Why making side projects rocks, or our story of bringing art closer to people
When the routine of working on your flagship product sucks you up, you start feeling tired or even worse — burned out — there’s a simple remedy. It doesn’t require you to lie low or go to Bali unplugged. It’s way simpler, yet still embraces your creativity, lets you rewire your brain and have fun by working… on a side project.
We’re a small Vienna-based company making useful (based on users’ reviews) educational and lifestyle iOS and Mac apps. We have a tradition of building side projects at least 2x per year. I’ll try to explain why making side projects is good based on our experience.
Artpaper was our first attempt to go aside from our main project back in the day — Mate Translate — and try to do something for fun, get our thoughts elsewhere. You can think of it as of a one- or two-week hackathon with no sleepless nights.
Reframing the problem
So, around 3 years ago my co-founder messaged me on Slack, “Why don’t we make wallpapers out of those gallery and museum works?” It instantly sounded like a good idea for two reasons:
- Many people get bored with the limited amount of default wallpaper. It also kind of justifies the number of third-party wallpaper apps out there.
- Even if having a bunch of slick-looking pictures, it’s still extremely tedious to refresh them manually. Third-party wallpapers apps automate this part but their pictures are barely different from conventional wallpapers featuring deserts, forests, and mountains.
So, we decided to approach it differently — by simply solving both problems above at the same time.
We hand-picked amazing artworks (copyright-free, of course) from galleries and museums all around the world. Art is something that people have been doing for ages, yet it remains quite inaccessible for most of us. We only see it in museums and galleries.
So, we made a simple Mac app which would set a random work from the gallery as wallpaper, on interval. Thus, you‘d always not only see something fresh on your desktop but also be able to catch up on your art education in a very subtle way.
Getting loved on a market we have zero clue about
First, we didn’t have high expectations for Artpaper. It was fun to make, in the course of making it we learned a lot about art, and it was also scratching our itching point with boring wallpapers. (I’ve been using the app every single day for 3 years and still falling in love with those artworks again and again.)
Then, it suddenly became popular in China. We’ve found an explanation for it in the fact that the works available in Artpaper (which mostly represent Western culture so far) are even harder accessible for Chinese users. With Artpaper, they have hundreds of amazing artworks right in front of them.
Later on, Artpaper got featured by Apple a couple of times and spent a week on the App Store’s front page. We were pretty much shocked by it.
One failed experiment which was fun to implement
At some point, we thought that it’d be cool to see artworks not only on the desktop all around your apartment. We’d allow you to order any of Artpaper’s artworks as a hard copy in a couple of clicks. We’d print it on canvas, frame it, cover with lacquer and deliver to your door. Before setting up the whole printing process, we added a button in the app which users could click on if they were interested. We’d thank them for taking part in testing a new feature, but also get a valuable overview if implementation was worth it.
We were testing it for one month on around 8K MAU back then. By the end of the month, we were thrilled to discover that received virtual orders for €4,000.
Excited, we launched Artpaper Orders. But, relatively soon got surprised. Orders weren’t actually coming in. It turns out that one step additional step (paying) was a giant gap between €4,000 and €0.
Results? Only two people did really purchase this way. Two others (my brother and my co-founder) also still keep their copies at home. So, we had to shut down this feature 1.5 years ago.
To be honest, we didn’t take away much from it. Either it was too expensive (€110 including delivery) or it’s too boring to have around just one artwork. Artpaper’s competitive advantage is that it lets you have hundreds of works at your fingertips, though.
Now, we’re simply selling Artpaper upfront on the App Store. We did experiment with the price a little. For example, we went down from €30 to €10. Even though the proceeds from one purchase are lower, the total sales went up because, apparently, more users can afford it now (Chinese sales went up in particular).
So, is it cool to make side projects?
To sum up, I’d recommend to try out a concept of side projects (or two-week hackathons if you wish) if you’re also a small company (I can’t say anything for the bigger ones because we’re not one).
This side project thing is not only a good routine-breaker but also an amazing opportunity to experiment. Probably, something will become your big thing one day. If not, you’ll have fun and learn a lot of new things alongside.
At first sight, it may seem like something that distracts you from your main thing. But, in reality, it helps you refresh your mind, embrace creativity, and sometimes also create an additional source of revenue (**).
(**) Artpaper accounts for €2K in monthly revenue at a very little maintenance effort.