An Abridged Side Project Survival Guide

I’m cursed on two fronts. First, I have an audacious trait that makes me feel like I want to see new things exist in the world. Second, I believe I have the skills to make those things exist.

That is a dangerous combination.

I’m all too familiar with the process of conceiving an idea, laying down the initial building blocks of making that idea come to life, then spending forever tinkering and tooling around only to show little for what I have done.

A project that started out making me feeling inspired and excited would in the end make me feel burnt out and defeated. No bueno.

After going through that grinder a few times, I set out to figure out how to persisting the feeling of inspiration, excitement, and accomplishment throughout the entire project.

What follows is a brief outline of what I need to think about to keep positive and maintain momentum:

  • Who is the project for?
  • What do you want to acheive?
  • Set a deadline
  • Solicit Feedback/Ship Early, Ship Often
  • Reflect

Who is the project for?

I ask this question at the outset. More often than not the answer is “for me.” because I want to be able to use what I want to build. However there have been a few cases where I’ve created something because I’ve seen someone struggling with the tools they were using.

Identifying who you are creating for is important because it frames the scope of what you are building. The more specific you can get about who you are building for, the easier time you will have at building something. It will help you quickly identify what is essential, what is nice to have, and what is unnecessary to build right now.

When you are general about who you are building for, it becomes easy to get lost in bloating your project with things to satisfy everyone. When you get specific about who you are building for, you’ll get a clear idea of what needs to be built.

What do you want to achieve?

There are a lot of things that motivate us. For the most part I think people’s motivations for side projets can be broken down into the following:

  • Learning
  • Creative Expression
  • Recognition
  • Income

It’s important to choose one and only one. Sure you may be able to gain recognition and income out of side project, but trying to satisify both will dilute your efforts for achieving the goal that’s most important for you. If you focus on one, but you end up achieving others in the process… then consider that a bonus!

Set a deadline

We all hate deadlines, but they are essential. When it comes to a side project the perception of building something as “easy” or “cheap” is a dangerous trap. Acknowledge that Time is the capital in which you pay to experience things in your life.

Budgeting your time is a great exercise in discipline and being aware of that budget gives you the ability to have a realistic vision of what you’re trying to build.

You may realize that you cannot build what you had in mind within the timeframe you set out. You have two options: 1) you can give yourself more time by taking away from something else or 2) you can reduce the scope of your project to meet the budget you’ve allocated. I’d encourage you to reduce the scope.

Setting up a deadline and budgeting time also gives you the opportunity figure out the how things within the project depend on one another and how to prioritize them. Can things that get pushed lower in the prioritized list get removed all together?

One of my favorite things to say is “Done is better than perfect.” This doesn’t mean build a half assed project to ship on time, but to me it means being more thoughtful in understanding what I want to build and can I satisfy my goal by building less.

Solicit Feedback/Ship Early, Ship Often

Building something is an incredibly vulnerable process. You’re putting a lot of thought, time, and energy into something you believe in. However there is nothing more soul crushing than spending a significant amount of time on something that no one cares about. That’s why it’s important to ship parts of your project early, solicit feedback, and repeat the loop over and over.

It’s NEVER too early to ship and get feedback. The earlier you get into this loop and get comfortable acknowledging that you may be going in the wrong direction, the easier it is to adjust and change course.

Reflect

In the beginning of a side project there will be a lot of uncertainty and assumptions. Things will only become clearer as you spend time reflecting on what you executed and got feedback on.

With each step re-asking questions about what you are building, who you are building for, and what you want to achieve will surface new information that will guide you during the remaining work. Keep an eye out for things went well, what things didn’t go well, and create a plan about how you want to attack the next day.

Now get to it and always be shipping!