My Failed Side Projects

I’ve had the dream of starting my own business for a while now; not the VC funded Silicon Valley kind, but what I’ve come to learn recently is considered a “lifestyle” business. What I’m after is the same thing many developers looking for sources of passive income want, which is freedom. Some people enjoy and thrive off the stability and predictability of salaried employment, but for all the time I’ve been doing it, I’ve never felt satisfied. I thrive off risk, stress, uncertainty. I’m more than willing to throw myself into difficult situations and test my limits. That’s why the life of an entrepreneur is appealing to me.

So far though, things haven’t been working out so well. While I may possess some of the qualities that help entrepreneur’s on their journey, there is still something fundamentally flawed with my approach and the way I work. I’ve decided to dedicate this year of my life to fixing that. Here is a list, mostly for my own reflection, of projects I have wasted too much time on in the past and why I gave up on them.

Concert and Show

This was the first business I ever tried to start, and looking back, the attempt was pretty cringeworthy. I really had no idea what I was doing, though the idea itself wasn’t bad. This was in 2010, before I had much knowledge of programming for the web. All my knowledge up until then was programming for multimedia in ActionScript. Basically, it was going to be a resource for people in Los Angeles to find something to do on any given day, similar to what DoLA is now. I jumped right into it without doing any research, and the solution I came up with was to create a giant XML file that I would update by hand. I created a script in PHP to read it and some simple HTML for the site and got to data entering. I gave up on it after I realized what I was doing was completely unsustainable and that there was a lot I had to learn about creating websites.

Navigated Designs

After figuring out how to create websites and spending a year as a webmaster for a small company, I decided it was time to strike out on my own and start freelancing. This was a short-lived business, as circumstances outside my control left me with about a month of runway instead of the six I had planned on. Also, I spent way too much time drawing biplanes for the logo.

Activated Apps

Fast-forward to 2013. I had been working as a web developer for a while now and knew my way pretty well around Magento having worked with it every day for my job. Anyone who has worked with Magento I’m sure can attest to the fact that the extension market is a disaster. While there is an extension for just about every conceivable functionality you could want, the quality is not there, and working to customize them is a nightmare. My idea was to build a set of extensions for popular pieces of functionality, but make them a pleasure for developers to work with. They would be easy to customize, impeccably architected, and with tons of comments and documentation. This is probably the only idea I’ve had so far that I regret not following through on. I created the online shop for it, the logo, and two extensions. What killed it for me was the fact that I could spend so much time creating the perfect product, but with the nature of extension development, someone could just take the files and sell it themselves. The general advice around this was that you aren’t selling the product, you’re selling the support. That didn’t sound attractive to me at all. I decided to just give away the tools for free and left it at that.

Both extensions still exist out there somewhere and have a pretty sizable userbase from what I can tell.

BetaPatron

Yes, BetaPatron is a horrible name. I knew it at the time, everyone also told me it was horrible. The name wasn’t really conceived until the end of life of the project to test its validity. I had never been a strong backend developer because I spent most of my time as a front-end, and when you’re leaning on platforms like WordPress and Magento there’s a lot of learning you miss out on. So I decided to spend some time teaching myself backend programming. This turned into a three year endeavor bouncing from Ruby on Rails to Node.js, Go, Objective-C, Swift, and finally Elixir. I fell in love with Elixir and used BetaPatron to really cut my teeth in learning the ins and outs of it. It was a shopping site / social network that allowed people to create and share outfits that used a K-nearest neighbor algorithm to sort the products based on what the user and their followers liked. I had done a lot of learning and spent countless hours to get the product to launch. It was around this time I really started to question what I was doing. I had always thought a good business idea would have to be somewhat complex to be worth anything, which meant spending a ton of time filling in for a lack of a CS degree. I spent hours upon hours reading textbooks and watching videos on Coursera, knowing that I didn’t really care much for programming. It was just a means to an end for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be the best programmer, nor do I have any desire to be, but I was tackling the problem for so long like that’s what it would take to get anywhere. The problem is, spending so much time on something I’m not really passionate about sapped my motivation and energy.

It was around this time I decided that since I wanted to start a business, maybe I should start learning about business instead. I know that may seem like a painfully obvious thing to do, but I had spent so much time going down one path, switching gears felt like starting over from square one.

But, back to BetaPatron, I learned six months too late that you should validate your ideas before putting too much time into them. I picked a name out of a hat (not literally), put up a landing page, and threw some Facebook ads at the idea. After around $50, I had a handful of clicks, 3 newsletter subscribers, and one very kind person that liked my ad. This really didn’t feel like validation. I decided not to launch it and instead started reading how to actually start a business. Now BetaPatron is what I use as reference material for my latest projects.

Lessons Learned

There were a string of other projects, some of which I also spent too much time on, before I decided it was time to really change the way I work. I had wasted so much time and had nothing to show for it except knowledge gained. I wrote out a new approach based on what I’ve learned, and I’m going to use it to guide me on all future attempts. We’ll see where it gets me. The new rules are as follows:

  1. Stick with a tech stack you know.
  2. The vision doesn’t have to be small, but the beginnings should be. Keep the project to something you can build in a week or two and try to get some validation on it.
  3. Do research before you write a single line of code. What may seem like a great idea may not be feasible, especially when it relies heavily on 3rd parties like Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, etc. to be successful.
  4. Competition is good. Be wary of ideas that have no or few competitors in the space. Especially if none of them look like they’re making much money. It’s better to take something old and make it new by putting a different/modern spin on it than to try to single-handedly create a new market.
  5. Work at a pace you can live with. Sticking your nose to the grindstone 24/7 only works for so long. Eventually you will lose your motivation and likely lose your way for a while.

Conclusion

That’s the end of my long rambling post. Thanks for sticking through it if you’ve made it this far. I’ll be updating here with how things go on new projects if anyone is interested.