From the inbox: Starting a side project

I got an email last week from fellow blogger and Denizen contributor Justin Lau. With his permission, I’m turning his question into a blog post. Here’s his email:

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Denizen is an online magazine that publishes essays from Third Culture Kids around the world. I launched it in the fall of 2008 with this article (which to date has 5,000+ Facebook likes, holy wow!). I’ve made so many, many mistakes working on Denizen over the years. Here’s the advice I would give to myself if I were starting it today.

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As someone who now works for VIP, it was really fun to find this email, along with numerous gchats where I was debating with my friend Tom about the merits of WordPress vs. Blogger vs. TypePad. I chose WordPress, of course :)


Keep. It. Simple. (REALLY)

The biggest mistake I made in working on Denizen was unnecessarily overcomplicating things. I did this both technically and editorially. This is a side project, which means you’ll have limited time and resources, so focus on what you set out to do.

Editorially, the the core goal of Denizen is to collect and share stories by Third Culture Kids. It always has been. However, when I started it, I was overly ambitious, creating different sections, with section editors and weekly publishing schedules, because I came from a newspaper background and that’s all I knew how to do. What I should have done was quickly abandon sections that didn’t work, and instead focus on stories that were great. I had very limited resources (mostly time and manpower) and wish I had used them more wisely.

I made so many mistakes technically. Denizen was never a ‘tech’ project, but because it was online I felt like I had to install all sorts of gizmos and gadgets and plugins and extensions just for the sake of doing so. Unfortunately, because I did this, I took on all sorts of technical debt that I wasn’t capable of handling, and it made publishing so complicated that it ground to a halt. If your core goal is to share stories, stick with publishing and don’t waste too much time on going crazy with themes, plugins, add-ons that you don’t need. Keep it simple and create great content, and the readers will keep coming back. No fancy technical bells and whistles can replace that.

Help your readers get to know you

For a brand new site, it’s important to help your new readers understand what you’re trying to do and where you come from. From the start I’ve included a big “tag line” on Denizen’s homepage, and very clear “About” pages to help orient readers.

In addition, if you’re relying on your readers for content, make it easy for them to submit. Denizen has a clear “Contact Us” page with various ways of engaging, as well as a very detailed “Submissions” page for folks who are interested in writing. And don’t forget to establish an editorial workflow for submissions. Which ones get accepted? Which ones get rejected? How do you move the new writers through the editing process? When you constantly have new writers, getting folks ‘onboarded’ and through the editing process is extremely tedious and time-intensive. I’m still struggling with this, but I’d advise keeping it as simple as possible.

Work with others openly

To get the site started, I relied heavily on my friend network. I sent out emails to folks I knew who loved to write. I recruited friends of friends. Eventually, there became a core team of people who loved working on the project and stuck around. The mistake I made: they didn’t know each other because everything was done over email.

Eventually, I started a private Facebook group where team members could collaborate. My editing notes and directions were public and logged, so that folks could learn from previous essays. Folks would post items to the group if they were looking for help. This helped create an internal community behind Denizen, which made the job of sifting through submissions and editing less lonely and way more fun.

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Make sure you own your content

Whatever publishing platform you choose, make sure you own your content. I am so grateful that I used WordPress from the start, because it means I own my content and can take it with me wherever I go. For the amount of time you’ll invest on the project, you’ll want to make sure the work is yours to keep. One of my biggest regrets is turning on Facebook comments in 2010. When I decided I no longer wanted to use Facebook comments, I couldn’t export the content and take it with me. Ugh, it was so frustrating.

Plan out your time commitment (including when it ends)

One of the tricky things about a side project is that it can easily languish when your life gets busy. There have been year-long spans where I published nothing on Denizen, and various feature stories that I simply stopped working on. If this side project is important to you, plan out your personal time commitment to it, and when you plan on reassessing this commitment. Having 3-month check-ins on the project means that you can see what’s worth your time, what isn’t, and if it’s time to stop working on it.

Beware of distractions

Over the years, I’ve been distracted by big ideas to turn Denizen into something else: running ads, publishing e-books, turning it into a social network. I’ve even had someone offer to “buy” the site from me, whatever that means. In getting distracted with all of these ideas, I forgot that the “bottom line” was to consistently publish great content. Everything else was a waste of time. If we weren’t publishing and fulfilling the core mission, we shouldn’t have been focused on anything else.

Why are you doing this?

For a long time, I struggled with why I was spending time on Denizen. I stopped working on it for long stretches. Why was I doing this? Was I working on it because it was good for my career? Was I doing this because I felt an obligation to my friends or parents? Eventually, figured out what the site meant to me and its place in my life. I do this work because I believe it needs to be done. As far as I know, it was the first of its kind when I started it in 2008, which is why I created it. It’s my little corner of the internet. Working on it brings me joy, it keeps me connected to the expat community, and letters from readers remind me how powerful sharing stories can be. That’s why I do it.


I hope this helps, Justin!