SOME OF THE BEST IDEAS START ON THE SIDE

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DAL & BEN, FOUNDERS OF HATEBOARDS.

I meet Dal and Ben on a rainy Saturday near the Southbank skatepark. 

They’re both creatives in top London advertising agencies. Ben has awards from both Creative Circle and D&AD and Dal has just finished a Ted talk. He created a campaign called ‘Trash Isles: an official application for the mass of floating plastic in the sea to be registered as an official country. The campaign reached ½ billion people. 

They also both love side projects.

Together they are the creators of Hateboards.

Hateboards are skateboards that allow you to grind down the face of the people you hate as you skate. Beautifully illustrated caricatures of figures like Farage, Trump and Kanye West adorn the underside of the boards. The more you skate, the more you destroy them. They’ve been featured in Vice, Design Week and Campaign, and can be bought in 15 stores U.K.wide. 

I caught up with them on why side projects matter, how to grow them, and why they shouldn’t always be commercial. 

How did Hateboards develop?

Ben: “It started as an art project, an art piece.

The idea was that you could use the faces of controversial people, and then grind em down. I went ‘what do you think of the idea?’ Dal went, ‘That’s fucking cool. We should just do it’.” 

“We were gonna do a series and then an expo, but then thought they’re quite fun to sell commercially as people actually wanted to skate on them”

Dal: “It was simple idea. We only started with one board. We could walk away after the first fifty. We just thought fine we’ll stump up the cash, couple of hundred each. Worst case scenario we’ve lost a couple of hundred quid each” 

How hard is it to set up something like that? 

Ben: “You can draw a stick figure and get it printed… it’s not the hardest thing to implement. We didn’t need beta-testing or anything. We literally made a website… on squarespace. If you want to make it commercially viable it’s a bit more complicated. Right now, all decks are in limited runs of 50”.

How did you manage to get it off the ground?

Dal: “A friend of mine from Cardiff is a storyboard artist, he does comic books as his side thing himself. We were talking about Hateboards and flicking through facebook and we were like ‘he could do these!’  We gave him couple of boards as payment and a bit of money, and that’s it” 

“Someone in california did a one off run… and then after that we were like OK there’s a place in Spain, there’s a place in China that will do them…”

Would you consider it a side project or side “hustle”? 

Ben: “A side project. Selling skateboards is a bit of a stupid hustle, as you’ve gotta buy all the boards and then store them at home.”

“But they’re cool bits of art. People buy them just to put them on their wall.”

How did you find the time?

Ben: “Just at the weekends… mostly remotely...  weekly pub sessions. Once you’ve got the design, it’s done all remotely, they print it and we just got them delivered at work”

Dal “Actually it did take quite a long time to do didn’t it? It was almost a year before we ramped it up. But there were quite long gaps in between because we were really busy.”


Does having a side project make you better with your day to day work?

Ben: “I think it does for creatives. It’s just good when a client’s killed your idea for the 5th time, that you’ve got something that you’re in control of. It gives you a bit of sanity” 

“Everyone gets frustrated with the work getting destroyed by clients, [but here] you’re your own client. If you present this to a client they’d be like “whoaaa Hate’s a strong word…How about ‘Slightly Mean Boards’?  When you’re your own client, we can make these things as spiky as we want. No client would do it as they’d be worried about being sued…” 

“As long as you’re delivering all your briefs… agencies are usually happy if their creatives are doing other stuff as it shows drive.”

Dal: “When a creative does a drawing, we wait for the client to buy it… and then you have to go and produce it, with a producer and an illustrator, or photographer or even director, You’re reliant on other people to get it done. Whereas with a side project you have to learn to be more self aware, you take on the producer’s role, to some extent the account man’s role, you have to go to shops and convince the shops that your product is worth stocking. It’s practice I guess.”

“It makes you more valuable to the company you work for. Because there aren’t that many people doing it - successful ones. The amount of times it’s brought up in meetings...”

Have you always done side projects?

Dal: “I like being more hands on and doing stuff. You have to be like that.”

“Before hateboards, I used to do a lot of illustration. I kept having ideas for adverts that never went anywhere. So I ended up doing them myself. 

