Why write this essay?
Since I was in college, I’ve continuously kept myself engaged with one or the other “side project.” So far, these have been writing-related projects primarily, but I hope to expand into other types too.
Though the monetary income from these projects is almost nil, the learnings have been paramount.
But what I realized was when I shut down a project, I never looked back to see what worked and what didn’t. The learnings were more implicit. This essay is an attempt to rectify that. I want to articulate the learnings for myself and hopefully not repeat the same mistakes. This could be a useful essay if you’re planning on becoming an online creator.
There are plenty of good essays (like this one) that reflect on the benefits of side projects. For some, the motivation is monetary, for others, it is learning. For me, it is the act of creating something new and presenting it to an audience that keeps me going. And of course, what better way to learn something new than to work on a cool project?
Let’s take a look at some of the projects I’ve worked on. The list of my “thought experiments” is endless. I come out with something new every time I come out of the shower (okay, that might be an exaggeration), but ideas are worth nothing!
The projects I write here are the ones where I made significant progress on executing.
Digital Nervous Breakdown
This was my first project that I completed, with no external deadline. In fact, I told no one that I was writing a book until I signed a publishing contract. In hindsight, that was the biggest mistake I made.
Once I held the book in my hand, I finally felt like I had graduated to being a doer from being a thinker.
The book tanked in the market, with pathetic sales (mostly because I failed at marketing).
Soon after I’d launched the book, there were some hard-hitting learnings.
- Don’t “surprise” your audience with your book’s release. It is almost always better to let people know that you’re working on a book and let them follow along your progress. No matter how big your publisher is, you need to build an audience. Sharing progress about your book is an easy way to find an audience early.
- People love to see the face behind a book and interact with them. You need to be a part-time marketer if you plan to be an author. In all these years, if there’s one weakness of mine, it is marketing. I lack the motivation to market my projects. But I can’t use this as an excuse for too long.
- When signing up with a traditional publisher, know that a traditional publisher is not going to solve all of your distribution problems. You need to go on the road in order to market your book. I’ve written more about this here.
- When you launch, friends and family will buy. Don’t think of this as success. It is extremely important to go past this barrier of friends and family. You need people who don’t know you to buy from you. For this, work with book reviewers, bloggers, influencers, etc. well before launching your book. Cold emails and messages are your best friends here.
- People will ask you for free copies. As a newbie author, I was unwilling to give away free copies to people when they asked me for one. My internal justification – “I’ve put so much work behind this. People can at least pay to buy an original copy and read.” The reality is that people don’t want to pay unless they see strong, validated credentials. So be prepared to give your book away.
I’ve taken these into my next book, The Advisory Board (more about that later).
The Trite Tribe
While I was working with my publisher to launch Digital Nervous Breakdown (throughout 2016), I needed a break from the subject. I also had more time on hands, because I wasn’t actively writing, but helping review and edit the book.
After spending more than a year working on Digital Nervous Breakdown alongside working for CAT, GRE and then working towards my post-grad applications, I wanted to do something a bit more relaxing.
Short stories were the perfect way to continue to write fiction, but not committing to something long-form (novels, movies, etc.) that could take years.
I started posting short stories on my website. Most of them were terrible, but some have stuck in my mind till now.
The idea was to put trite people in testing situations and see what they do. While this story series didn’t see much traffic, I developed a true passion for the short story format, and came up with my own template for writing short stories.
The learnings here were not as hard hitting, but I learnt something about the blogging world.
- There’s no concept of SEO for short stories. Even after publishing for months, I was not getting any organic traffic. I kept thinking about ways to learn SEO while also staying close to fiction (I still had no knowledge or interest in writing essays like the one you’re reading).
- The point on having access to your own distribution was re-validated. My stories saw very few people reading, and most were among friends and family. Also, I noticed not enough people were sharing the stories. But like I said, the internal motivation to actively engage with people on FB/Insta, etc was always lacking.
Personally, whenever I’ve not been internally motivated, I’ve never continued for more than a few weeks. This shows up in almost everything I do.
The Covert Channel (unpublished)
While working on The Trite Tribe, I also started plotting a trilogy of books. This one was about spies and their networks. I even wrote the first draft of the 3 books, which in total accounted to more than 300k words, but after writing a few more drafts, I put this to rest, at least for the time being.
