3 Successful Businesses That Started Off As Side Projects

Chances are, if you took an informal poll around the water cooler, bar, or coffee creamer stand, you’d meet at least one person grinding away at a day job, but passionate about a project on the side. And it’s easy to name the big side project success stories — Amazon started in a garage! Evan Williams was trying to get a streaming audio and video site off the ground and started up Twitter as an afterthought!

But for every former side project that has a billion-dollar valuation, there are hundreds of smaller side projects that may not be publicly-traded, but are still thriving enough to provide their owners with full-time income. If you’re dragging your feet because taking the plunge from side project to full-time job sounds terrifying, here are three stories to get you inspired.

Berkley Illustration

Sasquatch families, caterpillars in pink three-piece suits, and badger aviators may not have much in common, but they’re each subjects of portraits done by Berkley Illustration, known for their whimsical portraits of animals dressed as humans. Founded by Ryan and Lucy Berkley, a husband and wife team from Portland, Oregon, Berkley Illustration’s playful sensibility and meticulous attention to detail have made it one of Etsy’s most successful stores, several years running.

Lucy made the best of a 2009 layoff by making the company her full-time focus; in 2011, Ryan took the plunge and joined her. Expanding the brand to include wholesale, custom, and commercial work has been essential to keeping them afloat.

But Lucy stresses that the things that make Berkley illustration successful won’t necessarily ensure your company’s success. “You have to find your own path…[But] While there isn’t an exact blueprint, we’ve certainly noticed a few things that are consistent in successful businesses: Tailor your craft impeccably, know your audience, be original, and be realistic.”

Three Bird Nest

Running an accessory-based businesses poses particular challenges — online markets and crafts shows are often saturated with pieces to choose from, and entrepreneurs are often done in by their own tendencies to try to compete through price. But Three Bird Nest (run by Alicia Shaffer) has found a way to stand out from the rest. Her headbands, legwear, scarves, jewelry, and more are uniquely bohemian and diverse enough to appeal to a wide range of women.

Alicia founded Three Bird Nest in 2011, in part to replenish the stock of accessories at the boutique she owned. Overwhelmed by the demands of a full-time retail space and a full-time craft side project, she sold her boutique in early 2013 to give Three Bird Nest Her full attention. The gamble paid off — according to Craftcount, Three Bird Nest is one of Etsy’s top ten handmade stores, and has a thriving, free-standing online store as well. Explaining how her passion drives her work, Alicia admits, “You will find me with my little sketch book & notebook anywhere I go so that I don’t miss a moment to write down my next idea. Some days I wish I can turn this off but it is just a part of what makes me who I am.”

Cards Against Humanity

Cards Against Humanity, the world’s most popular (and dirtiest) party game, wasn’t created by focus groups and careful testing at a major corporation. Instead, it was invented by eight twentysomethings in a basement in Illinois, who were childhood friends with a long history of trying to make each other laugh — appropriately or inappropriately.

What began as a game they laser printed for friends, evolved into a free online download, and became a wildly successful Kickstarter is now a full-scale, viable business that provides salaries for all eight co-creators.

While the team behind Cards Against Humanity doesn’t divulge its profits, co-creator Max Temkin told Businessweek earlier this year, “None of us has to have a job for a very long time.”


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Lauren Hoffman lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. By day, she's a freelance writer and editor; by night, she's at work completing a book-length non-fiction project, Up High Down Low.