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Success on the Side

Friday, April 24, 2009

The role of side projects in entrepreneurial success has a rich history in the United States.

In 1921, a 22-year-old engineering school dropout named Richard Drew applied for a job at 3M’s research lab in St. Paul, Minnesota. William McKnight, then 3M’s vice president, was impressed with Drew’s raw eagerness and hired and assigned him to an auto body paint shop to test 3M’s new sandpaper. But it was not the sandpaper chore that grabbed Drew’s attention: while at the shop he noticed that the painters were having problems painting two-tone colors. Plaster tape was supposed to act as a straight-line guide but it either kept ripping off paint or the tape adhesive stuck on the car’s surface permanently. Drew vowed to solve the problem.

After a couple weeks of exploring better tape solutions, Drew was ordered to get back to what he was supposed to be doing—improving sandpaper. After all, he had no practical work experience prior to 3M that would suggest he was the man to take on a self-directed engineering challenge. His last job was playing the banjo for traveling dance bands. But Drew was convinced the problem represented a big opportunity: “You’re wrong, I’m right, and I’m going to prove it,” McKnight remembered Drew saying. In 1925, Drew developed a prototype of a nondrying adhesive tape. He gave a sample to the auto shop workers, who tested it and responded, “Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!” They meant “Scotch” as in parsimonious or cheap. Drew added a bit more adhesive and—boom!—the famed “Scotch” masking tape was born.

How should 3M brass have responded to a success that took root in an underling’s challenge of authority? One approach would be to celebrate the lucky break but not conclude as a matter of protocol that subordinates can ignore directives as they wish. The other is to ponder what type of systematic, organizational changes could be made to foster more such lucky breaks going forward. In considering their response, Drew’s bosses had to confront an uncomfortable question: How could a young punk like Drew have had a better sense for a potential product than their older, wiser selves? The humbling conclusion followed: It is hard for even experts to predict or plan the next innovation, and thus all employees, especially those on the front lines, should have a part in allocating R&D resources.

So 3M implemented a groundbreaking policy called the 15-percent-time rule: regardless of their assignments, 3M technical employees were encouraged to devote 15 percent of their paid working hours to independent projects. “Most of the inventions that 3M depends upon today came out of that kind of individual initiative,” says Bill Coyne, retired senior vice president of research and development. It could have well been called the “Richard Drew Policy”: encourage more freethinking employees to hatch up world-changing ideas.

Employees such as Art Fry. In 1968, 3M employee Fry was singing in the church choir and got annoyed that his bookmark kept falling out of his hymnal. “It was during the sermon,” Fry remembers, “that I first thought, What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.” Fry wondered whether it would be possible to create a repositionable bookmark that would stick only gently to a page. In the months after his church choir daydreaming, he spent his side-project time researching what would ultimately become the adhesive behind the hugely popular yellow Post-it Note. It was an unexpected, even random, invention that saw the light of day thanks to 3M’s flexible employee policy.

While 3M was one of the first for-profits to institutionalize independent-project time, open-mindedness to side projects and a willingness to entertain tasks of uncertain importance has a long tradition in America—all the way back to America’s original start-up entrepreneurs, the Founding Fathers.

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On June 11, 1776 the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a call for independence that would summarize the colonies’ case. 

Clearly, this call was important enough to demand the services of some of America’s best men. Congress did not assign it to just anyone. The drafting committee’s five members included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

But this new task also fit at best in the middle of the committee members’ sprawling to-do lists, and Congress hardly stopped in its tracks to await Jefferson’s output. Adams worked on 23 committees at the time, Jefferson was on nearly as many. No one seemed to expect that the document would do more than convey an argument that was everywhere in the air; already, towns, militias, assemblies, and others had produced statements of principle. 

Jefferson had better things to do than write the Declaration of Independence. It was not a glamorous project. Writing what was thought to be a fairly uninteresting position paper demanded skills that Adams considered unimportant—“like children’s play at marbles,” he later wrote Jefferson. The floor debate would decide, after all, whether or not Jefferson’s resolution would actually pass. It was not even the piece of prose to which Jefferson felt most devoted. He had spent May pleading for the right to go home, to the state he called “my country,” to write Virginia’s constitution (for which he wrote three drafts when not otherwise occupied).

About 50 percent of new Google products got their start through a policy of granting employees time for independent creative work.

