Side Projects: From Idea to Launch

via mtneer_man on Flickr

Photo credit: via mtneer_man on Flickr

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been exploring the topic of side projects. It all started with a newsletter, which I then followed up with a blog posta presentation, another newsletter, and finally another blog post (this one). Whew!

The presentation

First of all, here’s my presentation (presented at last week’s Hacker News Kansai meetup), which sums up my thoughts on the elements required for a good side project.

I’m including both the video and slides, but the slides are pretty self-explanatory so feel free to skip the video if you’re short on time.

Here’s the presentation’s video:


And here are the slides:

I looked for a way to sync up the video and the slides but couldn’t find any convenient app to do it. Another idea for a good side project…?

The projects

Note: I already talked about those projects in the newsletter, so if you’ve already read it you can safely skip this. 

I also picked 7 projects to review. They’re not necessarily the best, most useful, or most accomplished, but I picked them because each one has something we can learn from.


Reat It Today by Ishan Sharma

Store articles to read for 24 hours only

Read It Today is a “read it later” app in the vein of Instapaper, except it only keeps articles for 24 hours, in order to avoid having a long list of unread articles pile up.

The reason I’m featuring Ishan’s project is that after having his idea, he quickly bought a domain and set up a simple landing page.

For me, taking that first step is very important. Not only does it help you commit to the idea, but now you can also start collecting real-world feedback to gauge interest.


Done Temperature by Shane Cleveland

Find out the ideal cooking temperature for meat

Done Temperature is a simple site to tell you how much you should cook your meat.

This is a perfect example of a site that does only one thing but does it well. It’s also proof that you don’t need advanced coding skills to build a project.

What’s lacking here though is better communication. Nothing about the site’s design tells me it’s about meat and grilling (although the color coding is a good start).

This is not about being a good designer, it’s just about being a good communicator: I would suggest adding pictures of meat, or icons for the various animals. And making the site’s name bigger couldn’t hurt either.


Sunsetter by François Rejete

Learn when the sun is setting in a specific direction

Sunsetter does some weird black magic to tell you when the sunrise or sunset will be aligned with a particular direction.

The app definitely fills a well-defined purpose, but where it fails is explaining to me why I should care.

When Francois emailed me he mentioned Manhattanhenge, the phenomenon where the sun rises through Manhattan’s skyscrapers, and that made it instantly clear. I believe including a photo of that sunrise on the site as well would dramatically increase its appeal.

Also, a domain name would be a good idea. I find that giving it its own domain somehow makes a project seem more “real”.


Your Rate by Mark Hendriks

Calculate your target hourly rate

Your Rate is a simple hourly rate calculator. You simply input how much you’d like to make and how much work you’d like to do, and it tells you how much you should charge.

A nice touch is that it automatically multiplies your rate by 1.5 to account for taxes. This is the kind of small detail that people might otherwise forget, and it’s a great candidate for automation.

In a similar way, one of my favorite example of side projects is SleepyTime, a widly successful sleep cycle calculator.


GetProThemes by Glen Scott

A feed of the latest premium themes and templates

GetProThemes is a simple feed of popular themes from sites like ThemeForest or MojoThemes.

Sure, it’s not fancy, but what’s interesting is that it was built in only one day. Investing that one day can have big returns, if only for the fact that you now have something out there that’s able to collect real feedback from real people.

And through the magic of affiliate codes, Glen can even make money from his site. Two weeks ago I said not to try and monetize your idea, but that was mainly to avoid a lot of logistic hassles.

If you can find a simple way of monetizing your project that doesn’t require additional work like Glen did, then definitely go for it!


FlickMail by Nicholas Lee

Get notified when Netflix adds instant watch movies

FlickMail notifies you when Netflix adds new instant watch movies.

What I really like about this idea is that it solves a very specific need. I’m not a Netflix users, but I expect seeing this app would trigger a flash of recognition in a Netflix user’s mind, as they realize instantly what problem it solves.

The other great thing is the design. It’s nothing fancy, but using the same colors as Netflix means that (unlike Done Temperature) the site is on message.


Mac-Fu by Joe Meenen

A list of useful Mac OS apps

Joe built Mac-Fu to help his friends make the switch from Windows to Mac OS. While the site is far from finished, it already does two things right.

First, it has a very cool domain which lends itself to a strong theme and brand. You can already picture the bamboo background and panda mascot!

Second, in his email Joe mentioned that on this project, he used Middleman for the first time. Although that slowed him down a little since he wasn’t familiar with the tool, that’s a great example of using a side project to add a new tool to your arsenal.


Other Projects

Some other projects that caught my eye:

  • ProgLipsum by Andy Macdonald: a smart lorem ipsum generator for data structures.
  • Design Debates by Chad Mueller: a blog where two designers debate a topic.
  • One Read by Reuben Ingber: one link worth reading a day.
  • Read Love Share by David Bailey: a collection of non-fiction book reviews.
  • FormFold by Chris Gillis: a collection of design experimentations.

And if for some reason you haven’t had your side project fix yet, there are even more examples in this Hacker News thread.

Another great side project idea would be building a directory of side projects! I’d do it but I’m already way behind on updating The Toolbox

Conclusion

If this posts teaches you one thing, I hope it’s that side projects can be simple. You don’t need to wait for a Startup Weekend or hackathon to get started, and you don’t need to find a partner either (although of course those things help).

All you need is an idea, 10 hours, and a little bit of motivation. The first two are really up to you, but hopefully this article will have helped with the third!

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