Collaborative Hobby Project Essentials

So what is it?

Do you have a great idea, but you’re afraid to take the risk and leave your job? You like what you’re doing, but you search for fun activity with a bunch of nice people? You’re searching for another way to practice your creativity or your leadership skills?

What the hell… it doesn’t matter. Just set a mission. Commit to it. And have fun. It’s a hobby project!

My list of essentials for a successful (hobby) project:

  1. Great team
  2. Simple work processes and habits
  3. Easy-to-use free collaboration tools
  4. Leadership, faith and patience

What? What about ‘a great idea’? Could I forget this ingredient?

Usually people think the first thing you need is a great idea in order to start a project. I disagree.

1. A Great Team

The first thing you need is a great team. If you have a group of self-motivated, talented people, you don’t need an idea. The ideas will come on your first brainstorm meeting. Even better, when people conceive the idea together they are more committed to its goal.

I always search for new candidates. I always think: “is that guy I just met could fit into the team”?

I gathered a team of guys I already worked with in the past. I knew their skills, and I knew I could trust them. Only than we started brainstorming for ideas. Our main focus was – how do we leverage our knowledge and transform it into innovative and exciting products? After few brainstorm sessions we had more than 50 (!) ideas. Even after filtering we had almost 10 really good ones. Eventually we had to choose one idea to start with. We chose the easiest… small wins is always better than big losses.

One of the challenges is to keep your team motivated. After all, it’s a hobby project. There’s no investment, no budget. Everybody are a part of that project only for the ride. Of course you can promise that they will be rewarded right after the big success… I prefer to talk about the journey itself. No fake promises. Just the truth: we’re here for fun, for the learning experience and for the chance that someday our idea will become a product people will love. That’s all.

2. Simple work processes and habits

Workload

It’s a very delicate relationship. You must find the balance between a productive and manageable workflow, and a mild workload. Very easily the hobby project may become a second job. If your team members do it on their spare time, you must be tolerant to timetables, to meetings being postponed, to team members not showing up. Still you need to know when to cut things. Too tolerant – and your team will break a part.

We found the balance in 5 hrs of work every week. This sounds very reasonable. Just an hour a day… less than the time needed to go to the gym.

Meetings

We have a sync meeting every 3 weeks. Usually it happens as we planned. We do it even if 2-3 team members are missing. It’s almost impossible to have everybody at the same time every time. Usually we have more than 80% attendance.

I recommend making the meetings a fun get together. After all, people are doing it for the sake of the idea, not for the money. Order a Pizza, bring the Playstation, you name it… invest in fun. If you succeed in that – nobody will miss a meeting.

I believe in sharing knowledge and collaborative creation of ideas. So whenever I can, I conduct a brainstorm sessions. There might be some specialist in your team (technology, marketing), but it will be less fun if every specialist would only do his chores. So on big issues – brainstorm. That way everyone can influence the project. This is a great opportunity to learn new things. The key is to do it right. Too many times I was engaged in bla bla discussion meetings titled “brainstorm”. To conduct a good brainstorm you need to have a specific mindset and keep few (simple) rules. I found this article comprehensive yet simple. After you read it, you will be able to conduct a productive brainstorm session.

Now the meeting is over – a good summary is essential. Wait, aren’t we talking about a hobby? I know it sounds almost like work… But the commitment needed in this project is not different than any other reasonable hobby: going to the gym 2-3 (or more) times a week, managing your band, etc. So, if you want the project to work, you need everybody in sync. I use the simplest way –  send an email of a meeting summary + tasks. I also recommend you to do it yourself. Most of your team members produce, create and innovate. Don’t bother them with project management.

Staying in Touch

Meeting every few weeks is a problem. It’s not like going to work. It’s very hard to keep the tension. No tension = little work done. I try to stay in touch, have a friendly conversation once a week on an IM application or the phone, ask about the project  status, motivate and offer some help. This helps raising the tension a bit. For instance, one of my team members – a programmer – prefers working when we’re both chatting online. He needs the company to get in the mood. Anything for the sake of the project… 🙂

Achievable goals

This is a simple rule. It’s true in every project. It’s very important in a hobby project. When people contribute only few hours a week, your pace is really slow. So you’ve got to think of achievable goals, quick wins. Don’t stay in the design stage too long. It might take ages. When you know enough about the core of the project, start developing it.

Agile development process

Of course when talking about quick wins, experimentation instead of long design processes… you’re talking about agile development. Although it would a lie to state that we’re developing in an agile method per se. Still, we keep few agile rules:

  • Short sprints: the time between our sync meetings. Usually 3 weeks.
  • Deliver working software frequently: We have a working application in every meeting. Usually even in between.
  • The team acts as an Effective Social Network: This is easy – we’re all friends, not co-workers.
  • We use user stories in order to reflect the requirements
  • Everybody has the authority, everyone can contribute, no hierarchy

Because we meet only once a week we don’t stand in our meetings. And they take much more than 5 minutes. Maybe we should incorporate this kind of habit in the beginning of our meeting…

Sub teams

Working alone isn’t much fun. So if you have enough team members – break them into small sub-teams. It seems to work better for us. Nowadays we have marketing team, product design team, and development team. But it will change. At first we didn’t have the marketing team, but we had a website design team. We changed it as the focus changed. The lesson here – people are flexible. So don’t be afraid to reshuffle. It gives them an opportunity to change roles, try new things.

That covers the first two points. I wonder if anyone has some good advice here. We’re always ready to get a good advice and update our work processes.

Next time I will talk about tools to enhance your project and some qualities you should have in order to achieve your goals.

Advertisements