Maker Resources

How to come up with great side project ideas

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Challenges such as the 24 Hour Startup Challenge or the 12 startups in 12 months Challenge are becoming increasingly popular, and coming up with great product ideas is more important than ever for makers. In this article, we are going through the three main steps in finding and evaluating a product idea, and are going to look at some methods that other makers use for finding their next product idea.

Serve your niche

As a indie maker, you will have to start serving a very specific niche: be it indie makers, remote workers, women in tech—a niche will help you find solvable problems to address, and will also make your sales life a lot better. If you are able to solve an issue that everyone in a specific niche encounters, then your product will practically sell itself.

Building a product for everyone is never the solution. Even if you are building a product that could be used by anyone—let’s say a music sharing platform—consider who the niche market is that you could serve best. Maybe indie music artists have a hard time sharing their songs with labels? Some may want to target their local audiences first? This will give you a good direction on which customers to target first.

Starting in a niche does not limit your chances to grow. It is a good starting point to get the initial traction needed to break out of that niche, and then serve a much greater audience.

Let’s consider NomadList. Initially, NomadList was—as the name suggests—a product for digital nomads. The service then expanded into a more generic list of cities and their qualities after it had the initial traction from digital nomads. Thanks to the growth of digital nomadism—but also the fact that the product is usable by other people as well—Pieter Levels reached over $20,000 in monthly recurring revenue.

Whatever you do, move in a niche that you know well. It does not make sense to make assumptions about an industry, hobby or lifestyle that you don’t know. If you have issues finding problems to solve in a niche you are part of, consider picking up a new hobby that is not represented enough in the maker scene. Maybe you could solve a great problem for scuba divers or rock climbers?

Stop looking, start finding

If you are searching for ‘startup ideas’ on Google, you are doing it wrong. The things you will find are mostly so-called “Sitcom Ideas”. Ideas that sound good to everyone, but actually make no sense. Paul Graham describes it as follows:

“For example, a social network for pet owners. It doesn’t sound obviously mistaken. Millions of people have pets. […] The danger of an idea like this is that when you run it by your friends with pets, they don’t say “I would never use this.” They say “Yeah, maybe I could see using something like that.”  They don’t want to use it themselves, at least not right now, but they could imagine other people wanting it. Sum that reaction across the entire population, and you have zero users.”

Instead of thinking about ideas, think about the problems that your particular niche faces. Let’s say your niche is indie makers, what are some of their problems?

  • Lack of time. How can you make building products faster and easier?
  • Tax implications. Many makers end up setting up an umbrella corporation for all their small products, can you find a better way?
  • Communication. Telegram is messy, Slack is crowded. How can you make nice, community-based discussions happen?
  • Diversity. Maker-ism should not have any barriers. What gates do women and PoC face when getting into indie making, can you destroy the barriers?
  • DIY. We end up doing the same things over and over when building a product. Can you automate it?

All those are genuine problems we face in our little community of makers. Imagine a niche where it is not possible for people to quickly set up a product to solve those. It would be an easy sell.

But then again, do not actively look for problems or you will end up with sitcom ideas. Go about your life and be aware of your surroundings. Whenever you think ‘Ugh, this is annoying to do’ or ‘Why isn’t this easier’, consider it a first pointer towards your next side project idea.

Is this worth my time?

This is a question that many makers end up answering with No, getting stuck in an eternal idea seeking loop. This is the time where you should be analytical and not trust your gut. Ask yourself:

  • Is this really a problem I have encountered personally?
  • Am I passionate about this niche and problem. Would I work on this for more than two years?
  • Am I able to push out a MVP for this in less than a month? (consider no-code approaches)
  • Does this niche have a good buying power?

If you answered ¾ of those with a Yes, you are on a good path. All of these points are important. The first one shows you if this is a real pain point, which also means that people would probably pay to get it solved. If you said no to the second one, your chances of getting unmotivated and burned out increase drastically.

The third one will show you how likely it is that you finish the project. If you have to work on something for longer than a few months, chances are you are just going to get distracted at some point. It will also be easier for you to minimize the time until you can show some traction.

Finally, the last one will help understand the viability of your idea as a business. Are you selling to school kids or similar? Then you might need to figure out a different pricing method than the usual subscription model.

The Jon Yongfook Method

To wrap this up, here is a framework that puts all these steps together into one. Maker Jon Yongfook, who is currently doing the 12 Startups in 12 Months challenge, is using a simple spreadsheet for his ideas.

He uses a handful of metrics to measure the problem he finds:

  • Hair on Fire, is this a nice-to-have or a must-have?
  • Access to Market, do I have easy access to potential customers?
  • Day 1 Revenue, does this have the potential to make money from day 1 or does commercialization require further thought?
  • Revenue Scalability, does this target market have scale?
  • Defensibility, how hard would it be for someone to create a copycat?
  • Lack of Competitors, is this blue ocean or red ocean space?
  • Personal Passion, is this aligned with my interests?
  • Unfair Advantage, do I have some special skill set that makes me the perfect person to launch this?
  • IP Creation, will I be creating something of technical value that could be re-used elsewhere?
  • Acquisition Potential, is this idea in a space where there is acquisition activity?

If you’d like to learn more about this, check out his post on the challenge and his spreadsheet.

We went over a few crucial steps that you can follow to get viable side project ideas. One important last thing to mention: it is not a shame to not work on anything. Many ‘bad’ ideas come from the false perception that you have to work on a new project right now.

You will discover new problems and project ideas over time. Use your project-free time to recharge your batteries. You will need it once the customers start pouring in!

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