The reason – I didn’t know enough about my characters and their settings. For example, a few of my characters were based in Raxaul, on the India-Nepal border. I chose this location because of the commercial traffic that moves between India and Nepal. However, I don’t know enough about the town to write about it. I hope to continue researching over the coming few years and see if I should rewrite.
- I could have arrived at the conclusion that I didn’t know enough about the characters and settings sooner – if I had storyboarded first. I didn’t have a sophisticated writing process back then. I started with a basic outline and knew the ending, but that’s about it. I’ve always written the first draft as an exploratory draft, where I figured things out for myself. In hindsight, if I had spent enough time thinking through my characters and their backgrounds, I would have prevented all the effort in writing the 3 manuscripts.
- Personally, the challenge taught me so much about myself! 5 years ago, I would have never imagined I could write so much in less than 2 years. In fact, I don’t think I can repeat this again.
But while I was writing a lot, I was also exhausting myself with only fiction. I wanted to try out commercial blogging (you know, the promise of the internet – write once, make millions, be your own boss, etc.).
But I didn’t know enough about SEO. To learn, I started a fun project that I intended to monetize at some point in the future (through affiliate links or feature interviews).
Naklimaal.com was essentially theonion.com, but for startup news. I was highly impressed with the way fakingnews.com had grown and was hoping to replicate some of it on naklimaal.com.
Oh, and the domain name seemed perfect! How could I not buy it when I saw it? This was the first project where I set some goals before working on it. They were:
- Practice humour writing and validate if I can be good at it.
- Grow traffic via SEO (and in the process, learn all it takes to do good SEO). What did I actually do?
I wrote short news coverage posts (think techcrunch, for example), but for entirely fake companies. For example, one headline read – “10 new WhatsApp universities to be set up to train young graduates to write good morning, good night quotes.”
I continued doing this for about 4 months, posting once every week, before I stopped. Why? I guessed people weren’t liking the content much. Maybe I wasn’t a good humour writer. Maybe it was just that people were moving to memes instead of reading such articles.
I think it was more of the former and a bit of the latter.
On the SEO goal – I was able to get my pages ranked in the top 5 results for some keywords, which felt like an achievement.
But, the searches were not too many. So…
- My capacity in writing humour needs improvement. I need to step up my game on this. Maybe I’ll start a new project to improve this in 2021.
- If you want to write a blog that gets a tonne of traffic, you need to do thorough keyword research. You can’t go by only what you like. You know, as YC says, make something people want. I had heard this so often, but I failed to apply this to Naklimaal. I let my curiosity towards it take hold of me.
But, no regrets. Naklimaal was a fun project. I never knew I could write humour. Though I didn’t excel at it, I don’t think I was terrible at it.
Okay, now with Naklimaal out of the way and The Trite Tribe slowing down (mainly because I was running out of short story ideas), I had more time on my hands. I was already starting to plot my next book (written down below), but still felt I could do something that was not about writing.
Tadaa – a board game!
One big problem I’ve noticed with the people I interact with is the lack of awareness about the benefits of public transit. There’s enough data out there that states that the best cities in the world have an efficient public transit system.
So, in order to create more awareness around public transit, I started working on a board+card game project, similar to monopoly. The goal was to build a city’s public transit to ensure a sustainable city and avoid its collapse.
I came up with a board structure, the possibilities of gameplay, rules and regulations, and even “bonus cards.” Here’s the board structure:
I tested the idea with one of my friends who seemed to like it, but I stopped working on this because of some other commitments I had at the time. Another person advised me to not do this as a board game, but as a phone app. I wavered for a bit, but never concluded.
Since then, I’ve also seen several phone games available in this genre, so I lost the motivation.
Since I didn’t take this to conclusion, there are not many learnings. But here’s one that I think will help me in the future:
- Don’t work in isolation, especially for non-writing projects. I think writing is an individual activity. But things like designing games or experiences need collaboration. Find a co-creator for such things. I should have talked to more people. Maybe even reached out to strangers on the internet?
Zoom In, Zoom Out!