“I’ve always wanted to do stuff on the side. The more of it you do, the more confident you are that you can pull it off. Because if you haven’t done any it’s kinda hard isn’t it? It’s daunting, you go ‘is it going to work? Are people going to like it?’”  

It looks like people do like it. 

Dal has since made the decision to move to Melbourne. He recently did a Instagram poll asking whether he should take them to Australia. The answer was a resounding yes. Sometimes a crazy idea, hatched over some Thursday night beers, can become something you never expected it to. Launching in Australia, and with an ever-growing online following, Hateboards will soon be a global business… almost by accident. 

SOME TOP TIPS:

To avoid criticism, move fast.

Ben: “With Hateboards, it moved really quickly, so we spoke about it - and the next time somebody else saw it, the boards were made”

“it’s a lot harder to put something down when you’ve got the finished article in front of you… if you’re just talking to somebody about the idea before anything’s been physically made it’s much easier to kill .

Side projects help creativity

Ben: “Everyone has a good idea in the pub right? The pub is littered with echoes of wicked ideas. But three more pints down and they’re forgotten, you just need to try and keep them alive.”

Show your idea to people who understand the process. 

Ben: “I was showing it to other creatives while at work. I probably didn’t explain the idea to anyone who I thought wouldn’t get it”

Don’t be afraid to start

Ben: “Even if you think the idea is weird, it’s still cool that you’re doing something. There’s a guy at work who makes balsamic vinegar on the side. He did a course somewhere… and it’s super random but cool.” 

Hateboards can be found on Instagram.

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ELIZABETH VINCE

Founder of Fulfilled: a skincare and haircare brand that is vegan, refillable & designed to reduce single-use plastic. (also, agency lead @Google)

Elizabeth Vince has had a good year.

Not only has she recently been promoted within Google, but she’s also just single-handedly created and launched a side project. Fulfilled is a sustainable vegan hair and body care brand designed to reduce single-use plastic. When I meet her, she’s just arrived back from holiday and is just about to go on a work trip. She still arrives earlier than me. 

“Learning how to juggle all that is definitely a skill I’ve learnt. You do that in your job anyway, but you really have to do that when you’re working on it in your spare time” 

She started it 18 months ago. Not because she wanted to change her work, “I’m very happy in my job and I love it” she tells me earnestly, but instead because she found a problem she wanted to solve. 

“I was really struck by an environmental issue - there is too much plastic in the world, and I was just thinking ‘what is it that we use every day and that needs to be replaced?’ This was when the fancy water bottles had started to become popular. Well, we need to wash every day, and the bottles are nearly always made of plastic.”

WHY A SIDE PROJECT?

“Having a bit of self control over my destiny I guess. Before I was at Google I was at a start up agency, and you felt you could really shape what was going on. [With side projects] - you are the CEO, you are the CMO, you are all those things”

“It wasn’t that I’m a passionate photographer, or I’ve got this hobby and I want to do more. I’m not an expert on hair and body care so I was really stretching myself to do something because it aligned with the values that I’m really attached to.”

LEARN YOUR STRENGTHS

“Where do you need help? My list of where I needed help was very very long, vs. what I’m good at. The branding part I knew, I know brands, I know packaging, what makes a good brand - so I thought OK if I can make a brand out of refillable shampoo that can be my forte”

“If you don’t have the skillset in the area, it is a lot scarier to be honest, but it forces you to be creative. You ask ‘Who do I know who has the slightest relationship to this thing that I have a question about?’

FIND TIME AROUND YOUR WORK

“I worked on it on the commute on the way in and on the way back. I have an hour’s commute each way, and that hour is spent on my project. That’s my project time, even if it’s just getting some thoughts down, reading some articles about latest shampoo trends, whatever. The moment I step off the train I’m into work mode. 

“I didn’t do so much in the evenings, I mainly do stuff on the weekends. I probably spend a whole day on the weekends.”

