10 awesome side project ideas for software engineers

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If you are looking to side hustle then you need a great side project idea to build upon. Although execution and marketing/sales are far more important, a great idea gives you motivation to achieve that great execution. 

In this post I will share with you 12 amazing ideas you can start building right now.

Website/landing page, builder for a niche

There are millions of small businesses in need of a website or a landing page. Think of a small hotel for example. Most likely they take their reservations from some big player like booking.com but still, they need a small website to show their contact info to existing customers and provide credibility to their business.

Very simple, right? However the key point here is that they have absolutely no idea how to do it. There sure are many ways to build a simple website (and this is the customer’s problem here). You can use wordpress or wix or anything similar really. But which one is the right choice here ?

That’s the problem you will be solving with a website builder for small hotels! If your product is made for small hotels then it’s certain it will be the right fit for our imaginary customer. The same is true for all niches you can think of. Your product can target small hotels, hair salons, dry cleaners, you name it.

Your target market is small making this easy to promote. You only need to build a few features since you will be serving a small niche. This means it will be a simple product at start which is easy to make and you can get to market quite fast.

Web hosting for a small framework

You’ve probably heard of Ruby on Rails and Laravel, right? They are two of the most popular backend frameworks in the programming world. But what about Sinatra, CakePHP or Flask? They are smaller, less known frameworks. Despite their lesser popularity they are in use by thousands of developers around the world.

There are great options out there to deploy and host apps made in one of the popular frameworks like heroku is for Ruby on Rails apps. However if you are using one of the less known frameworks, the options are often very limited.

Sure you can deploy Sinatra in a generic Ruby server, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a specialized Sinatra hosting company that supports  just your favorite tech stack? Having them take care of all the right settings and default configurations would be a huge time saver. Plus all the performance tuning on the server would be much more effective versus a generic Ruby hosting platform.

As a developer you probably already have experience tuning your server environment for your framework. This means you can buy a server on Amazon or Digital ocean and set up a way to practically resell that hardware in small chunks. As you will be selling specialization and customization you can charge more than the average hosting provider. And that’s what makes this a great idea.

SaaS website as a service

As a developer it’s quite likely that you spend a lot of time using websites of SaaS products. Have you noticed how they all look alike? It’s only natural since they have in common that they sell software on a monthly basis.

They all have pricing pages, case studies, a ‘features’ page and so on. With the notable exception of Gumroad, you can use a SaaS website for a couple of minutes and immediately tell it is indeed a SaaS website.

Where there is repetition there is opportunity for automation. And automation can be a product you can create and provide to the market. Why spend money and time on creating a SaaS website, if there is a product on the market which does just that.

Besides, with the rise of no-code tools many people with no technical background are creating SaaS products, mobile apps and web software. All these people need a website that presents the product and allows people to rent it or buy it.

Most chose no-code tools because of their lack of coding skills. It’s this characteristic that will lead them to effectively rent a website for their product.

Stock image marketplace using AI generated images

Most business websites rely heavily on stock photography. All those generic “smiling women using a laptop” pictures you see on websites are bought from stock photo marketplaces. There are some core problems in this type of service.

It’s very hard to find the exact photo you need. It appears search “intelligence” is not yet on par with the way we humans think and communicate. The search engine of the average stock marketplace cannot help much when you need something very specific.

Stock photos are all over the web which means that your website looks very similar to lots of other websites. What’s even worse is that there seems to be a race over who will get the best pictures first.

What if I told you that AI is now advanced enough to generate realistic images. Imagine a service that will generate a stock photo based on your exact and specific requirements. And on top of that, each photo will be unique and totally different from all other AI generated images.

This is exactly what the Stable diffusion project offers. It’s up to you to make a service that will make use of it, to generate and sell stock images. 

Support chatbots

Chatbots are not a new thing at all. There have been many efforts in the past to create an AI powered bot that will help customers of your business. Unfortunately results have been average at best and this trend never caught on.

The reason was that the tech behind it was not ready for prime time. However this changed very recently. With the introduction of chatGPT, AI is now ready for you to create software that can have conversations with humans without much difference from traditional human operators.

The description in the chatGPT homepage will give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.

