employee leaves a company, they don’t own any of the work they did there. The company owns all of it, and they might even restrict people from sharing or talking about it at all. This is the opposite of being a founder with an ownership stake. The mindset thing is just a delusion.

To be clear—tech employees absolutely can influence the success of the companies they work for, by taking charge and driving work forward. But their level of commitment should be commensurate with their compensation and authority at the company.

So what’s the best way to help employees develop a founder’s mindset?

Let them found things! Give creative people the freedom to be creative in whatever dimensions they want.

The key is setting clear boundaries, and trusting people to honor them. A fair arrangement is like this:

  1. No conflicts of interest – don’t work on a thing that’s the same as your full time gig. If you work at Slack, don’t make a chat app. This should be obvious.
  2. Prioritize your day job – you agreed to work full time for a company, so work full time. That means 40 hours. Give the company your best, and don’t spend your attention at work moonlighting on something else.

But after that, the rest of your time is yours. If you have the chance, try a project that enriches your point of view or diversifies your experience. Don’t just do a side hustle; find a side passion. You’ll be better for it, and your day job will be too.