How a side project helps us travel for free in the city

Feb 8, 2016 · 5 min read

Well…that was not really the outcome we expected, but all we wanted to build was a clean dashboard for news from our favourite sources (as a side project)

Side projects are awesome! Helps you get out of your routine, keeps your ‘thinking gears’ in check and surely helps you climb up on that learning curve. You should also check out this piece from Mukund Mohan where he talks about the mental and psychological benefits of having side projects.

So where does one begin?

Start with something that bothers you

This approach has always worked. Find something that bothers you and try and see how you would solve it. Start somewhere and see where it leads you. The journey towards the solution is the most exciting part. Tobias van Schneider puts it best…

The reason why I’m sharing this with you is because this is a particular case of “just fucking do it”. It’s case that helps me remind myself what really counts: Finishing.

A lot of personal projects that turned out to be a “success” are the ones where I never thought about success in the first place.

For instance, in the early days of of Instagram when it was ‘App’ only, I always thought that there should be a way to access it on the web. As soon as they launched their public API, we built a clean app in just 2 weeks as an experiment to view, like and comment on your Instagram photos on the web. It turned out to be the slickest and most complete web app for Instagram at that time. Being featured on Mashable, The Next Web, CNet surely gave us a lot of fame (and money) for a 2 week hack, but the intention was purely to solve a simple problem — “Let me access my favourite app on the web”.

Next, as a designer, I take a lot of screenshots on the iPhone. Screenshots are great for feedback, sharing ideas, references… but hey, they are forgotten over time, take up space (the pain of owning a 16GB phone at that time) and your photo gallery looks ugly! Was there a simple way to delete screenshots? Not until iOS8, when they allowed delete access on the camera roll. Hey! Here is an opportunity (knocks) and so we built Screeny as a side project. You have to read what happened next (FYI it was pleasantly shocking) but here is a glimpse of what happened apart from it being the Top 10 Paid Apps in more than 15 countries. It solves a simple problem — “Delete unwanted screenshots easily”

So back to the point of what is that simple problem we are trying to solve at the moment? “A dashboard with the top five news items from the top sources” Say hello to The Top Fives

Build the core first and then phase it out

Biz Stone shares a great analogy in his post “The Complexity of Simple”

Larry Wall, who created the programming language Perl, once said, “When they built The University of California at Irvine they just put the buildings in. They did not put any sidewalks; they just planted grass. The next year, they came back and put the sidewalks where the trails were in the grass.”

Larry’s point was that Perl wasn’t designed on first principles. Perl was those sidewalks. If you’re a consumer software product designer, this should resonate with you. Watching for patterns in usage will help you make your app better. Thinking you know all up front is just more work.

Version 1.0 — The Top Fives

We started with 6 sources. That’s it. With this we got a lot of feedback — add more sources, allow me to choose which sources, why dont you guys build a chrome extension, what about safari?, feels too ‘texty’ gets some visuals — do you know something called dribbble exists?

Early feedback. We are still figuring out when to roll out the ‘meow’ feature.

Keep iterating along the path

All feedback gave us enough insights on what to build next and slowly and steadily we did, over the weeks (cc : Kavisha, Alvin). Here are the iterations…

  1. Added more sources : 23 of our favourites (more being added)
  2. Chrome extension : serving top news every time you open a new tab
  3. Inspirations : Visuals from Dribbble, Behance, Awwwards
  4. More browser extensions : Safari & Firefox
  5. APIs : Preparing for mobile consumption
  6. The Top Fives - iOS App : Download and give it a spin? (subtle) :)
The Top Fives iOS App — Version 1

Strive(ing*) to build a great product and everything else will fall in place

Idea v/s execution? Keep shipping a better version? Something that helps you more than the previous version and makes you happy. For us it was all about that. We also kept iterating with different ROIs for the effort we put on The Top Fives. Clearly image based ads didn’t fit into the scheme of things for Top Fives on the web. Time to get creative on the footer :)

Experimenting with Uber rides and featured apps

Turns out, a lot of people are yet to take their first Uber ride. Who knew a side project can help you travel for free. *Back to the drawing board for the next iteration* More updates on this soon…

To conclude

  1. Side projects are awesome — build something, it’s a great feeling
  2. Focus on the core, phase out the rest
  3. Keep learning, keep iterating
  4. Strive for quality and keep it classy, efforts will be repaid. For sure.

Check out Top Fives on the Web, iOS and give the Chrome extension a try? Would love to know what side project are you working on!

Also if you would like to check out all of our products and client works, do visit

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The Top Fives - On the go

The Top Fives is a clean and simple dashboard for all your top product, design, tech news and inspirations from your favourite sites. Here we talk about the journey of the side project as we build it.


Written by


Creator. Designer. Made - Water (iOS), Screeny (iOS), & I run @nfnlabs & @kabadiconnect otherwise

The Top Fives - On the go

The Top Fives is a clean and simple dashboard for all your top product, design, tech news and inspirations from your favourite sites. Here we talk about the journey of the side project as we build it.

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