So the Congress was hardly waiting with bated breath for the committee that had been assigned to produce a Declaration; this task struck most of them as rhetorical gift-wrapping, a simple restatement of political commonalities. The real work—hard, hand-to-hand political infighting that would sway wavering state delegations to the side of independence—took place behind the scenes. (Adams later complained that the mere words of the Declaration were “a theatrical side show… Jefferson ran away with the stage effect.”)

In what Adams remembers as just a few days later, Jefferson offered a draft Declaration to the committee. Despite its status, by implication and occasionally direct statement, as a secondary task—a side project of Jefferson from his other committee projects—the other members (Franklin, in particular) strove to perfect Jefferson’s text. In this process they realized that his eloquence and forcefulness had the potential to unite a nation. The Continental Congress edited the document exactingly, and the result was that what had been expected at the outset to present little more than yet another statement of the colonists’ endless grievances against King and Parliament took on historic and mythic resonance. Jefferson’s side project—sharpened and clarified by editors committed to honing its essential message for maximum popular appeal—now represented the core of revolutionary values with a clarity that none of its creators had exactly foreseen at the time.

More than two centuries later, the Declaration remains not merely a keystone in the history of liberty, but an important lesson in pursuing with curiosity and devotion what may seem like (and start as) secondary assignments.

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From the Declaration of Independence to Scotch tape and Post-it Notes, the success of side projects throughout history has not gone unnoticed today, least of all by one of the world’s most admired companies: Google. As with 3M, it took an insider hitting the jackpot before management institutionalized the encouragement of such work.

In the early days, Paul Buchheit, employee number 23 at Google, was focused on Web search like most other engineers. But like many other restless, smart workers, Buchheit also enjoyed hacking away at random stuff during his free time. What makes Buchheit different is that his Friday afternoon time was unusually productive: He conceived the initial prototypes for Gmail, the popular email program now used by millions of people, and AdSense, which is responsible for most of the company’s billions. AdSense is the technology that displays relevant ads on the right-hand side of the search results page.

Buchheit did not plan on his successes—or at least did not expect them to materialize as they did. Gmail and AdSense started as mere part-time pursuits. “It was just a random project . . . something that I’d been thinking about because I’d been sort of unhappy with email for a long time,” Buchheit says about his creation of Gmail in the book Founders at Work. “I’ve done a lot of random things . . . I like to just try out ideas and a lot of them don’t go anywhere.”

Partly thanks to Buchheit’s innovations, Google instituted a side-project policy similar to 3M’s: technical people are now encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time on approved side projects.

Is giving away a day a week of your employees’ time worth it? Google executives seem to think so. They cite first the enormous goodwill generated internally: “20-percent time sends a strong message of trust to the engineers,” says Marissa Mayer, Google vice president of search products and user experience. Then there is the actual product output which of late includes Google Suggest (auto-filled queries) and Orkut (a social network). In a speech a couple of years ago, Mayer said about 50 percent of new Google products got their start in 20 percent time.

Jack Hipple, a consultant who works with companies on innovation, says corporate support for employees’ natural curiosity can lead to better new product ideas than traditional focus groups: “You have to have some vehicle for side-project time because senior managers or customers don’t know enough about the future to know what’s coming.”

Bottom-up product development of this sort has held various names over the years. German scholar Peter Augsdorfer studies the phenomenon of “bootlegging” in companies, which he defines as unauthorized innovative activity that the employees themselves define and secretly organize. One of Augsdorfer’s favorite examples is of a scientist at the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline who went to his boss in 1982 with a “brilliant” idea to improve a membrane filtration system. Undeterred by his boss’s immediate and terse “No!” he spent the next 12 months covertly researching his idea on paid company time using company facilities. He turned out to be right, and his bootlegging led to the eventual corporate investment of tens of millions of pounds in his revolutionary product.  

The hugely popular yellow Post-it Note was an unexpected, even random, invention that saw the light of day thanks to 3M’s flexible employee policy.

True undercover work is less common than “skunk works,” a trademarked term from Lockheed Martin to refer to authorized bootlegging. There, higher-ups direct a business group to work on projects autonomously so as to avoid bureaucratic morass.

Google’s approach is riskier than bootlegging or skunk works. They allocate employee time and trust that employees use it wisely. There is no guarantee that the side-project labor will produce a return for the corporation. Indeed, for all the high-profile success stories of side projects, there are countless hours spent experimenting with nothing to show for it.

