Since the end of 2011, I spent many evenings and weekends trying to build a profitable side project while working a full time job. For a long while, all of my attempts did not achieve their goal.

While I failed to make money, I did learn a lot along the way and used that knowledge to build the side project that does generate income and on which I’m focusing all of my efforts these days. In this post I’ll go over these projects and what I learned from each one.

2012

A niche social network - For my first side project I had no clue what to build. So I went with the best idea I could come up with. A niche social network.

  • I was trying to build something too ambitious. A social network has to have a critical mass in order for users to start getting value. The first users will come to an empty site and leave immediately because there is no one to interact with. For a side project, it’s easier to build something small that can be used and give value to users immediately.
  • I had no monetization plan. I started building without having a practical plan to make money, and making this project profitable was my goal.
  • I decided to code the entire thing in a programming language I was not familiar with using a new framework. I spent a lot of time just learning the new tools I’ve chose instead of actually building the project. I learned a lot from this experience and I improved as a coder but that wasn’t my goal. I could have used the existing tools I already have, build the project much faster and focus on monetizing it, but instead I spent my time learning a new programming language.

iPhone apps - At some point I’ve realized that a social network is probably not a good idea for a side project after all, so I decided to stop working on it and move to something else. I then focused on learning Objective-C (I knew none) and started developing iPhone apps.

  • Once again, as with the previous project, I spent most of my time learning Objective-C instead of using the programming languages I already knew and trying to build a product that people will use and pay for, which is what I really wanted to do. And once again I learned a lot from that experience but did not achieve my goal. The apps did make some money but it was a small amount.
  • I had no marketing plan - I wasn’t sure what I need to build so I just built the first thing I could think of. Instead, I should have taken the time to do the research to find a problem that my software would solve.

2013

A B2B SAAS - 2013 was a fresh start - I began working on a SAAS app.

  • I read a book about google adwords and my plan was to buy traffic and make more money from every user than it would cost me to get. While it was better than having no plan as in the previous projects, it was not a robust plan. The market I chose was very competitive and the user acquisition cost was high.
  • I started building the project before I validated the idea. My website had marketing pages (home page, pricing page, landing pages), and application pages (only for signed up users - the billing system, the account management and all the features that were the main functionality of the app). Most of my time went to the application pages, that no one ended up using since I didn’t have any users. What I should have spent most of my time on, before even working on the actual application, was the marketing pages. If I did that I could have validated my idea to make sure someone is actually interested in my project. Instead I built an app that no one needed and no one used.

2014

A niche blog for business owners - When 2014 started, I decided to focus on writing. My plan was to get business owner readers who are interested in the subject I was writing about and see what problems they have that can be solved with software. I wanted to gather a mailing list of these readers and then sell them my software.

  • I knew very little about the subject I’ve decided to write about so it took me a lot of time to research and read about it. I also wasn’t very interested in it and I had no focused plan.
  • I chose the niche based on an assumption I had - I should have spent more time on research and testing of that assumption.
  • I spent time on setting a blogging platform I found on my own EC2 instance and with a custom theme. That was a complete waste of time and I should have went with a hosted solution and get something out there as fast as possible.

My current project - For the rest of the year I worked on my current project which does generate a nice income. I made mistakes with it as well but it’s a great feeling to finally see that people find it useful and are willing to pay for it.

TL;DR What I learned

  • A side project should be small, focused and built with the goal to be profitable fast. Don’t start working on something that will take you years to complete and monetize because it will become harder and harder to work so many hours in your spare time for something that doesn’t bring results.
  • Marketing first - validate your idea before you start building. Make sure you are not building something no one wants.
  • Release a first version as fast as possible - you don’t need fancy tools and cutting edge technologies. Clients only care about solving their problem. They don’t care how amazing your code is.