THE LEARNING CURVE OF SIDE PROJECTS

“The biggest learning curve? Well in my case I had to learn a whole new industry - formulating shampoo, finding chemists, ingredients. Then there’s loads of legal, there’s the business part of it - becoming a limited company, companies house all of that, trademarking, accountancy, etc. People would ask me ‘who’s your business partner?’ but I was doing it all by myself

THE IMPORTANCE OF SUPPORT

“There are so many moments of self doubt. I thought it was such a cliche, but I really couldn’t believe it. I’m a confident person, but there were moments where I thought I really don’t know if I can do this.”

“I was pretty much on my own. With those moments of self doubt, if you knew other people had that moment that would be really helpful. You just feel really inferior, you feel like you can’t do it, you feel weak, you feel like you can’t prove the point you set out to prove. It would really help to have that support unit. It would be nice if you had someone going, yeah you know what it’s really sh*t actually? We’ll get through it. Or ‘I found it really helpful when i did this thing’ - that would be helpful.”

“It’s when things go wrong. When you’re on your own, you feel like you can’t deal with it. Normally you have a team to help with that. A big part of self doubt is when it feels too much”

HOW TO BALANCE IT WITH WORK 

“When I got a promotion during it, it totally validated that I can do this and be really good at my job. And since I  revealed Fulfilled, everyone has been really supportive, telling me it’s amazing.

“In hindsight, I do wish I just told a colleague. There are those days where you are feeling a bit down, even at work Not telling them the reason, that’s just a bit tough for a while, putting on a facade.”

“This whole thing does require a fundamental new approach to time to be implemented - like flexible working. You can’t buy time.”

START SMALL

“A lot of people say ‘you have to do something, it can’t just be in your head’. What is that first thing to do to get the ball rolling? For me, it was January last year, it was New Years Day, and I thought ‘this year, I’m just going to do it’.

“On January 2nd, I made some calls to find a scientist, and I found someone I liked. And I thought, ‘oh...I’ve done that now”. Ok well now I just need to call this person. And I just set myself one week at a time, and then before I knew it I was like OK well I think I’ve got a product that I like…”

“I just think that is the easiest way to do it, breaking it down. It just felt so insurmountable at the time, I had loads of stuff I didn’t know how to do, but then before you know it you’re like oh wow I’ve done most of those things” 

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

“There were a couple of points where it really did feel like work for me, and I didn’t like that. I felt really overwhelmed. This doesn’t feel like how it used to. And I realised why. I kept imposing deadlines on myself.” 

“I was meant to be launched at the start of January and I was 4 months late, and I was feeling really bad about that. And I spoke to my husband and he was like ‘well who set you that deadline?’ and I was like ‘oh, well I did’. You have the power to push it back - you have to be kind to yourself.”

“The people who do these projects are high achievers, they work hard, they do well, so it’s quite uncomfortable when you’re not achieving. So I decided to let go of it, and just say ‘it will be ready when it’s ready, it’s not like the world is expecting this project’. There were a lot of moments where I had to remind myself to be kind to myself - and any pressure that I feel is imposed by me, and not by anyone else.”

HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR PLANNING

“Quarterly plan, weekly plan, daily plan. Where are the holes? Who do you need to ask? Even the action of hand writing (as opposed to typing) was quite helpful. 

Thinking 1 years time, 5 years time, 10 years time, really envisioning your projects. It’s really helpful, that’s what gets you excited, thinking where can this go?”

“It’s just taking it one step at a time. It’s really cliched, but it’s true. The time pressure is only from you, yes it’s late - but late to who?”


The beautifully designed bottles can be found at wearefulfilled.co. The vegan, palm oil free formula is created totally from scratch here in the UK and each bottle is also refillable. Check out the Launch Collection now.


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NATHAN HUDSON-PEACOCK

Adventure & expedition doctor, photographer (also A&E fellow @ Kings Hospital)

Nathan Hudson-Peacock is what most people might call ”Headboy material”.

At Cambridge University, while most of us seemed to hazily rotate between the library and the college bar in a sleep-deprived daze, he was invariably either in sports kit going to Lacrosse, in a choir gown off to chapel or off to his morning medical lectures.

