Why you should start a side project – and what are the first steps

Why you should start a side project.

Side projects are usually small undertakings which take place outside our work hours. However many times if a side project is successful enough it can grow into a real product/business. For example Gmail, Twitter and Slack were started as side projects and grew into the huge products they are today.

Learn new skills.

When starting a new side project, you call the shots and decide about everything. This allows you to use the tools you get to use for your project. A side project is not big as a “real” product but it’s real enough so that you can have real experience from the tools you will be using.

Have you always wanted to learn Ruby on Rails but never had the time? Now it’s the best opportunity to give it a go. Have you always been a Photoshop person but felt envious about Figma? Now is the perfect time to use it.

Side projects raise mental health.

Not all jobs are interesting and rewarding. Many times employees are stuck in a daily reality of boring and repetitive tasks. Taking a break from work may raise your mood but unfortunately that’s not always an option.

If things turn out for the worse you may be on the verge of burnout. Consequences of burnout include excessive stress, insomnia, sadness and more.

What you can do to immediately raise your mood is to take on a fun activity where you are in control. Choose a side project which you will really enjoy and watch your mental health improving day by day.

Increase productivity and creativity.

Trying new things in your side project increases your creativity at work as well. You learn to think outside of the box and try new things. This new way of thinking is unconsciously applied to your day job as well.

When you had a break from work by working on your side project last night, suddenly it’s easier to take on (what was previously) a boring task. Whatever you have to do at work, there is now always your fun side project waiting for you at home. Even if you still dislike your day job, it’s no longer something you are stuck to or trapped in. This will make you in turn more productive.

Escape from a job you don’t like.

There are many signs that your job sucks. First and foremost you bring negative energy back home. Do you find yourself complaining constantly to your loved ones about your day at work? Do you need a few glasses of wine to cool off from the stress at work?

What if there was a work environment designed by you and for you? You can work on a project when mood strikes at your own hours. You can also set the goals you decide and give yourself just enough pressure to be motivated but not that much to make you stressed.

Many people dislike their day jobs but quitting is not always an option. There may be not enough money on the side to make you comfortable quitting. Also you may be cautious about a new job where you don’t know what inconveniences await.

Working on a side project gives you a way to escape from your day job without actually quitting. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

It’s ok if you fail.

Let me tell you an uncomfortable truth. Your side project has a high risk of failing. Stats show that most new businesses fail. New businesses are built from founders which are dedicated full time in their venture. On top of that they often have a good amount of money on the side. Either from a loan or from an investor. Your side project has only your extra time off work and quite likely no funding at all. This means that the most probable outcome is for it to fail.

But because of that, in your case, failing is an option. You have nothing to lose actually. You have no loans to pay off, no investors you should be accountable to. You have the financial security of keeping your day job. You have only invested a small amount of hours with nobody to answer to. Nobody will blame you for not going big with a small side project.

However if you are fortunate enough to succeed with your project you will get a unique opportunity very few people have. You will get the option of leaving your day job and work daily, full time with something you really love and enjoy. Something like that does not happen everyday but is totally worth going after.

How to get started.

Most people think that the best way to start any project is with a business plan. A plan with bold statements and big numbers. Quite the contrary. When you start a side project you have to think small. Your side project is a one man show. Since you most likely will work it on the side and keep your day job, it should be considered a half man show.

I will share with you the technique that worked for me in the past and that I suggest that you take on as well. Small steps at first but with great outcome.

  1. Make a marketing website.

The first thing your project needs is a message for the rest of the world. A way for you to get people excited about what you will be making. So first of all get some pen and paper or open a new text file at your computer.

Think about all the things that make your project unique. What will you be doing better than other products out there? What are the reasons people should take the time to try your product out. Try to describe your project in a way that you would speak to a friend over a cup of coffee. Business parlance is not useful here.

Then search Google for free website templates. Get a template you like and start replacing it’s text with what you previously wrote. The goal here is to create a website that looks as if it is the real website of a company. I know you don’t have a product out yet. But the goal is to have a website that pretends you do.

Marketing website for my Deskhot project.

Put a call-to-action button in a few places around your site. A call-to-action is a button with a color that stands out and allows the user to perform an important action. In our case we want that button to take people to a form that collects their email.

This form should have some text that
a) Describes once again in a few words what your project is about.
b) Inform people that they are joining your email list.
c) Assure visitors that you won’t ever sell their email or spam them. (and keep that promise)

6 months from now, when you will have finished the first parts of your project, you will need beta testers. This is exactly what this whole story about collecting emails is about. The first users of your project are essentials for validating your idea.

This idea validation takes place in two parts. The first time is when you make your marketing website public. You will of course need to install google analytics in your website. This will let you know if you are driving traffic to it. So if you got traffic on your website but don’t get any email signups, maybe you should try something else instead. Maybe your idea is not appealing to people.

The second validation to your idea is when you have a sizable email list and release your MVP to the public. MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product and is the absolute minimum that you can have with it still being called a product.

When the first people start using your product, this is the moment of truth. Does it solve their problems? Does it meet their expectations? Be smart and add a feedback form in your app. This will give you precious intelligence.

  1. Get an audience.

Once you’ve built your marketing website, you will need visitors to start collecting their emails. There are various ways to build an audience which other people have covered in detail in their writing. Therefore I will only scratch the surface of the topic.

Facebook groups/reddit

Instead of having people come to your website, sometimes you should reach out to them. There are online communities for just about anything these days. Do some research to find out facebook groups and subreddits that your potential customers hang out.

Are you building a bookkeeping app ? Reach out for communities where accountants hang out and talk about your project. Don’t be spammy though. Don’t just post a link and disappear. Become an active member of each community and engage in conversations with other members.

Present yourself and your project in an honest way with a friendly manner. Don’t pretend you are a huge company. Being an independent developer is an advantage. People love to help underdogs.

MVP-share with website owners.

Depending on your project type and your craft you may be able to create an MVP quite soon. Can you hack a micro app in a week ? Can you create some designs of what your app will look like when it’s ready ?

Do that work and reach out to people. Back in the days I developed the first version of mobiletest.me on a weekend. I then cold emailed owners of websites and forums related to mobile website development. Some of them added a link to my app and helped get the momentum going. This led to the first users coming and visiting my app. They spread the word and before too long the app had a sizable crowd.

  1. Make a list of sub-projects.

Now once you got the audience building mechanisms in place it’s time to get to some practical tasks. Time to break the work ahead into smaller chunks. The ideal form would be groups of work that can each be completed in a weekly sprint (considering you will be doing this part time).

For example if you are building the bookkeeping app we mentioned before, the list of sub-projects will be the screens of your application. Let’s check out some imaginary sub-projects in our imaginary app:

User authentication
Create invoice
Edit/delete invoice
Print invoice
Add customer
Edit/delete customer

Remember! What we are building here is not a full blown product. We just need an MVP to validate our idea and get feedback. Your goal should be to launch an MVP and get feedback from real customers. You may have a million features in your mind right now. Write them down of course but don’t add them to your sub-projects list.