How Common are Billion-Dollar Side Projects?

by JP Silva

Personally, one of the most surprising findings from Startups in Action, the book that Apress and I just published, has been that all 10 technology companies I profile in the book started off as side-projects. This means that their founders worked on them while carrying out other professional commitments, which often times took a large proportion of their working weeks. The length in which they worked part-time on their ventures varied considerably, from 2 months in the case of one of the co-founders of StubHub, to about 17 months in the case of the other co-founder of StubHub. The finding is even more startling because it was completely coincidental. The choice of companies profiled in the book was completely random, as it was never my intention to only profile companies that had started as side-projects.

Starting a company while being a full-time student or employee shouldn’t have been as astounding, as for decades we have heard about startups as side-projects, side-hustles, or about moonlighting. But, if we search for ‘moonlighting’ on TechCrunch, a leading publication for startup related news, we come across 18 articles. For a bit of context, if we search for ‘startup’ on TechCrunch we come across 41,668 articles. This means that ‘moonlighting’ is associated with about 0.05% of all the news relating to startups. Not much right? We can of course argue that moonlighting is an ambiguous concept, that could be associated as much with starting a company while being employed as with having a second job. Let’s look at ‘side-hustle’. Again, if we search for ‘side-hustle’ on TechCrunch, the result is 61 articles. It’s getting better, but not extraordinarily better. Let’s look at ‘side-project’ instead. Again, if we search for ‘side-project’ on TechCrunch the result is 1,807 articles, i.e. roughly 5% of all the news relating to startups. A lot better, but still not enough to make it a very visible phenomenon.

Why is this the case? It’s hard to offer a decisive answer, as it’s not a question that has been researched much. Overall, it’s known from past studies that the ability to work on something one is passionate about is a main reason why so many founders combine jobs with side-projects. It’s also well known that as time goes by, the importance of passion as the main motive behind side-projects gradually decreases. Coming back to the initial question, we can speculate that as time goes by and founders become involved full-time in their businesses, the part-time nature of their start becomes less and less a noteworthy element in their journeys. They end up wanting to discuss particular successes, failures, or milestones, instead of how they got started. In hindsight, it is maybe because they were directly asked by me when writing the book that we got to know that all the 10 technology companies started off as side-projects. In any case, it is definitely a defining element in their journeys that should be noted and discussed, particularly when so many aspiring founders are wondering, as we speak, if quitting their full-time jobs is the only option they have to start their technology companies.

Let us know what your thoughts about this and other findings discussed in Startups in Action. Do reach out via Twitter (@startupsinactio), or Instagram (@startupsinaction).

About the Author

JP Silva is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he spent several years researching the development of several technology startups based in the UK and the US. When he is not learning from successful technology startup founders, you can find him working with early stage entrepreneurs, another of his strongest passions.

This article was contributed by JP Silva, author of Startups in Action.