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Ask HN: How to get started with paying side projects?
125 points by zorba on Jan 10, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 39 comments
I am full time software developer with 15 years of industry experience. At this point in my career it seems like I can do more than what I do at my day job. What are some of the ways to get started on software side projects to have fun and for an additional income stream?

It's great that you're ready to take the leap in to making profitable side projects. Typically most side-projects fall in to two categories:

1. They never launch

2. They never make any money

If you can avoid these two pitfalls, you will likely achieve one or more of a) earning; b) learning; c) increasing your 'luck surface area'. So, it's a good opportunity if you can do it. There are plenty of reasons why you wouldn't have launched including:

- you kept your idea secret

- you tried to do too much

- you underestimated the areas that you're not skilled at

- you assumed that if you built it they would come

- More here: http://www.startupclarity.com/blog/launch-first-product-what...

The reasons for not making any money, or rather not making enough money that you wish to pursue it are multitudinous but include:

- you didn't choose a profitable product idea

- you underestimated the slow ramp of death: http://businessofsoftware.org/2013/02/gail-goodman-constant-...

- you charged too little

- you didn't solve a problem for people who were willing to pay you

- More here: http://www.startupclarity.com/blog/find-profitable-product-i...

I hope that helps and Good Luck!

I think this is a great answer that covers the common pitfalls with launching any side-project. I would add another often repeated, but important, point to the list - try to build something that solves a problem you're having. Earlier this year I launched a side-project[1] that has become profitable and is continuing to grow.

The impetus for building it was that I was trying to find a good solution to my own problem and wasn't happy with existing solutions. I knew that it was a niche product, but I figured at the very least if I built this I would use it. Before building it I also talked to a couple of friends who said "Oh, yeah, I'd pay you for that." That was enough validation for me to spend a weekend building a basic version with a friend of mine. After that I started using it immediately and had those two friends sign up (and pay). Their feedback, and my own usage, gave me the motivation to keep improving the product.

The other thing I would mention is expectations setting. The "build it and they will come" mentality is really hard to overcome when you're excited about your side-project. You figure you will turn it on and people will immediately start signing up. In my case it was several weeks (maybe even closer to two months) before I had a paying customer other than those first two friends. It's easy to be discouraged during that time and completely abandon your project. Have a basic marketing plan, stick with it, and don't set your expectations too high. It will take time.

1 https://cronitor.io

> try to build something that solves a problem you're having

Why not try to build something that solves a problem somebody else is having? They could be your first customer!

Because it's so easy to misunderstand a problem. If it's a problem you're having yourself, you'll likely notice pretty quickly when you're solving it in the wrong way (or not all, merely thinking you are solving it).

Good point. But unfortunately, my own problems cannot be solved by mere programming :)

There's nothing in your life that couldn't be solved with a bit of automation?

I just want to point out that Gail Goodman talk is amazing.

What a great encapsulation of essential knowledge.

My business is formed of once side projects that gained traction and I doubled down on. My "in hindsight" advice is to choose whether a project is to be optimized mainly for fun, learning or money ahead of time - each radically changes how you (should) begin.

The first two are kinda easy, but if it's "money", work from the money back to the idea rather than figuring out how to make money from a certain idea. Who's spending money, where, and on what? What sort of people do you have exposure to (on Twitter, HN, wherever)? How could you improve on something people already spend money on? Etc.

You bring a valid point. Who you have exposure to is very important. Build solutions to the people you can access. One thing that helped broaden exposure was to begin socializing through relatives or friends that are business owners. It allowed for a horizontal chain of introductions and conversations to happen within a specific group of people that are of interest to me. It does not take much socializing to start talking about topics that bring up software. Video games, apps, phones, etc., are a great way to steer the conversation towards their software needs. Without being inconsiderate at all. After all, you want to help them improve the business.

I think picking the right idea is the most important thing. A lot of the "never launched" side projects I see were just too big an idea to do as a side project. You need something relatively small, that you can build and launch quickly in a short amount of time. Find a problem that people are willing to pay to have solved, but that is relatively small in terms of time to develop a solution that will solve the problem.

You can do this as a side project because there are lots of things that can make a great side project, bring in a few 1000 dollars a month or more, but wouldn't be interesting to someone trying to launch a business they want to scale.

Look at tools and plugins for software people use already, especially software that has a reasonable pricetag and that people us in their businesses. Anything you can sell to people for whom time is money is a really good start!

I launched a side project 5 and a half years ago which went on to become our entire business. I wrote about that, in a way that I hope will help other people do the same, in my book The Profitable Side Project: http://rachelandrew.co.uk/books/the-profitable-side-project

1 - build an online portfolio of work (if you don't have one do personal/free projects to build it.

2 - go on elance/odesk to find some paying clients (pay is low, but easy to find). You can also use this to try different things and discover what kind of work you enjoy best. you can also call some technology consulting firms - they are always looking for talent.

3 - specialize in that area. tailor your website/blog to talk exclusively about that technology. between the inbound from your site and client base from consultant you'll easily be able to build an overwhelming referral stream.

That's precisely the kind of approach I'm seeking with my new blog on AI and data analysis: http://ai-maker.com/

Well, do you want to challenge yourself technically or are you more interested in making money? I think that the approach would be different in both cases (and following the money you may still feel unfulfilled intellectually).

