No matter how much people enjoy their work, sometimes they get stuck in the monotony of doing repeatable tasks. Working on a feature, implementing it, and jumping to the next one again right off the bat might cause a lull in their creativity and innovative thinking. Everyone needs a break sometimes.
You can help break the monotonous routine in your company by organizing side project days, hackathons, and programming marathons. During these events, employees are encouraged to step back and focus on something outside of their main work, inspire new ideas, think quickly, and innovate.
The benefits of investing in side projects can be incredible. Creative flow and energy come back to employees, and it’s also beneficial for a company in the long run. Gmail, AdSense, Google Maps, Slack, Twitter, EasyTaxi, Groupon, and Carousell all started as side projects.
Side projects and hackathons
The most famous side project initiative is perhaps Google’s “20% project.” It encouraged employees to spend 20% of their time working on creative projects. Google’s policy was announced in Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s 2004 IPO letter to prospective Google shareholders. It was also mentioned in official documents like press releases and company blog posts. It’s worth mentioning that 3M launched the 15 percent program in 1948, but Google would neither confirm nor deny that the idea for its program came from 3M. What’s important is that plenty of other large tech companies have implemented their own takes on 20 percent time, including innovative companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Apple.
Side projects can take many different forms. One of them is a hackathon. A hackathon is an event in which you set an amount of time, usually ranging from a day to a week, when you’re challenged to complete a project from start to finish. This is often done outside of your typical responsibilities. The goal of a hackathon is to create functioning software or hardware by the end of the event. Originally dedicated to Silicon Valley tech companies, hackathons have gone mainstream and are popular in the corporate world too.
Atlassian adopted a “20 percent time” policy in 2008, or as they describe it, “24 hours to innovate. It's like 20% time. On steroids.” Every quarter, they run a 24-hour hackathon called Shiplt where they drop everything to make something awesome. It embodies their culture of innovation and puts weight behind a sacred company value called “Be the change you seek.”
At LiveChat, we have a few years of tradition for organizing side project days and hackathons. It started with small hackathons dedicated to our developers. Then we had side project days on Fridays for a while, and everyone from the company could participate. Finally, we’ve opened our doors to the world and hosted a public hackathon. We invited programmers from outside of our company to join in the fun. As a result, we hired the core team of ChatBot (our other product). That was great for recruitment!
Those initiatives brought us a great team, and they allowed us to create many successful projects. One of the first side projects, that turned out to be the most popular, was the Typing Speed Test. The Typing Speed Test is an online tool that allows you to check the speed of your typing. Depending on the score you achieve, you can either be a turtle, dino, or octopus. You can share the results with others on social media and invite them to compete with you.
Side project day: Building the Typing Speed Test
The Typing Speed Test was supposed to be a creative challenge and a getaway from everyday mundane tasks. It turned out to be a great marketing growth hack.
Filip Jaskolski, our Platform Manager, built the Typing Speed Test, almost six years ago. The idea came from Szymon, our CMO. They both thought it would be a nice, fun side project with some marketing potential. We're a company building text-based products, so our primary intention was to create a tool that helps our customers advance their skill in typing. At that time, Filip was a developer in the Marketing Department, and he also wanted to experiment with growth techniques and learn new distribution methods. The Typing Speed Test turned out to be the perfect opportunity for that.
Quickly, it became one of the most visited webpages on our website. Filip shared with us a story about building the Typing Speed Test and how it came to life.
“I started with thorough research. Going through multiple, similar tools helped me to figure out the most essential parts. I noted what I liked about these tools and what I didn’t. I also reached out for more professional resources on the topic – believe it or not, there are tons of academic resources on typing. I dug through theses and research papers to learn more about speed typing theory and practicing typing.
The research gave me one design principle. I wanted our tool to be dead simple yet easily distinguishable from the other tests. Inspired by Spritz, an app enabling you to read at outstanding speeds, I decided to go with a similar, one-line layout.
At the time, I was heavily inspired by "Hooked," a book by Nir Eyal. We knew if we aimed to have an impact in the flooded market, we needed a reliable hook and distribution mechanisms. The book gave me two more principles: the design has to catch users' attention and encourage them to invite others to the competition.
These principles resulted in a working MVP that had elegant UI and a distribution loop baked in. As a web developer at the time, I was happy with the result. But that was still not enough!
Julia, a graphic designer on our marketing team at the time, illustrated cute animals resembling the levels of users' advancement. Users could identify themselves with a turtle, dino, or octopus and easily share them on social media.
From the distribution standpoint, another essential bit was SEO. Our content team and Szymon himself put a great effort into making the test page rank high in SERP. We soon got to the very top.
Apart from distribution, we cared about users' retention. This is why Jedrek, a web developer at the time, put together a backend service to host users' results and help them track their progress. Users could sign in with Facebook and have their test results stored.”
Filip said that the competition was massive at that time, but they focused on what they could control to make their project better.
“There were many highly successful typing tools and apps out there. Most of them aim to profit from their users, resulting in UIs overloaded with ads and paid features. We never sought to make the tool directly profitable, which was some advantage, but we were never sure it would be enough. We focused on what we could control and simply did our best.
All in all, this teamwork resulted in an overwhelming success. We ended up with 4 million tests performed every month, press mentions, and various influencers sharing their results. Dozens of teams performed internal competitions using our tool. Who knew?”
Filip admitted that success didn’t happen overnight, and they needed some time to get the machine going.
“It took us eight months to reach 100,000 tests per month. Somewhere around this time, we saw the distribution loop really kick in. Almost every user brought at least a few additionla users who were new. I learned a ton while building this project from a developer’s perspective. I also had a lot of fun!”
Recently Filip joined Kaia for a quick interview about the Typing Speed Test. And yes, she persuaded him to perform the test on camera. Are you curious about how he performed? Check out this video:
Organizing side projects and hackathons: Make sure it’s long term
Before you decide to organize side projects and hackathons in your company, you need to be aware of a few issues. It’s one thing to give employees the time for side projects and to come up with new ideas. But it’s a whole different story to make sure that their project will be implemented. There’s nothing more discouraging than a whole day spent building a feature without the possibility to follow through with it. You always need to think about those initiatives in the long term. Will this event be repeatable? Are we able to work on the features that got enough votes or won the side project day? Are we OK with creating new teams to only work on that feature?
It takes some planning and adjusting everyday tasks to accommodate it as well. Google’s 20% policy was a great start, but later employees said it’s hard to dedicate time to it. Some even mentioned that they would have to work 20% more, beyond their regular hours, in order to actually be able to work on their side projects.
It’s important to establish goals when it comes to these type of events and to try and find the right balance. What do you want to achieve? Is it original thinking, a creativity boost among your employees, and innovative ideas for your product? Or is it all of those things? Are you able to follow through with the new projects? Or maybe you want to attract the brightest minds around the world to develop innovation in your industry in general? If that’s the case, organizing an external hackathon as a competition with prizes is a good way to go.
We recently tried that ourselves when we hosted our first worldwide, virtual hackathon called .txtlss.
The importance of creativity and innovation in tech
Side project days can break up mundane work and bring a lot of original thinking. Having this type of momentum in creativity might help in everyday work as well.
As Filip states, “I'm really grateful that we can pursue side projects and experiment with new ideas. I think it's vital to maintain a creative and open-minded environment at work.”
Increased energy combined with new ideas helps to look at current projects with a new perspective. That’s how innovation begins. It helps to address customers’ pain points and build products that make a difference in their lives. And that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?