The best part is that the market is huge and unexploited. Every e-commerce website is your potential customer.

Build a programming course

As a developer you probably have specialized yourself in a few programming languages so far. However there are lots of amateur developers out there, not at your level yet. Lots of people are just starting programming and are thirsty for learning material.

You could create courses for other software developers which you can sell or rent for a fee. There is competition on the market but the barrier to entry is very low. You can easily be inspired by your favorite programming books to create similar training material with a personal tone.

You are probably already part of some developer communities where you can promote your work. If you have a personal brand on top of that, things get even better. A large twitter following can help you easily spread the word that there is now an easy and cool course about X language or framework.

Tools/helpers for video games

I don’t know if you have been a professional gamer at some point of your life, but unless you’re living under a rock you should know that esports are huge nowadays. Millions of people play video games or watch gaming “matches” on twitch.

And the thirst for gaming goes beyond the tools provided within each video game. Professional (or just above average) players have a need for stats, comparison tools, leaderboards and so on. You rarely find those in the familiar, basic UI of a video game.

For example let’s say you play Diablo or World of Warcraft. How do you know which item sets are the best? There are websites which can give you information about in game items and make you a better player.

The best part is that most games will give you an API with which you can build your tool of choice. The complexity of creating a stat tool for example is quite low. You mostly only need to fetch data and parse them to create nice looking tables.

If you are already part of a gaming community, you probably know by now the needs and wishes of other players. If not, you can start playing some video games and discover business opportunities on the way.

The Stair Step Method

Idea inspired by Rob Walling. (The Stair Step Method of Bootstrapping)

All those side project ideas we’ve seen so far are quite large undertakings. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The easiest approach to side projects is to start small.

For people in their 20s it’s easier to quit their job and pursue their dream. But for the rest of us it’s not a wise choice. People with a day job have limited time and cannot easily build a large product.

That’s why sometimes it’s best to do something small. For example a design system for figma if you’re a designer (like Molly Hellmuth). Or a WordPress plugin if you are a software developer. And if you are wearing many hats, a micro-SaaS product.

This will give you a small cashflow. Depending on your initial success you may be able to quit that day job. And this is your ticket to be able to devote all your time and attention to the real goal. 

Then you can either choose to expand your mini product into something bigger or you can start a real project from scratch. 

Mobile game with in-app purchases

This is the largest project on this list and for a good reason. In order to create a game, you will need to do coding yourself and partner up with a great illustrator. Which means it’s the only project that requires at least two people.

By why a game, and what about in-app purchases? Why is this important? 

The reason is that the market for this type of games is huge. According to Business Of Apps:

  • In-app purchases account for 48.2% of mobile app earnings.
  • Users are spending $380 billion worldwide on in-app purchases.

It’s easy to dismiss the potential of this type of product as something you can’t see yourself doing. I’ll have to agree with you on that. I can’t see myself spending money on fake game currency either but… 

As the numbers point out, there are many people out there with less financial concerns and plenty of time to burn. People buy entertainment with their money and that’s what is important to you as a founder.

This is a great project for younger people who are more comfortable quitting their day job and devoting their entire workload on this.

Create some content

For the end I’ve left perhaps the best side project idea of all. It’s the simplest one and most tried. Also it’s the approach we are following here at Deskhot. And that is, create content before you get to the point of creating a product.

And by content I mean one or more of the following: Blogging, video blogging, podcasting, starting an email newsletter, writing ebooks etc. 

Producing quality content is very hard. It took me 3 sessions of 8 hours each, to write this single post. You have to do lots of research, editing, polishing and of course producing the content itself.

But it’s way better to spend time on creating content rather than working on a product. You know what they say about digital products? Build it and they’ll come. Well they are so damn wrong on this one.

There is nothing more damaging to your psychology and ego than spending 6 months creating a product only to have nobody use it. It’s far better to spend your time creating a following with a blog and growing your mailing list.

Final words

We’ve discussed many great side project ideas in this post. Some involving web development, some including AI and some involving content creation.

Please note that most of those ideas are not validated. This means that I cannot guarantee you they’ll work. It’s up to you to set up a validation method and get a better view of the effectiveness of each idea.