Bored of reading about too many “fiction” projects so far? Around mid 2019, I was looking to get out of my fiction comfort zone and write some non-fiction. I think the deeper motivation was that I needed some quick validation for my work. Well researched non fiction could give you just that.
Also, I needed a newsletter. As stated above, I’ve always lacked a solid distribution channel for my work.
So, I decided to start a newsletter. Zoom In, Zoom Out! was born. The idea was to look at one business opportunity or a sector every week. I wanted to zoom in to things that we didn’t know enough about, and zoom out for things where we were so deeply involved that we missed the big picture. I committed to publishing every week.
Through the newsletter, I was finding problems, looking at sectors and even identifying solutions to fix those problems. But as I wrote more and more of these – I felt like an imposter. What was the use of writing all this if I wasn’t actually going to work on any of them. It felt like I didn’t have enough skin in the game.
Also, the cadence of publishing weekly was too much to commit to. I didn’t have enough content to produce or curate every week. Yet, I went on for 44 weeks.
I’m evaluating how I could turn this into a more personal newsletter so I can continue to grow my audience and also share valuable stuff for people. I’m still not sure. Please suggest if you have ideas!
- Be careful about weekly publishing schedules. As a seasoned writer, I am confident that I can write every day. So I don’t need the external pressure of publishing every week. Instead, if I give myself some more time, I can create content that is a lot more polished.
- When writing about “thought leadership,” be careful. You not only want to talk about problems and solutions, but do something about them.
- If you plan to write a weekly personal newsletter, don’t constraint yourself to a few topics. You as a person have more than one interest, and your newsletter should reflect that.
The Advisory Board
Okay, now on to my most successful fiction project to date.
Continuing my love for short stories, I decided to write a book inspired by my conversations with taxi drivers. Back in 2017 and 2018, I used to take a cab very frequently for work, and one of my favourite things to do was talk to drivers. More often than not, the experience was revealing in some way.
This informed the theme of the book. By this time, I had also taken some good online courses and read a lot of books on writing better fiction, which influenced my writing a lot.
Since I self-published this book, I was owning everything – editing, marketing, distribution, etc. The thought was daunting, but I wanted to give this a shot – I think traditional publishing works only if your publishing is a big one.
So I spent a lot more time with editors, designers and marketers to figure out how to bring the book to market.
But I sucked.
Though the book was far more successful than my last one (just look at the number of Goodreads reviews for this one), I think there’s a lot more potential the book has to achieve. I’ve barely scratched the surface with its distribution. More to come in 2021 and beyond!
Another thing I realized was that recovering the cost of producing the book seemed impossible. So I decided to use the book itself for marketing. Starting April last year, I’ve started giving out free e-books to anyone interested, as long as they give me their email address. I’m also giving away free paperback copies, as long as people are willing to cover shipping costs.
(At some point, I’ll write a learnings post specific to my books, which will have more details)
- Distribution first. Content later. I think I rushed into publishing the book. I should have worked on building a solid email list beforehand.
- Online ads don’t work for fiction books (or at least they didn’t work for me). Maybe for building an email list they will work, but building a profitable fiction book business through only online ads is not going to work. To market a book, you need to get into the communities that read books. Book clubs, cafes, reading groups, everything! Find every place that does this, and hand out copies without asking for anything in return. I’ve half-heartedly executed on this in 2020, and there’s more to do in 2021.
- Create a feedback loop for your book. This is extremely hard. When someone buys your product off of Amazon, you don’t get to talk to them directly. Whereas, when people download the book from your website, you have a chance of reaching out to them later too. I now have a mailchimp automation set up such that 30 days after someone downloads the book from my website, I send them an email to add a Goodreads review in case they’ve read it. And it does work to some extent 🙂
- Books spread through word of mouth. Everything else is temporary.
- Books have an extremely slow feedback loop. You hand over the book to someone. It lies in their bookshelf for months before they turn to your book. Then they take a month to read it. Getting my point? Social media gives instant gratification. If you want to teach someone delayed gratification, ask them to write a book.
- It’s fine to be slow and intentional about growth. I don’t care about getting to 10000 sales in a year anymore. All I care about is that more people read the book, and talk to their friends if they like it.
I can go on and on about the book, but let’s move on.
In early 2020, I got very interested in what David Perell was doing with the Write of Passage fellowship – where he was coaching people to write a 10 thousand word essay on their site.