Often high achievers like Nathan tend to follow a conventional path: social acceptability comes easily to them as it’s a hard thing to turn down. So it was a surprise to hear that following his 6 year medical degree he’d taken a different route. Eschewing the tempting, well-trodden path of specialising in one medical discipline, he had instead chosen to begin his career differently.

He currently has a part time role in A&E, in one of the few London hospitals receiving trauma victims with stab wounds, and he spends the rest of his time doing work as an events doctor, an expedition doctor, singing in two choirs and doing adventure photography.

He tells me that these side projects help him reduce burnout, improve his mental well-being and ultimately make him a much better doctor.

What made you question the traditional route?

“‘What do you want to specialise in?’ For me, that was like someone essentially asking ‘What do you want to do the for the rest of your life, until you retire?’ I’m 26. I have no idea what I want to do until then! But that’s just the dialogue that everyone has in medicine.

“A lot of people do this thing where they apply to several specialty training programmes to see what they get. That way, you are committing the next 6 years of your life to a full time training programme, and then the rest of your life to specialising in that one niche area. So to just apply and see which one you get? That didn’t sit well with me at all.”

How did you start to think about doing it differently?

“It all happened by accident a little bit... Basically, I really like skiing”.

“I couldn’t get enough annual leave to take a skiing holiday for the 2nd year in a row, so I tried to find a conference in a ski resort that I could use some study leave for. I found a course in Chamonix, and it happened to be on expedition medicine. Doing that conference made me realise there were so many other options.”

“The doctor talking on the first day was just the most inspiring person. She works part time as a GP, part time A&E, part time on the air ambulance. She works on global health projects in Kenya and she does expeditions. She’s been all over the world. She did Planet Earth, she did Blue Planet, she does all the Attenborough programmes as a medic. It blew my mind that this sort of opportunity existed within medicine”.

“At that point, I was like ‘forget specialising for now - I’m going to take a few years to explore what else is out there’”

You got back from the course on Sunday, and were meant to be interviewing for specialty training on Tuesday but cancelled it. How come?

“I realised I just wasn’t ready to do it. There were so many other things I wanted to do. I’m sure eventually I’ll specialise, but there are so many other things I want to do first”.

Was that scary?

“It was very scary. My whole life I had been on the treadmill. “You go straight from school, to university, to medical school, through your foundation training and suddenly you’re in your mid twenties and you’ve never had more than a couple of weeks to step off the treadmill and say ‘what am i doing with my life? Where is this going?’ And, understandably, a lot of people are scared to get off that treadmill.

“When I faced the upcoming unemployment, it was the very first time there would be... nothingness. I found it quite stressful initially, but once I thought about why I’m doing it, I knew it was the right decision. There was still that void. But then things fell into place.”

How did the event medicine get started?

“I started doing event medicine, starting with Tough Mudder and the European Championships, on the side. I was then offered a job to go up Mt Kilimanjaro as an expedition doctor. This led to further jobs as an expedition doctor, and I’ve now been to the Sahara Desert, Mt Toubkal, Everest Base Camp and the Indian Himalayas, and soon I’m off to K2 base camp in Pakistan, with Raja Ampat in Indonesia, early next year.”

Has doing other projects made you any better at your job?

“Doing all this has made me 10 times more passionate about being a doctor. When you’re working as an expedition medic, you take on more risk. You don’t have the safety net of the hospital environment, you don’t have the other nurses and doctors to help support your decisions, you don’t have access to investigations, you can’t just do a blood test or an X-ray. You have to rely on you, your clinical skills and your ability to risk stratify.

“You feel valued, and a lot of the time you’ll be the only doctor. It gives me a lot more confidence and independence when I’m working in A&E.

“The other thing I’ve noticed a big difference in is my shared decision making with patients. Previously in A&E I was doing a lot of discussing options with senior colleagues, but not enough of discussing options with the patients themselves. However, on expedition it’s a constant process, it’s always a dialogue between you and the patient. The whole time you’re sharing the decision making. As a result, I find myself doing that a lot more in A&E. I guess I’m more used to it - it seems weird not to involve patients now.

Doing expedition medicine gives you a different mindset, and you definitely bring that back to your day job in A&E.”

