October 7, 2019

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Emily J. Smith’s Itch to Keep Writing Naturally Sparked the Founding of Matchmaking App Chorus—Her Tech Startup

What are you working on—on the side?

My main side project is my writing. I write essays, mostly, and I’m also working on a novel and a nonfiction book. I started writing about five years ago. I never studied it, or did it professionally; a career in the arts had always felt out of the question, financially. I studied engineering and then went to business school. My world was always numbers, not words.

I started writing on the side in my thirties. At first, I was afraid to admit that I wrote in my free time. I thought it would seem absurd or worse—cute—that I felt my thoughts were interesting enough to take the time to write down. So I did it in secret initially. But eventually, I started to publish a few pieces and, over time, it got easier to admit. Now I call myself a “writer,” but when I hear other people say it, it still feels strange.

My other side project, which has since turned into my full-time project, is my company, Chorus. Chorus is a matchmaking app where friends swipe for friends (please sign up!). A lot of my writing has to do with relationships, dating and technology, and so I think about the dynamics of connection constantly. I had been shopping the idea for Chorus to friends for over a year and getting great feedback, and one day I just decided to go for it. I put together a business plan and a pitch deck, and found an amazing (all-female) team passionate about the idea. This summer we secured our first round of funding so now we’re full speed ahead!

How do you manage to work on your side project(s)?

When I first started writing, I spent all my free time doing it. I did it before and after work and on weekends. That sounds depressing, I know, but I had never given myself that kind of time and space to just sit in my own thoughts. The notion of writing had always felt too self indulgent or self-important. I hate to characterize it this way, but, to me, back then, the self-obsession required to create art felt masculine. But once I started, it was all I wanted to do. I was so used to thinking in response to others, to having others opinions and reactions influence my thoughts and feelings, and to just have the space of the page to untangle my ideas was addicting.

Now I can’t live without it. I get an itch to write if I don’t for a while. Like if your sink fills up with dishes—it happens, but at some point, you have to clear it out. If I don’t write, my thoughts clutter up in my head and I need to work through them to feel at ease.

Writing is kind of my side project again now that I’m working full-time on Chorus, so I try and clear my weekends to work on my book projects. Luckily, the two are closely related. I have to write a lot about relationships in service of Chorus. It’s a nice balance in many ways. I like having both creative and analytical projects to switch back and forth on. When I get stuck on a Word document, there’s always a spreadsheet to jump into.

Why have a side project?

I think it’s absurd that we assume we can or should only be one thing in life—like if we’ve worked as x, then we can’t one day be y. I think a lot of people, as they get older, are afraid to try new things even if they’re dying to do it, because it’s uncomfortable to be terrible at something and also serious about it. But the only way to start anything is to be bad at it at first. We develop an ego as we get older, like we should know what we’re doing with our lives. But even the most practical among us never really do, so far better to just admit it. Side projects are a great way to pursue an interest that we may not be good at, but that we actually enjoy.

The other thing is that side projects can lead to real projects. My side project of writing led, in many ways, to getting funding for my startup. After writing about the problems with dating, I built up a credibility on the topic. It’s strange, because at first, writing about dating and relationships felt like a liability with regards to my career, it was embarrassing to publish such honest material. But then I saw how people connected with that kind of honesty—even people I worked with.

Everything we do adds to our experiences in some way, we just have to keep following our interests. No matter how bad and embarrassing it may feel at first.

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Diptych courtesy of Emily Smith—her portrait photographed by Mae Ryan.

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