How, then, do you balance the need to focus and complete known important projects with the desire for side-project randomness and creativity? Even within organizations that have embraced side projects like Google, insiders say the focus vs. side project tension burns bright. A few years ago, in a different industry, music fans saw what happens when the tension goes unresolved.

In 2001 bassist Jason Newsted left the heavy metal band Metallica in a dispute about his interest in recording non-Metallica music on the side. “My dedication [to Metallica] was being challenged,” said Newsted of his side project Echobrain. His bandmates told him Metallica required 100 percent commitment, or none at all. “We just disagree about side projects,” the band leader James Hetfield said in an interview in 2001, “We’ve been the same guys since day one, essentially… When someone does a side project, it takes away from the strength of Metallica.”

Not all band leaders agree. Some bands actually encourage musical side projects with a long-term justification similar to 3M and Google’s: cross-pollinating your brain with different activities (or instruments or rhythms) rejuvenates your creative instincts. This belief—that exercising mental muscles on new and different projects sharpens one’s overall creative energy—lessens the importance of any one project’s actual outcome. Even if a side project goes nowhere, fresh experimentation delivers long-term benefits to the company’s human capital.

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Of course, not every organization can tolerate a side-project policy. Alex Payne, a lead engineer at the San Francisco start-up Twitter, says in hiring interviews he always asks potential employees what side projects they are hatching, but his company of 30 employees is not big enough for such projects to happen on paid time: “At some point Twitter should institutionalize side-project time like Google. Maybe in another six months to a year we’ll be there,” says Payne. Until then, as a small company, there are too many essential tasks that need to get done simply to survive.

Tom Kinnear, a professor of entrepreneurial studies at the University of Michigan, says Google and 3M both could support experimenting after their core products became profitable: “At the outset there are such tight margins it’s hard to allow for side projects. The pressure from your investors to focus, focus, focus is just overwhelming.”

It is not just start-ups who decide focus, focus, focus will lead to a better outcome than encouraging engineers to dabble of their own volition. Apple used to have a skunk works program in the 1980s but has discontinued it, and does not offer side-project time to employees. Over the past decade it has reined in its more experimental R&D experiments. “Apple’s $489 million R&D spend is a fraction of its larger competitors. But by rigorously focusing its development resources on a short list of projects with the greatest potential, the company created an innovation machine,” noted a Booz Allen report in 2005.

Apple enjoys a high return on their focused investment and a rich culture of grassroots innovation. Thanks to a CEO who champions creative, interdisciplinary thinking at all levels of the organization, and more than 30 years’ history of invention, experimental projects can get started by those employees who want to take the initiative. A case-by-case policy means the company is spared an across-the-board hit of 20 percent of all employee time, 365 days a year. 3M acted similarly as of late. According to senior scientist John Huizinga, 3M has recently been preaching “15-percent culture” more than time, an attitude not an allocation.

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Figuring out innovation—how to come up with a killer new idea and then execute it—has long been an obsession of entrepreneurs and the academics and journalists who study them. One of the great myths of the innovation process, often reported in the popular press, involves a creative genius experiencing a “eureka moment,” refining the golden idea, and then pursuing it toward blockbuster status.

 

‘20-percent time sends a strong message of trust to the engineers.’

Successful side projects and the policies that nurture them somewhat deflate this myth. First, they highlight the random circumstances that can give rise to important inspiration. Second, they promote experimentation—not abstract brainstorming—because the “aha!” moment does not always happen at the outset, as mythologized, but somewhere in the middle of the process. Third, they underscore not the mad, brilliant scientist at the top but the collective brainpower of all employees, especially those close to the customer—Richard Drew at 3M, Paul Buchheit at Google. These people are critical to sustaining innovation over the long term.

Most of all, side project successes serve as a reminder that when you try more stuff than the next guy, up go the odds that you are going to do something right. It is the law of large numbers in entrepreneurship. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “It is amazing how much may be done if we are always doing.” And as Jefferson later learned, it is amazing what can come of some of the things we least expect, which is good reason to always keep that crackpot project bubbling on the side and to stay open-minded about what it might one day become.

Ben Casnocha is the author of My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. He is a commentator on public radio’s Marketplace and writes a popular blog on business, books, and ideas. Historian Jesse Berrett contributed to this article.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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