Do you think it helps get through any of the bad parts of being a doctor?

“Well, the other big thing for me is that if you spend your entire life working full time on one thing, in particular something like A&E, you can start to resent it; you start to get burn out and you start to get frustrated that your whole life is spent on that one thing.

“Whereas now if I’ve been away for a month I’m almost looking forward to going back… it doesn’t feel like my whole life is just A&E and I enjoy it more as a result.

“I feel enthusiastic, I’m a lot more energetic and happy. I am choosing to be here - I’m not here because I have to be.

“In medicine there’s been so much media coverage lately with the junior doctor contract, burnout, people leaving... This is largely because their life is tied to one job.”

“I have managed to find the ability to take a step back, and it means I am so happy. It’s something that a lot of other doctors should consider doing.”

What advice would you give other people interested in doing something new?

“My advice would be: just be brave, step off the treadmill and do something different. No-one is going to penalise you, and you’re just going to end up a better doctor as a result.”

“There may well be hurdles you need to jump through, whether that’s financial or otherwise. But there are ways of doing it. You can locum for a while to raise funds and you can explain to your programme director how it will improve your career. It might be that you’re on the verge of burning out, maybe taking a year out might energise you.”

“Doing the expedition medicine course, meeting other medics who’ve taken this alternative path, they all said it’s the best thing they’ve done. No one had any regrets.”

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AMEER CARTER

Artist (also, graphic and UX designer)

Ameer makes side projects look easy. In this interview, he tells me why you should choose a side project over a side hustle, how to find your strengths, how to find the time and why talking to others about your project matters.

I first meet Ameer at an event. Or rather I hear him.

He has a distinctive American accent with the cool nonchalance you get from living in New York City for a long while. He’s wearing a cap which reads in hand-stitching “Everything is going to be alright”. I later find out his friend makes them.

“Have a f**k it attitude and admit you need help” he calmly advises the the group when asked his advice. We’re at a product management event about side hustles, and the majority of the group don’t yet have a side project, but want one.

Ameer is a designer, but has been doing side projects since he was young (“in our first university project we were sued” - he mentions casually, referring to a name trademark dispute). He’s done everything from UX design, photography projects, business ventures, art shows to design projects. “There’s countless projects I haven’t finished” he tells me straightly, “but you know what, even if I start 1000 more and don’t finish those, I’m getting something out of it because the minute I do the 1001 project, that one’s gonna go somewhere. And it’s always been like that.”.

We meet again in a cafe in Shoreditch. He’s telling me about an app he built in college. It ended for a few different reasons, and I ask him what he’d do differently.  He replies: “I think it’s integral, it’s paramount, for everyone to know where their strengths and weaknesses are.”

“What you gravitate towards most often is usually what you’re good at. It’s always been something that feels natural. For me, it’s having out of the box unconventional thinking. I can find a link between two things that have no connotation whatsoever. And yet frame it in a certain way where its like ‘oh that makes sense, that’s an interesting idea’. I do that very well.

And another thing is because of all the time and effort I’ve put into design I’m really good at visual design. But I think I’ve always had a keen eye on design principles like composition, colour theory, and how to arrange things: on a canvas, in a room or in a space, so those things I’m naturally good at. It’s normally the things you find yourself doing a lot, that give you joy. Or give you some sort of gratification. That’s usually what you’re good at.”.


You do a lot of things. How easy do you find it to avoid defining yourself by a job title?

“It’s hard. I still don’t know how to do it correctly I guess. I don’t even know if there’s a correct way to do it. I guess maybe for me, if I’ve done them for a larger span of time I guess I can add a title? But I’ve never been that keen on them.

“The good thing about the word design is that it’s an all encompassing term, it’s just a means of creatively solving a problem. Whatever the outcome is. If I decided to build a pop up shop - I wouldn’t call myself an architect or interior designer - even though that’s what I’m doing - it’s just a set of skills I’ve learnt and applied to a physical context. So for me, I usually just say designer because it’s easier, but when people say ‘elaborate’ I have to say I do websites, I do user experience, I do this and that. I just usually tell people I do and I make a lot of stuff - sometimes it makes me money and sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of times I do it for fun.”

