The challenges and rewards of side projects
It’s hard working on a project you’re close to; it’s even harder when that project was the backbone of your career for 5 years, had a quarter of a million page views a month at its peak, and is followed by over 140k people over various social channels.
Club of the Waves is a labour of love I founded back in 2006. In the words of a fan and featured photographer on the website:
COTW is a wicked surf culture and art site packed with surfing lore. I’ve lost countless hours of valuable surf time perusing its intimidating amount of content. Head on over and don’t make any plans, it’s addictive. — Ed Fladung
Its content (to date) is made up of surf artist and photographer profiles, plus interviews, exhibits, tutorials, debates, articles on the history & culture of surfing, a blog, and even a forum at one point.
Life and time
Early in my career I dedicated a great deal of time to this project. It was very much a full-time job, alongside my actual paid full-time job. Besides the obvious time spent designing and building it, the waves of emails I received from artists and photographers wanting to be featured, surf media, fans (and haters), plus SEO, marketing, and my unhealthy addiction to Google Analytics was a lot to sustain. But I was 100% fine with that for a long time — I loved doing it! But that was in my twenties.
As time wore on, my career started taking off, and my life inevitably got more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, I never stopped loving working on this project. But I went from working on it most nights and weekends, to every other day, then every other week.
Then, my Dad died, and I stopped all together. I didn’t work (on anything) for months. When I got back on my feet, my priorities had shifted. My work-life balance was all wrong. At that point in my career I was working 14–20 hour days, everyday. I was doing crazy amounts of freelance work, and attempting to work on my personal project too. That’s not sustainable.
I’ve since moved from England to New York City. I have a demanding job, an amazing fiancé, two cats, and… a life! I don’t do anything anymore that will negatively impact my work-life balance, but I do feel this great shame and sadness for my personal project I’ve worked so hard on laying dormant. I mean, it could stand as it is forever, but its current design and build is seven years old. It’s aged well, and at its peak it once reigned supreme in the search engines. But now, as it’s not responsive or been noticeably updated in maybe 3-4 years, it’s fallen from grace. And that’s sad.
What’s the value of this project, to me?
Club of the Waves really was the backbone of my career, several years back. All my best (paid) projects came from it. It was my most interesting talking point, it won awards, it exposed me to an international network, and provided me with a design and development playground to learn and grow. It even played a big hand in me not quitting design all together!!
Of course, you can’t sustain a career on one project, but it gave me my start, and for that I’m forever grateful, and somewhat indebted…
For me, the most rewarding thing about this project has always been how much its helped people, and how much joy it’s brought to its fans. Some of the featured artists and photographers have gone on to do great things having been discovered on Club of the Waves — that’s an amazing feeling! Over the years I maintained a testimonials page on the site with messages of thanks and nice things people had sent me — from featured artists on the site, to fans and professionals in the surf media.
I want to continue to help the amazingly talented [surf] artists and photographers featured on my site, and I want to discover, feature and promote new talent too! But how do I do that? It’s just too much. I built this huge website on my own. It makes no money, it never will. It’s not sustainable to do what I was doing, and work, and have a life. So how do I reboot this thing, be proud of it, and do it sustainably…
A hard, but important decision
The hardest thing to overcome was the realisation that I had to change something, radically. I think I always knew that meant killing things. I know the value of this well, as a product designer. I find this easy in my job, through much experience. But applying this logic to a project and content you’re so close to, and took so many hours/years to create, is hard.
While I was sketching thoughts for a re-design a couple of years back, a good friend of mine asked me an important question:
“What is the main thing it does?”
Me: “It showcases surf artists and photographers, and……”
“No. The one main focus?!”
I remember feeling uncomfortable when he stopped me at ‘and…’. I knew what was coming, I always knew deep down, I just couldn’t face it. I reluctantly, but confidently replied:
“It showcases surf artists and photographers.”
He continued to advise me I should focus on just that, if that’s the most important part. My experience as a designer tells me he’s right, but my heart didn’t want to let go of all that content I’d worked so hard to curate, write and build over the years!
So, where are we:
- Discard several years of features, articles and blog content.
- Focus just on showcasing artists and photographers.
- Don’t make a lot of work (I can’t commit to) to maintain it.
After a couple of years of off-and-on sketchbook work, soul-searching, design concepts, and going back-and-forth on content strategy and sitemap decisions (!) I decided to stop procrastinating and just share one of the concepts I’ve worked up recently in my spare time. I shared this first on Dribbble, then on Behance, and now here’s the story. This is not me doing a big ‘here’s something I launched’ reveal article. But rather, sharing the challenge, and being a little brave — forcing myself to put down a milestone, and applying pressure on myself to follow through!
Maybe you’ll see a new Club of the Waves within the next year…
Below is a little preview of one of the concepts I’ve been working on. Stylistically it’s very different to its seven-year-old predecessor. Content wise, it cuts a lot of content and focusses only on featuring artists and photographers. That was a painful decision, but I think the right one.
It’s a start.