Lessons from a Year of Side Projects

Published at Oct 19, 2020

We’ve worked on side projects for as long as I remember but started just a year ago to make it part of our daily work in the company. Or in other words, we made side projects our main projects. Here is what we’ve learned over the last months.

The whole thing began as an experiment to learn new things, without knowing where it all goes. One of our first projects, Mouseless, was a great success already, but we failed with so many other projects. We always tried to learn something from all projects, though.

We did too many things in parallel.

For the last year, we had only one boundary: a limit of 160 hours per month. We calculated that we could work that much on other things without risking our primary business too much. That was all. We had no other limits.

That freedom enabled us to try everything out. For a while, that led to chaos. We started so many things we were motivated to work on but figured out we failed on the concept later. In August, we began to focus on one project and only on that.

We rushed through projects.

Feeling the pressure of building something successful (whatever that means), we rushed through some projects. We made some quick decisions, didn’t think enough through things, and sacrificed quality on our way.

That’s the opposite of what made us starting those self-initiated projects in the first place. We want to put time into details, make smart decisions, and build outstanding products.

Money isn’t everything.

For the first year, we expected to make $0. We already made a decent amount of money with our macOS apps, which probably should feel like a success. But we figured out that’s not what we want to be our success metric and let it define where we put our time.

We don’t want to become rich, in the sense of having more money than we need. That’s not why we are doing it. We want to find a way to deliver value sustainably. And yes, that includes making money somehow, but we don’t believe that this future is in macOS utility apps. We love the open web too much to focus on a specific platform.

That’s why we decided to open source everything, though we have no clue how that will make us money.

Marketing is hard.

We hate ads, growth hacks, and everything that has marketing in its name. That’s what we know. But we don’t know what we want to do to promote our work then, and we probably have to do it in some way.

We hope that blog here can become a sustainable alternative at some point. At least, sharing valuable content with people feels better than throwing money at big corporations to get ads in front of your eyeballs.

There is no shortcut.

We tried to find shortcuts to get started, but I guess there is no shortcut. There is nothing like an overnight success. It’s all about delivering value regularly and figuring out to make money with it on the way, or that’s what we think now.

Trust helped a lot.

The whole thing is a massive team effort. We are two people working on those self-initiated projects, while others work on client projects. Probably a good reason to feel pressure, but that’s not what we experienced.

The whole team is so supportive and shows trust in the work we do, even if it doesn’t work out financially.

Distraction is everywhere.

Our main business is still creative work for clients. We tried to work less on client projects but jumped in on a few occasions. For example, we are working on a project for a pretty cool YC company this month.

On the one hand, that feels like a distraction. On the other hand, all those distractions are great opportunities to switch perspectives.

That said, the whole team is very supportive in that regard too. Everyone tries to help us to focus on self-initiated projects.

Stopping a project hurts.

Also, we experienced how hard it is to stop a project. It feels like losing something, and it feels like a failure. We fear to disappoint the people around us, the people following us, and the people supporting us.

That experience will hold us back from just starting something new, without considering what we do with it in the long run. We want to do fewer projects and stick to them for a long time.

People are fantastic.

Everything we do, we share on Twitter. It’s incredible how friendly people are. We feel they want to see us succeed. So many kind humans helped us to find our way.

A special thanks to Julius Gehrig, who made the Mouseless icon, also to Surya Anand, who helped us with the matter.md icon, and to all the others – you know who you are!

We want to build something meaningful.

After thinking about what we want to make with the freedom to build whatever we want, we decided to work in areas where we have experience. And to help people sustainably.

For us, open source seems to be that way. It’s accessible, transparent, sustainable, and it helps a ton of people. And we’re good with code. To test that, we decided to extend our experiment for another 12 months.

Thanks for reading! Please send me all your questions. I’m happy to answer them on Twitter or in one of the next posts.