It was fast-approaching the Christmas period in 2013, and Hugh Stephens had an idea.
Through business consulting work at his company Dialogue Consulting, the young Melbourne-based entrepreneur repeatedly encountered the same frustrating issue among his clients: running a business account was annoying and time consuming due to the inability to schedule Instagram posts.
“Through an audit of agency’s activities I discovered there was this massive, horrible time-sink known as Instagram, that everyone hated having to deal with, from the young intern looking after it to the account manager,” Stephens says.
With a lull in work over the holiday period, Stephens decided to turn his attention to solving this problem.
“I thought, surely there’s a better way of doing it,” he says. “But there wasn’t really and I came to discover why. It just rolled there.”
Because Instagram refuses to open its API, it’s difficult for outside parties to create applications allowing posts to be scheduled. But Stephen’s came up with an old school solution: a wall of physical smartphones automating the posting process for clients.
The MVP (‘minimum viable product’, or first-iteration design) for the side project was entirely created during the Christmas break.
“I thought it’d be interesting to have a bit of fun and see if I could smash together a solution for this,” Stephens says. “I thought I’d do it over the Christmas period, it’d be fun and it’d probably die at the start of the next year when I got back into consulting land.
“But it didn’t die, it continued living.”
Schedugram is the archetypal side-project. It was born out of the founder’s own experiences during his full-time job, made in spare time from work and has proved to be overwhelmingly successful.
For the first six months of its existence, Stephens himself handled everything to do with the new startup, from the customer support to development, in his spare time while working on large-scale consulting projects.
After it became clear that the little side project had a life of its own, he started to hire a handful of employees devoted to Schedugram.
“That meant that I could continue doing consulting without the customers getting angry, and it has just gone from there,” he says.
Despite the startup’s ongoing success, Stephens has deliberately chosen to still treat it as a side project in an effort to make it fun and interesting, rather than a full-time job.
“It would frustrate me being stuck just looking after Schedugram,” he says. “I quite enjoy occasionally rolling up my sleeves and writing code, much to the frustration of our developers.
“It’s fun to have something else. Certainly at this stage, three years later, there’s a benefit it gives me so that I can ultimately choose the projects that I want to take on – just the ones that are particularly interesting or challenging, rather than just taking everything.”
But just because it’s a side project doesn’t mean it’s not constantly on Stephens’ mind.
“I still work on it most nights,” Stephens says. “It is continually present but at the same time I’ve never been able to switch off, so that doesn’t make that much of a change.”
Side projects have become an inevitable element of the startup world, driven by the emphasis placed on them by the likes of Google and Atlassian. But Stephens cautions any budding entrepreneur that it’s always harder than you think to get one off the ground.
“A big part of it is that everyone underestimated how hard it is,” he says. “It’s easy to look back and say that Atlassian started as X and Google started as Y, but the thing that people need to think about is what their goal is. Is it something that’s fun, like a tool that might be useful to a few people but never going to be a multimillion-dollar publicly-listed company?
“Or is it the kind of startup that might turn into a full-time thing and make money?
“It’s important for people to be clear about what they hope it’ll become from an early-stage.”
These side projects can provide employees with a creative outlet and may also eventual benefit the company they work for.
“The best businesses are created from some sort of insight,” Stephens says. “There’s an element of insight to trigger the idea, and that’s the first element of customer validation.”
Working on a side project can also help an entrepreneur in their day job, bringing with it new ideas and ways of tackling problems.
“It’s astonishing the number of times where you can take a principle that’s taken as law in one industry and apply it in almost exactly the same way to a totally different industry,” he says.
“There are fantastic insights you can bring to whoever you’re working with, and that gives you a capacity to see how other people in other businesses do things and what elements you can take back to your day job.”