I wanted to join the fellowship, but the cost was prohibitive for me.
So I decided to self-learn by writing a 10,000 word long essay. I decided to write a compilation post of all the industries that I think are going to grow in India in the next decade.
I wrote this over 2 months and published it in March 2020, to an excellent response. This was my most well-received online essay. I had 100 weekly readers for a few months just because of this post.
But soon after, COVID struck. Most of my predictions were thrown out of the box. I will have to revise this piece to reflect the modern reality we live in.
But in order to not stop, I wrote another 5k word article on one of my favourite products in the world – YouTube. I think I did a good job of going through the past, present and future of YouTube in this essay. The act of researching for this essay was so much fun.
Some learnings from writing these essays:
- For such long-form essays, it’s better to focus on timeless stuff. I had initially thought my next decade essay could be relevant for 10 years from now, but with COVID, that is no longer the case.
- Having said that, I think it is extremely hard to find timeless topics to write long-form essays about. I’m thinking of new topics, but nothing is coming out yet. Maybe, I’ll convert my YouTube article into a sort of a YouTube biography essay, that could be read ages from now?
- To promote a long-form essay, also create bite-sized, micro-content pieces that could be shared across Twitter, Instagram, etc. to generate traffic. Twitter threads are especially useful for these things. I’ve tried a few Twitter threads on a variety of topics, and they have delivered great results.
Easy But Hard
Let’s come to the final experiment in this list (at least for now). Life can be easy at times and hard at others, but it is eventful for sure. The Trite Tribe taught me a lot about short stories, but it had one fault – I posted it on the blog and people had to visit the website to read it.
I wasn’t collecting emails. Today, you’ll find a newsletter for almost all topics you can think of, but very little short story series that get delivered in the format of a newsletter.
Easy But Hard is my attempt to change that. I write a very short story (which takes 4 to 5 minutes to read), is entertaining, and takes you away from your busy email inbox! So if you need a break on a Monday but pretend to be working, open up your email inbox and read a story 🙂
My personal goal here was to test ideas for new longer stories and also find an audience for my writing.
So far, the experiment has been mildly successful. I have ~180 subscribers and a consistent ~20% open rate. I have tested a few story formats through the series – some have worked and some haven’t, but getting this feedback is super useful as a writer.
- The audience for such an experiment is limited. At least you won’t find them on Twitter or Instagram. You need to go to different reader communities and get people from there. If you want to grow fast, consider spending on Google/FB ads so you could reach out to the right people. I haven’t spent on marketing yet, but maybe I should.
- People don’t want to read short stories every week. I recently asked some of my subscribers why they don’t read posts each week. They like to treat Easy But Hard as a place where they could go once in a few weeks to take a break. They don’t want to make it a ritual to read every week. Fair enough!
- Instagram is an excellent channel to post stories in a pictorial format and build an audience on the platform itself. I’ve been posting some stick figures on Instagram and they’ve connected with people more than the stories I’ve sent via email (likely because people don’t want to read?).
Some learnings about myself
Through all these side experiments, there are some things that I came to learn about myself.
- I like starting things, but often don’t follow up. For example, I had a good start with writing Twitter threads in 2020, but have been inconsistent with doing more of these.
- Though I’m consistent with writing, since I’m focusing on too many formats and topics, I end up being inconsistent in all. But I struggle to stick to one. I am a polymath and proud of it. But still, I’ll try to stick to a few formats so I can be more consistent.
- I prefer writing fiction. Just the pure pleasure of discovering something new about people keeps me going. If someone else has figured it out, why should I write about it again? But that’s not to say I don’t want to write non-fiction.
- I get influenced very easily by what I consume. Twitter makes it so easy for my thoughts to jump in random directions that I want to start too many projects, but don’t have the time. I need to get better at consumption.
If there’s one takeaway for you as a reader who wants to create online, it is this – start gathering an audience well before you have a product. Figuring out how to do that is hard.
If you want to chat more about these side projects or something else, shoot me an email at hemantrjoshi[at]outlook[dot]com.
This is the first time I’ve been so public about my learnings. As I am writing this last sentence, I am so relieved!
Thanks for reading 🙂