Defining Better Goals for Your Side Project
“For once, I’d really like a project to not burn me out .”
Whenever I started a new project I’d say to myself “For real this time!”. As if enthusiasm was the missing ingredient to a successful project.
I’ve lost count of all the side projects I’ve started and failed to follow through with.
It’s easy to follow others and go through the motions without asking yourself, “Why?”.
So I‘m rethinking my approach.
Part of this writing is recognizing my own failure and learning from it. A lot of my failure has come from not having crisp ideas of what I’m hoping to accomplish. What my goals are.
I believe some of the mistakes and goals I’m about to outline, as I explore the nuances of product ownership, could be of use for anyone starting a software project. I thought I’d share. Let’s dig in.
What Project Lends Itself To Your Personal Goals?
The ‘new’, ‘hot’ ideas were the only kind I ever wanted to pursue. They had to be game changers. If it wasn’t the next Lyft, Buzzfeed, or Airbnb what was the point?
This is wrong on so many levels. I’ll stick to highlighting a couple things about that mindset.
First, most of those companies had no idea they were building industry changing companies. They had a cool idea, and wanted to pursue it. But the growth they’ve seen has surely surpassed any expectation they had in mind. So sitting down from the outset to make something big is foolish.
Second, and more to the point, building something like that didn’t feed itself into the type of life I wanted to live. I mean, everyone wants to build something people want, and making a lot of money can be reflection of meeting demand. But if that growth wasn’t in tune with what I wanted, where would that lead me?
So how does that translate into selecting a project?
- Are the projects you want to pursue only interesting if there is a lot of money to be made? Or if it was a creative pursuit would that be more fulfilling?
- If you made something you were proud of, but you had a customer offer you money to change something or add something you think is not really in line with your vision, would you do it?
- Doing big things tend to start small. They quickly grow from you designing, writing, and programming to hiring and hunting for investors. Does that sound cool?
There are no wrong answers here. Just having a crisp idea of what you’re really trying to accomplish, and everything that could come of that is something I previously didn’t consider.
- For me, on this project, I’m looking to create something indispensable, or loved, by a small user base.
- Making money is sign of creating value. So I’d like to accept payments somehow, at some point.
- The project needs to be small and manageable as a side project. It should be low stress but challenging and a growth opportunity.
Nothing Worthwhile is Done Easily (This might take a while)
I had the cliche, “If you build it, they will come..” attitude when I first started building software.
It was kind of true though at the time. It was green fields. But everyone who knew a thing or two about the internet saw this opportunity and the world we live in with, “There’s an app for that.” is that coming to fruition.
But I’ve noticed something in this time. Many of the people who’s projects or lifestyles I admire, didn’t have ‘amazing’ ideas or skills entirely beyond my own.
They had a vision and tenacity. They stuck with their project month after month, year after year. ‘Grit’ is huge determining factor to success.
Goal: My new project has to be something I think I can stick with for the foreseeable future.
Pace Yourself (Burnout is real)
New projects are fun and grab your attention. It kind of reminds me of signing up for the gym. At first, you’re going all the time. But after a few weeks, you start to skip. And you start to loathe the thing you were once so into.
The other side of spending so much time on one thing is that other aspects of your life suffer. I have a great girlfriend, awesome friends, good job, and many other things that lend themselves to enjoying life. I want to focus on those as much as any creative project because I’ve noticed that I always think of the good times of the past, and how I can make my future better, but rarely put emphasis on the moment I’m in.
Goal: Work on your project everyday but limit yourself to 30–45 minutes.
Solve a Problem You Have
If you’re going it alone like I am, you probably don’t have time to do a lot of market research into an area you’re unfamiliar with.
For example, I once made a small website for landlords to better manage issues in their buildings. Reasonable right? Very practical. I built it for my landlord and thought other landlords could use it too.
Spoiler Alert: He never used it.
I failed to realize he was just lazy. No tool would’ve helped. And the other landlords? They were doing just fine with phone and email. I probably would’ve realized this if I was a landlord. I didn’t feel the pain so I just built on assumptions.
Goal: Make something that helps you or others in an area you are very familiar with.
It’s ok not to be first to market.
You don’t need a new idea. You need a viable idea.
I remember hearing other people’s ideas and thinking, “That already exists.” Like somehow that was cheating. Copying someone else’s homework.
If a product already exists and is thriving, that is a sign of a healthy market.
We don’t just have McDonald’s for our burger needs. We have Burger King, Wendy’s, Five Guys, and thousands of other places that sell burgers. The burger market is strong.
For every Coca Cola there is a Pepsi. Ford & Chevrolet, Northface & Patagonia. Budweiser & Miller. Snickers & Milky Way. Adidas & Nike.
Look at Beats by Dre. Were they the first headphones on the market? Hell no. Were they the first high quality headphones? Hell no. Did they sell to Apple for 3 Billion? Yes.
Goal: It’s ok to build something that’s similar to something else. (Just make sure you have your own take.)
Make Something Small (Less coding, more marketing.)
My previous projects were way too ambitious. I just kept refining code and designs. I want to solve a problem with very little code for a couple reasons.
My favorite companies today have very simple products that do one or two things very well.
Also, many big companies started with incredibly small footprints. Facebook and Twitter come to mind.
While I don’t have desires for that kind of growth (nor do I have the ego to think it would happen), I do desire a level of traction that feels like I’m onto something.
That traction can only come when people actually know about what you’re doing. Marketing is everything.
Goal: Build something that is manageable for one person. Because it’s just you baby.
Test Your Assumptions
Building something small is a great goal but what will that ‘small’ product be?
Whichever project I decide to work on, I want to have clear theories or assumptions to test immediately. With or without code.
I hope to have some assumptions or ideas around everything. Research, growth, sales, usage. Negative and positive. But everything validated as realistic or misguided.
Goal: Brainstorm and execute as many simple tests to drive deeper understanding of the market, your users, and your product.
Ugly Is Ok, At First
The classic Reid Hoffman line is basically the only advice I should follow:
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
Get it out there. Listen to feedback. Easy enough.
Goal: Launch ASAP. Make it functional. Worry about everything else later.
But who do you listen to when you have no users?
Find Users First (Preferably local to you)
Whether it’s asking people to try your product/service or pre-selling your product, doing this leg work is something I’ve previously avoided.
Getting users right away is the best way to see if you’re onto something. Sign ups online are fantastic but I’ll want to make sure to follow their usage of whatever I build and ask for frequent feedback.
I should find some local users as well so I can schedule in-person meetings in an effort to have more fluid conversations and see them use my product/service in their own environment.
Asking friends or family will be very telling too. “Oh, they’ll just use it because they’re my people! They won’t be representative of a real user.” You might be thinking.
I once built an app that was perfect for my sister’s demographic. I was certain she would use it.
Spoiler Alert: She never used it.
Do not dismiss family members as possible first users.
Goal: Define how many customers/users would make an idea worthwhile to pursue. Devise ways to measure their interest and ask questions to learn more about their needs and expectations.
There are obviously a lot more things to cover but I think these mistakes and new goals are a great foundation to what’s ahead. Onward!
If enjoyed this, please like or follow so I have a sense of your interest. I’m not trying to sell anything, start an email list, or growth hack anything. But a little encouragement always helps. Cheers.