Did you have any projects that came from a crazy idea but turned out well?

“When I was in Nashville, I reached out to a [photographer] friend of mine in New York, saying ‘what are working on right now? Do you mind if I do an art show with this?’.  I’ve always wanted to do an art show. Whether people showed up or not didn’t matter. I just wanted to find an excuse to display some work on some walls. See if I could do it. I did some light promotion on instagram, printed out some posters, drove around Nashville. We had a pretty interesting turnout and we had a really cool after party...a lot of people turned up to that. Everyone shows up to those.”

“People were like ‘i didn’t even know you did this?’ and I was like ‘I didn’t know I did this until today.’ It kinda worked out.”

Should people focus on side projects or side hustles?

“People doing side hustles for money? You might as well say I’m going to start this, and I’m going to give myself a month, and if I don’t see any dividends then I’m out.”

“Internal motivation is far greater than any external thing... the stuff that you think about, or you internalise inwardly, always gives you some kind of extrinsic outcome.”

How do you find the time to do your side projects?

“I’ve never subscribed to the idea that when you’re working 8 hours, that all 8 hours has to be filled with productivity. Because realistically it never happens. I tend to get stuff done the first 3-4 hours. Any time I had some free time - when a thought was on my mind I had to answer it. I just felt the need to say ‘if it’s there let me address it now’, so I don’t kick myself later that I don’t have time.

“We do and we don’t have time to do anything. It’s just a matter of will you respond to it right then and there. Because if you push it back too much, you’re gonna lose momentum of trying to do the thing in the first place and you lose motivation.”

Does your network around you matter for getting ideas started?

“I think the people around you matter for getting projects off the ground. People with energy. When you find really good people who reinforce your idea. A lot of people don’t share their ideas, so a lot of people don’t get that sense of local encouragement.

At the end of the day, no one is going to spend that much time and effort to stop their ideas and do yours. The likelihood of someone being that malicious is very very slim. And if someone is then you’ll be able to figure that out pretty quickly. But the problem is everyone is in this NDA culture because they’ve heard the bad stories of silicon valley.

But most places don’t even have the right infrastructure to build a silicon valley technical hub, so if you have a really good idea chances are everyone else will be like ‘f**k yeah we don’t have that here, do it, as a matter of fact how can I help?’

Or I might be doing something similar maybe we can team up and work together.”

You can tell that collaboration is in Ameer’s blood. I invite him to the Out Of Hours event I’m organising an event on the 1st June. He’s just visiting the UK but might be coming back for summer. He immediately suggests 3 ideas of things to do in the event. It might be the oat latte, but I leave brimming with energy. If these are the 1000 projects that don’t go anywhere, I’m looking forward to seeing the 1001st.

 

NILS AREND:

Creative producer & creator of the craziest running race in history: The Speed Project.

The Speed Project is a 550km race from LA to Las Vegas. It has been going for 5 years, amassing a following of 22k+ people. It's still unofficial, there's still no website, and there’s still no rules.

I meet Nils for the first time at Mile 21. This is the London Marathon cheer spot of the formidable London running clubs. He’s a Berlin born LA resident, and he happens to be in London for a few days. He agrees to speak to me on one condition: “come to mile 21 tomorrow, and bring a beer”.

Mile 21 is where most runners start to flag, and Nils knows this more than most. He’s a serial marathon runner and the creator of one of the craziest running events in history — The Speed Project. It is a 340 mile relay from Los Angeles to Las Vegas through the Death Valley. And it started as a side project.

The beginning

“The Speed Project was never meant to become a race. I just thought it could be cool to run to Vegas. I was never really around runners, I was always around surfers.”

Things changed when he met Blue.

Nils was running the Malibu marathon the day after hosting a big party. Somehow he still managed to finish in third place (he laughs, “one of my strengths is that I’m a very good beer drinker”).

At the finish line he was approached by a guy, who wa impressed by his time. It turns out this man is the Race Director, Blue, and in the weeks that follow he and Nils become good friends often going on runs together.

