What a fun side project taught me about starting a new venture

What a fun side project taught me about starting a new venture


At the start of the pandemic, a group of friends and I started IsolationCooks, a crowdsourced social media project that showcased what people were cooking/eating. What started out as a fun project taught me some valuable lessons.


Some Background

What was IsolationCooks? Why did we start it?


When the pandemic hit in 2020, the entire world was in shock. Almost every country went into lockdown, and many people were stuck at home for the first time in their lives, with no physical contact with the outside world, and virtually no access to restaurants, and even regular access to groceries and other essentials. For most people (me included), this meant learning how to cook, learning how to clean while also figuring how to efficiently work from home.


One of the things I remember most clearly from the early days of the lockdown was how many people were sending me recipes, cooking tips and even cleaning tips. This then turned into people sending photos of the food they were making. Even people I knew who had never cooked before started baking cakes and making exotic dishes, and many people had even taken up fermentation.


My friend Avinash and I were on a call discussing this new trend, when we realised that we could do a small social experiment, and document what people were cooking. This is how the idea for Isolation Cooks was born. I got in touch with a couple of other friends – Nivya, a social media manager, and Mihir, a graphic designer.


What we did


When we started, we decided to keep things simple. We would ask people we knew if they would like to contribute photographs and recipes of what they were eating on a daily basis, how they were tweaking the recipes they were making, and some anecdotes from the kitchen.

Initial days of IC

It was a lot of fun to begin with. A surprising number of people wanted to contribute recipes, photos and anecdotes. We were still learning about Instagram, and this taught us a lot about the platform. The response was overwhelming! Various news outlets (YourStory, New Indian Express and The Goya Journal) featured us, and everyone was excited to contribute. We were getting influencers featuring us, and so much was happening.


Moving forward

We initially planned to be a platform for anyone who wanted to send us photos, but that soon became too much. Unfortunately, we realised that this was quickly becoming a full-time job, and within a couple of months, we were all too drained by the pandemic, work and other things, to work on the project much longer. We still continued to post, but the initial enthusiasm had left us, and things fizzled down.


Although Isolation Cooks ended in a few months, it definitely made an impact, and I made several friends, and also learnt some lessons that have shaped my life and career since.


Lessons from Isolation Cooks


1: Networking is 90% of any new venture

This is something I wish I had known before I started. Since most new ventures need other people in some form or the other, whether it is collaborators, customers, or just someone to hear you out, networking becomes crucial. Of course, it matters even more if you are trying to make money out of the venture, but even otherwise, without finding ways to interact with people and talk about your venture, it is impossible to grow.


For IsolationCooks, most of my networking was for contributions, collaborators and shoutouts. Since most of my networking was remote/online, I made sure that I had templates of what I was asking, and how I would ask for it. I also spent a lot of time identifying people who would be interested, and eventually I became a huge fan of food-based Instagram accounts.


But in addition to Instagram, I also looked at other contacts I had from my life, contacts my friends had, and even people on other platforms like Reddit, Facebook and twitter. Like I mentioned before, so many people I approached were willing to help, and I made a lot of friends through the project



  • Make a list of everyone you know, and also people you would like to connect with.
  • Once you identify the person, start planning ways of getting in touch with them. Whether it is on social media, or otherwise.

Some people won’t respond. That’s fine. There will always be others who will.


2: Ask as many people for help as you can, because you can’t do everything

This is one of the biggest lessons I took away from Isolation Cooks (and is somewhat related to the first two). I was really surprised at how willing people were to help, especially when you least expected.


I asked influencers to mention the page on their stories, and they have obliged without knowing who I am. I asked some chefs from around the world if they would like to send us recipes and photos, and most of them not only responded, but they were extremely patient when I asked them for additional details. We even had two interns who agreed to work for us for free, just because we asked them. Even the news outlets featured us because we asked if they would.


Of course, it really helps if you have something (however small) to give them in return. It could simply be a chance to learn something new, or even a shoutout on your page. But very often people helped even when they had nothing to gain.


I have always been a little shy about asking people for help, especially when I didn’t know them. This was eye opening for me. It was this willingness from people to contribute, and help that made a huge difference to the project, and our involvement in it.


One thing to keep in mind though, is to be clear about what you are asking people to help you with. Also, when you are asking people to do you a favour, make it easy for them to do it. If you are asking them to give you a shoutout, it helps to give them some kind of short post they can use for the shoutout, or a post they can share. If you are asking people to contribute their time, make sure they know what they need to do, break it down into steps if you need to.



