Ten Years of Worthless Side Projects

Zach Dicklin
Jul 25, 2017 · 4 min read

When I graduated college about a decade ago and started working full time as a software developer, I began spending a lot of my free time working on side projects. In many ways, I’m an just an obsessive builder, and like to busy myself learning new things and making cool projects.

It also seemed like a good opportunity to make some cash. Some projects are big visions for a full startup, others are something small aimed to make a few dollars a month.

But as I stare down now at another dead, traffic-less side project that has consumed another half year of my life, I realize that my formula just isn’t working.

So, in no particular order:

Rentabuild: A 3d printer rental company. This was actually a good look and made a little money. At it’s height, I was rending a fleet of 8 printers nationwide to individuals and companies. I quit because the margins were too low and repair time too high.

Turntable: A 3d-printed, open source record player. Built as ‘from scratch’ as possible, with parts designed in Fusion 360, amplifier and motor controls in Eagle CAD. I’d considered selling plans, kits, or full players. (more info)

Version 2 featured magnetic bearing.

Bloom Landscape Assistant: A collaboration with a landscape architect to pick plants and design home garden beds with machine learning.

LocalFavorite: A location-based tweet favoriting application. Made $10/mo until it was shut down by Twitter.

Playlost: Build playlists in your library by snaking through a hexagonal grid of songs.

WriteALot: A writing tracker, built at the recommendation of some grad students.

Boulder Tubing: Crossreference weather and flow rate data to determine if it’s a good day to go tubing in Boulder Creek.

Zookeeper: Use machine learning to identify which pet is at the back door

Graynote: A simple Evernote alternative

Caffeine: A caffeine intake tracker

0Spec: An Atmega-based smartwatch. 3d printed case, custom PBC, BLE, written in C.

LCD Text in 1K: based on the 0Spec for the Hackaday 1K challenge, a pixel font and renderer written in assembly

Grabber: A simple web-scraper-to-api tool

Two-ler: Measure the area of a room using a sonar mounted on a servo. Included a custom PCB I made with a laser printer and acid etched in my garage.

Joshua: A Javascript game engine.

Javalanche: An Android game to dodge falling spikes

Derailleur: An Android cycling computer and tracker. Made about $40/year in ads.

“Where are the Cameras?”: An app to build awareness of your physical surroundings, by suggesting things to observe around you rather than play on you phone.

“ChemicalRole”: Take a picture of an ingredient label and get an unbiased description of what’s inside. Involved researching and writing short descriptions for every FDA-approved chemical ingredient.

There are probably others.

Pros: I’ve learned and improved a ton of skills. I can design a basic PCB, model 3d objects, write code from assembly to TensorFlow, build for the endless cloud or smallest microcontrollers, and drive a little bit of traffic. This has been helpful in my career, keeping me up to date in a the constantly changing landscape of frameworks.

Cons: I’ve made literally no money. I get home from work and spend time working, except this doesn’t pay. It’s rare that I ever recoup the domain cost, let alone materials, servers, or time. I’ve spent a lot on projects, with domain names. It’s a graveyard totally unused things. I’ve learned a lot, but what’s the point without application?

It’s time for a change, but I’m not sure what to do.

I can’t continue doing this. I refuse to just give up, stop building, and watch Netflix. Some ideas:

Find Collaborators: A common theme in these projects is that I’m usually working alone. Maybe collaborating on a project with someone else with a different skill set would yield better results.

Project Deep Dive: I often just scratch the surface of a new technology. Maybe I could embark on a task to do something very difficult and truly novel and fully documenting the effort.

Marketing: The worst. I’m bad at it and it just does not interest me. Building the correct product and learning to sell it is a clear area for me to improve.

Stop Thinking about Money: The exact opposite of the above. Spend my free time exploring things that really interest me without worrying about selling it or career application.

I’m interested in the experiences of others on their own side projects, and how they use their time.

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