What is a side project?

Definition (expr.) a side-project is something that you are doing aside from your main objective or job

Why do you need a side project? Because these ideas keep popping in your head and it’s a chance for you to apply your mind to solve it. For me it’s to learn, to understand how things work, to get your hands dirty, to get creative within constraints, to solve.

You probably cannot work on every idea that pops up - since everything is a function of interest, time, effort (and many times the cost to do it). Like classic ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) style - every idea I work on passes through the following stages

  1. Capture - Everything goes into Trello
  2. Clarify - Using the 80-20 rule sort ideas based on impact or unlocking constraints
  3. Organise - Add context, research, what the broad approach will be to build / solve
  4. Review - Once the idea is live, review feedback / traction, define next steps or axe
  5. Engage - Ship incremental builds

Capture

I use Trello to keep track of all ideas. It’s important for you to see them so that you can correlate to the context and learnings from every idea. For me they fall under the buckets of broad random ideas, shortlist of ideas, ideas that have shipped, ideas that generate income and finally ideas that are done and dusted.

Clarify

What to work on and why - is the most important aspect of side projects. Some ideas make sense only when specific constraints are lifted. Like you know, all taxi and delivery apps made sense only when Google maps was good enough. As a designer I got irritated when my camera roll filled up with feedback screenshots. But Screeny wasn’t possible till iOS 8 launched APIs for camera roll access. Extragram was a web viewer we built for Instagram. It wasn’t possible till Instagram launched their photos, likes and comments APIs. When you are always on the lookout for such constraints - you get great adoption for your idea.

Most ideas are purely the pain-points I see in daily life with the hope that a lot of other people might have similar problems. The question “How do I filter my favourite tweets and tweetstorms in Twitter” gave rise to Storm it. The question “How can I bookmark or aggregate interesting videos that I stumbled on across different sites and watch them later when I am free” gave rise to Vookmark. And either there was no solution to these problems or the ones that existed, were just not good/classy enough. That said you should read this great post by Justin Jackson - aptly titled ‘Ideas aren’t cheap’

Organise, review and engage

Remember that side projects are something that you do apart from your main job or source of revenue. You have limited time to add life to the ideas, see them crawl, walk and run. Mostly post work, late into the nights or weekends. One good thing I have learnt from most makers is launch your iterations and launch often. Don’t worry it’s not that easy to copy ideas as Jason Fried puts in best

The copiers don’t understand where to take it next because they don’t understand the original intention. They don’t know the original moves so they don’t understand the next move.

What you always have control on is what you should do. This simple framework has helped me to put a lot of things on my plate into perspective. (Also known as the Eisenhower Matrix)

Another good question to ask on side projects is “How can I spend my time such that it has minimal effort but maximum impact in pushing the idea forward?”. This can range from getting early feedback from users or writing an article in the right platform that boosts the distribution. But more on this in a separate post.

Sometimes you don’t see the impact immediately but you do it anyways since you love solving the problem. A great example of this is a service called ‘BuiltWith’. I am sure many of you would have heard this name.

The idea for BuiltWith came in 2007, when Gary Brewer was visiting a lot of random sites, looking at their source code and discovering what platforms they were built with. At the time, Brewer was not trying to solve a problem or anything like that; instead, he says that he just found that type of information interesting, and it turns out that many other people did as well.

But a few years down the track, users of the site started to approach Brewer asking him if BuiltWith could provide them with data they were after. Like a list of all sites that use a specific programming language. Brewer realised he was sitting on a goldmine of information that is valuable to others. Today BuiltWith does north of $14million in revenue every year - run by a single person.

Concluding thoughts on side projects

I don’t think every side project that you work on should directly lead to “how much money can this idea make”. You need not be in ‘Hustle’ mode every waking hour. Some of the side projects we built indirectly helped us win large client projects. Many side projects taught us nuances of the different platforms (iOS, Android, Web) which helps us to solve problems better in the future. Most side projects taught us the importance of distribution (just because you built something doesn’t mean people will automatically come) and the need for good network effects. But the most important one being - every side project was done for the joy of building something and pushing a beautiful and functional solution out in the world.

And if I ever have random/weird thoughts about building different side projects, I go back to this quote by Derek Sivers

Never forget why you’re really doing what you’re doing. Are you helping people? Are they happy? Are you happy? Are you profitable? Isn’t that enough?

Hope you liked this post. Let me know by replying to this email or adding a comment below. I am going to share more stuff related to side projects, teams, products, design, gadgets and things that I find interesting and stumble upon every week.