  • Make sure that the request is straightforward, and give people all the tools they need to respond easily to your request.
  • Give people time to respond, but make sure you remind them
  • They are helping you out, be kind, and try not to be upset if someone doesn’t have the time to help



Here’s the corollary: Unless you ask people, they won’t be able to help.

I know this seems like common knowledge, but I have spent my life not asking for help and then being really upset that nobody was helping me. If you are like me, then this corollary is for you.


Corollary 2: People are happy to collaborate

IsolationCooks had a nutritionist contribute videos every week, we had an artist who collaborated to conduct a coffee painting workshop, and even a food safety expert send us weekly posts on how to keep your food safe during the pandemic. We learnt a lot from our collaborators, and (we hope) we helped them in some way.


Plan your next steps carefully, but impulsive decisions can be fun

One of the reasons we were quickly overwhelmed by IsolationCooks is that we often did a lot of things impulsively. Although we had a calendar, with the entries to go in the next day, we would do a lot of things on the spur of the moment.


For example, on May 2 we decided to make a video for May 4 (you know… may the fourth) thanking all the contributors to the page. This proved to be tougher than we thought, because we hadn’t planned this. This meant Avinash and I were scrambling through google sheets to find a list of unique contributors, and royalty-free music, while Mihir was figuring out how to animate the video to look like the credits scroll from the Star Wars movie, and we were also dealing with the daily posting schedule, which in itself was a bit crazy. We managed to get the video out in time, and had a blast making it, but it was also extremely hectic.


This kind of thing happened with a few other posts. Looking back, I realise if we had been a little more rigid with our planning/sticking to our plan, we might have been able to run the page for longer.



Have a calendar/plan that covers most contingencies, and stick to it as much as possible.

Set some time apart every week to plan your week ahead

Make sure to do a few impulsive things (because it’s so much fun, and you learn a lot about yourself when you challenge yourself).


Building processes is critical to longevity of a project

This one is a bit of a no-brainer, but it is also pretty difficult to do. Like I mentioned earlier, we had some kind of plan in place, and some processes, but not enough. By the time we figured it out, and were trying to figure out a way to automate a lot of the work, life took over, and we dropped the project altogether.


Essentially the process we had was this:

  1. People would send in contributions either by email, Instagram DMs, or whatsapp messages.
  2. Whoever saw the message first (Avinash, Nivya or I) would then take these responses and put them on a google sheet and would alert the others.
  3. One member of the team would then put the recipe, anecdote or photo in the pre-designed template and check it once for errors
  4. It would be scheduled for posting


Considering we were getting up to 20 contributions on some days, this quickly turned into a lot of work. Our pre-designed templates required us to use an additional software like GIMP or Photoshop. This significantly increased the amount of time we spent on each post, and consequently made it tougher to check.


Around a month in, Avinash decided he would try to automate the process, which required a lot of effort on his part, and he finally came up with a program. By the time this came to pass, however, the lockdown was partially lifting, and we were returning to our regular(ish) routines.



When you are working on a side project, make sure that your processes require as little effort on your part as possible

Try and automate/hand over as much as you can – whether this means using an external product


Make sure you’re having fun

This isn’t always the case, and you’re going to find a lot of things stressful about a new venture. Sometimes, it can even feel like you are in over your head, and you want to quit. I certainly felt this way really often. But then, someone would send in a really interesting recipe, or artwork or sometimes I would have a really fun conversation with someone I was interacting with, and everything felt worthwhile.


I found that when I am starting something new, I really need to include some things that I really like doing. Maybe it is learning a new skill, or talking to some fun people. This way, it gets easier to do the more mundane tasks. With IsolationCooks, we would constantly be looking for new content we could feature. All of us love discovering new recipes, and so we would constantly be on the lookout for people who are doing interesting things. This is how I discovered people like Paticheri, Kobo Fermentary, Sujith Sumitran, and so many others. Looking at the kind of things they were doing was inspiration for me. I also learnt how to use new software tools, discovered fun cooking tips, and so much more.


In the end, it is really important to stay engaged with any project you are undertaking, and without some fun elements, it becomes really difficult.



It’s been over a year since we ran IsolationCooks, but I have learnt so much from it, and I keep going back to the page to remind myself that I pushed myself to do something at a time when it felt like the whole world was falling apart.


I know most people don’t have the time to take up a project on the side, especially one that doesn’t generate income. But if you do, I really thing a side project will help you learn a lot about yourself, and the people around you.




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