Nils still remembers what Blue’s response was when he first told him about the idea for The Speed Project. “F**k Yeah”.

“I was surprised. I was not expecting it. Everyone else was telling me how crazy it was”.

Together they began assembling a team, and soon all his friends had jumped on board. “They still thought it was crazy. But they saw an opportunity to bring something to the table with their skills. This group of friends suddenly had a mission, and everyone wanted to contribute to us doing it.”

Staying independent 

“It was always a passion project. There wasn’t a clear plan, but I had always created other things to be fulfilled.

“When there is no financial motivation behind a project you can really stick to what you want to put out there. Otherwise you might think ‘if I pick this logo or name it might upset people’, but with this, it doesn’t matter if it upsets people. We can totally go rogue on the system. It’s important to stay independent”.

After running the route, they decided their next move would be to shoot a film about it. They filmed it, produced it, released it, did screenings around the world with international directors, and put it online.

And then they waited. They were all curious about what would happen next.

“And nothing happens.”

There was no mass reaction, no crazy PR storm, no phone-lines going off the hook.

“I was like, ‘that’s OK, we did it’ and that’s what I wanted to do”.

They moved on.

Until something else happened. The guy who drove the SUV saw Nils a while later and told him it was the coolest thing he’d done in his life. This was a guy who hadn’t even run. “I was surprised. When all of a sudden the SUV driver said how cool it was for him, I realised that maybe the film didn’t really do anything, but the life experience did. And I thought, maybe we should invite people to do this with us, instead of having people watch us do it.”

“So we put the word out. ‘We are doing it again, if anyone wants to come.’ And people started asking all these questions: how many runners can I have? How much does it cost? And we were like ‘oh… those are good questions’. People were asking what the rules were. There were no rules. You can’t break the law. But no rules.” (For the record, the only rules are that you do it in a team of 6 people — their original team structure — and that you get from LA to Las Vegas all on foot. You can have an SUV, but it’s a relay, so someone has to be running at all points. This usually amounts to about 10 x 10km per person, but this will vary depending on injury, exhaustion and dehydration).

Finding the time

At the time, Nils was running the creative agency he has now — Optimist Studios. He made time around it. “It filled every free minute. Especially now. It’s always on. It never stops. But there are moments, especially afterwards when I am exhausted, where I always take a break. I need a social media detox.”

Staying grassroots

He’s not making money from The Speed Project, but there’s no doubt that he could if he wanted to. They’ve got +35k Instagram followers between them, and an increasing number of people applying to take part. But Nils isn’t one to tread the beaten path. “I’ve always leaned towards radical roots. We are trying to structure the registration process, but it takes the flair away. We don’t want to make it an official process because we want to maintain the attitude of the event.”

Cultivating radical inclusion

Since it started, there have been 20 different countries represented in the race. “It’s all about the other people who contribute. It’s such a worldly event. People from all over are coming. There’s even someone running something based off The Speed Project in Korea.”

To be admitted to The Speed Project, you answer a series of questions. The most important one being “What motivates you?” He’s a big Burning Man fan, and takes a lot of inspiration from them, especially on nurturing radical inclusion. “You don’t have to come from a certain place, or run a certain pace. People just need to hit us up, and have the extra motivation to get into it.”

“We have a pretty good track record of people walking away feeling energised and feeling empowered to do the stuff they want to do. They’re always like ‘I don’t know if I can run across the West’ but… you’re gonna find out, and the answer is most likely yes.”

Waiting for the hate to pass

“The competitive running scene were very challenged by our approach. We had a lot of people upset, trying to wrap their head around the concept. Four years ago people laughed at it. At the beginning, in the more elite running scene, they’d say ‘oh that’s cute what you guys are doing.’ But with the race, and with Tracksmith, all of a sudden we are so on the map. All of a sudden we are respected.”

He’s not wrong. A few days later I meet a Designer, based in New York. We have no mutual connections, but I mention to him that I recently met with Nils. He replied “Oh I know that guy! Someone was talking about him the other day.” He’d heard about the Speed Project. They may have not made a website yet, but it looks like The Speed Project have already made quite an entrance.


The Speed Project can be found on Instagram