For me, I wasn't sure if I still wanted to program, so I went back to the things that got me excited when I started (math models of perception) and I fell in love with it all over again. Now my dilemma is turning that back around and actually working on what I'm most passionate about in a full-time setting. In the meantime, hobbying it is better than not doing it at all

As it is discussed elsewhere here, challenging yourself technically to build a portfolio may also lead you to making money, e.g., from consulting. I'm offering this service for free at http://ai-maker.com/ as long as problems are openly discussed in the blog. For private consulting, a budget.

Please refer to this thread - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8844083

In my opinion the best way to start a profitable side projects is to limit the scope of the project.

I fall into the category of starting too many things that I don't finish. I've recently realized that the size of the things I was working in was just way too big, especially since When working on a side project you are working around your life schedule.

After limiting the size of my projects I've found I am completing all of them

Take my advice with a grain-of-salt - I am not a strong developer. However, I do have experience in the Operations side of small businesses.

Since this will be a side-project (and your time is limited), try automating as many aspects of the business from the beginning. I am not implying that you should BUILD automation into the onboarding process, but use services like Zapier to make your life a bit easier.

You also need to check with a lawyer to see if you will run into legal problems with your day job and to check what IP implications there are.

AFAIK, in the US of A the employer usually owns all the work done by his slaves, err, employees. Your side project may pay your company, not you.

Well that is the default case in jurisdictions based on anglo saxon common law - but if I had come out and said that I would have got down voted.

All Work "related" to your day I should have said.

Ambition is a form of hope. By definition, you have to be an optimist to start anything. So it's important to counter this with a healthy sense of realism because the truth of the matter is that calling it "difficult" is an understatement.

Know your business model. Know how many steps it takes for you to monetize anything. Know your audience.

I would also say it's important to find good advisors. A good accountant/CPA is very important and it may be worthwhile to meet with a good lawyer. We created CEA (certified entrepreneurship advisor - https://ceanow.org) after seeing how much good advice is so needed and have courses on business planning and entrepreneurship.

Choose something that interests you and something you want to use yourself if possible. If you can also try out a new language or some new technologies along the way, even better. If you build something with no expectations of making money, then everything is a bonus and you have had fun and maybe picked up some new skills. I would say for most side projects, the majority of the value is not gained from the revenue. Having said that, completing something and putting it out there is the most important part. Good luck!

Getting better at something is always good. Like The Joker said at the return of the dark knight: if you're good at something never do it for free. So there's always an avenue to make money.

Getting started with side projects is the easy part. Getting finished is the real trick. And the payment part seems to come largely after the second step (if at all).

I build small web apps for companies on the side. Little data management things the office can share... something like you might make with Access but obviously a lot nicer, more customized and networked. I host them also and charge a monthly fee. I don't think this is a way to get stinking rich. But it keeps me busy after work.

Keep your eyes open, ears at attention and talk to all different kinds of people.

If you really pay attention, something will stick out at you.

You'll likely have many ideas. Research them all, come up with some kind of a plan for each. Sit on them for a while...one of them will jump out at you.

It sounds like the book Start Small Stay Small by Rob Walling was written specifically for you. I really enjoyed it. He also has a free ebook of his blog posts at softwarebyrob.com.

His advice exceeds anything I could offer you.

Disclaimer: I'm Rob's business partner in the Micropreneur Academy/Startups for the Rest of Us/MicroConf.

I would also recommend Rob's book as a starting point. Many of the problems people run into are mindset related and knowing what else is out there, what things people have tried, and how they worked out is really important. Once you realize that something is possible, you can make it a reality. But without having concrete examples, it's difficult to make that mental leap.

I'm in the process of writing my own book on this topic called The Single Founder Handbook. http://www.singlefounderhandbook.com that you might find useful as well. Should be available within a month, but four areas it focuses on are Idea Generation, Filtering, Validation, and Execution. People have a tendency to jump right to code sometimes without thinking about whether or not the idea ticks off a bunch of specific criteria or validating it.

I think you'd find these areas helpful.

I did a short video on this topic, since I get asked it so much. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjAf0TvrhYI

Try odesk. Set a high rate and be choosy in who you work with.


A lot of people have been linking to Assembly lately, but is there anyone actually supplementing their income with it? Is it at all common to do so?

Many assembly.com products are just launching now so it's early but a few products are passively paying upwards of $1,200+ to members each month for their previous contributions.

One extremely convincing data point for starting a stampede of contribution would be, "Person X made $Y/hour for their contributions to projects on assembly"—even if it's pointing to one amazingly valuable contributor, one exceedingly successful project, and one uncharacteristically highly-valued bounty.

Right now it's a challenging mental math leap of faith to make the decision to spend _working_ time on projects there, but for _learning_ / extra time it's already a no-brainer (that's why I've contributed at least).

Of course I imagine this is all stuff that's already being thought about and is more of a later-thing / difficult to bootstrap, but worth keeping a focus on. Top $/hr made by a contributor on the site might be a solid metric to optimize for.

I am also curious if anyone has had any luck with Assembly. Their ToS are particularly off-putting.

Make sure that the people who you are working for during normal hours don't try to make predatory claims on your side-project IP, to start with. Apply the minimum amount of violence necessary to ensure this, preferably zero.

How would violence help ensure this in any way?

Doing zero violence insures this. I think what he means by violence is violating company policy. If you violate it a bit by say working on your side project during work hours then you can not ensure that you won't have problems later.

I think he meant 'violations' not violence

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