Side Projects

How to start a Side Project. 3. Validate your idea.

If you’ve spent lots of time using the methodologies in part 1, you should have quite a few nice ideas by now. However you can only really build one of them. So how do you select the best one of them?

SWOT analysis

The first thing you can do is a SWOT analysis. SWOT are the initials of the words: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. It is a strategic planning technique that you can use to evaluate ideas and projects. SWOT starts with creating a 2×2 matrix as you can see in the image below.

The four parts of SWOT as described in wikipedia are as follows:

SWOT assumes that strengths and weaknesses are frequently internal, while opportunities and threats are more commonly external.

Strengths: characteristics of the business or project that give it an advantage over others.

Weaknesses: characteristics that place the business or project at a disadvantage relative to others.

Opportunities: elements in the environment that the business or project could exploit to its advantage.

Threats: elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business or project.

This matrix will give you a more complete picture of the overall attainability of the idea. So if you apply this analysis technique to every idea you will eventually end up with only a few.

Real world validation

When Zappos was created, it didn’t own any inventory at first. They were making $2000 on orders every week but not making any profit. The reason was that every time an order was placed, the owner would buy the shoes from a local store and then ship them to the customer.

At first the goal was not to create a business but to validate the concept. It didn’t matter if there was no stock and no warehouses, but if people were willing to buy shoes online.

Dropbox founder Drew Houston had created a prototype of the now famous file sync app. But it was full of bugs and far from perfect. So he created an explainer video and released it on Hacker News website back in 2007. This was before the app was ready. It served the same purpose as the Zappos example above. Validate the original idea.

Building a proof of concept

You may have heard the quote: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not”. Your idea, your assumptions, even your SWOT analysis, all that… That’s the theory. But the business you want to create? That’s practice.

The concept of idea validation is to put a little practice into our theory to see if it holds up in the real world. Doing so is very easy but it’s much more important than what you realise right now. After all there may be benefits and knowledge in building something. But the rewards are huge if what you’ll be building is also of interest to other people.

It’s post Covid era so you can expect that people will find your idea online at first, even if it’s an offline business. So the first step to idea validation is to create a website. It doesn’t have to be professionally designed although it should be what we call “presentable”.

If you have no idea how to create a website, start with a blank piece of paper. Put the main items in place, like a menu, some text and draw some pictures. This process is called wireframing. You can then turn this wireframe over to a professional designer to get something that looks like a full blown website.

The text in your website should describe your business and what your customer will be getting. The pictures are of less importance but it helps if they are pictures related to your product. Are you making an app? Put up a screenshot of your designs. Are you planning on selling something? Put up pictures of your products (even if you don’t have them yet).

The most important part of your website is the CTA. It stands for Call To Action and it’s the button that people will be clicking to request what your service offers. If you’re making an app it should be a “Sign Up” button. If you are selling products it should be a “Buy Now” button.

Buy a domain name and some cheap hosting and upload your website online. Don’t worry if you can’t find a great domain at first. It’s not important. Also don’t worry if you can’t find a .com domain but only a .net or .io or something else. It’s also not important at this point.

Now with your website online it’s time to drive some traffic to it. Make an account in Google or Facebook ads and set up a small budget. Something in the range of $100 to $500 depending on your abilities. Write some copy for your ad and hit publish.

Make it so you get an email when someone hits the CTA on your page. So after the campaign ends it’s time to do the maths. How much hypothetical money did you make? Subtract the money you spent on advertising and you have an idea of the likelihood that your idea will be a successful business.

I know that perhaps you feel a little confused right now. How to buy a domain? How to connect it with web hosting? How do Google ads work? Unfortunately explaining these concepts is outside the scope of this article but I’ll do my best to cover them in future posts. Until then Google is your friend!

Side Projects

How to start a Side Project. 2. Ask other people about their opinions.

Our brain sometimes plays tricks on us. It’s very common for somebody to be overly optimistic and overlook important details of a project idea. Don’t get caught in a dream state where you go from zero to billionaire in your head.

Other people’s opinions can be a reality check for your imagination. Reach out to friends, coworkers and family and ask their honest opinions about your business ideas. Do they think it’ll work? Most importantly, would they buy your product or service?

At this point I suggest that you read an excellent book by Rob Fitzpatrick called “The mom test”. It takes you through the process of gathering feedback and avoiding biased opinions. Written by an introvert who is bad at meetings, this book will give you the tools to talk to customers and learn what they really want.

More opinions mean more information. More information means more validation and more informed decisions. Just make sure to extract the right information from raw data (which in our case is people’s opinions).

Be careful not to get caught in an “analysis paralysis” state. This is a state when overthinking and overanalyzing can cause decision making to halt. When you find yourself paralyzed, take a break, move away from the data for a bit and try to see the bigger picture.

Ignore the naysayers. People who reject an idea without arguments simply have a negative opinion. Don’t make them doubt yourself and your ideas. You should be able to filter out negativity (for the sake of negativity) and keep only the opinions that bring you actionable data.

If possible, engage in conversations. Every person has a different logic and follows a different pattern in his head when it comes to validating an idea. A conversation gives you a wider perspective since it lights up many data points.

Don’t try to project your opinions on people. Ask open ended questions where people are free to express themselves without having an opinion “extracted” from them. It’s up to you to extract information from other persons’ opinions. Remember you are the one who benefits from this process even when you don’t like what you hear.

Side Projects

How to start a Side Project. 1. Come up with an idea.

Over the next 17 weeks we will be publishing a new post every week. The concept is starting your first side project. This is part 1: Come up with an idea.

This guide will help you make the most of your time and increase your chances of success. It contains knowledge obtained from personal experience and also by monitoring many solopreneurs online. It is distilled knowledge from hundreds of people who succeeded and many others who failed.

If you have an idea you keep thinking about implementing or even if you don’t have one yet this guide is for you. It will walk you through all the steps you need to go through for your side project to be a success. We’ll discuss finding the right idea, validating it and then we’ll go over the many necessary details that make or break a project.

You may think it’s hard to come up with an idea but it’s actually the easiest part of a side hustle.

Don’t think that you can only get an idea with a eureka moment. There are a number of tricks that can help you. This is what we’ll discuss in this section.


First of all, if you are like most of us you have a list of “cool” domains which you’ve purchased over the years. For example I have registered domains about an app that organizes meetings, a wallpaper sharing website and many more.

So check out the list of your domains. Do you see anything that stands out and could be transformed into a successful app or service? It should be a concept that allows you to charge real money, preferably applicable to companies.

If you don’t have purchased any domains or if your domains don’t look strong enough, don’t worry. Domains don’t matter anymore. Nowadays people just use Google to find what they are looking for. Nobody types the actual domain in the browser anymore. Once you find your idea the domain can be a compound word. For example if your app is called SuperApp the domain can be or something similar.

Examine your workflow

Try to thoroughly examine your daily workflow for pain points. For example Stripe (the famous payments processor) identified the problem that creating a system to charge credit cards over the internet required developers to go through badly written documentation and archaic technology. They created a system that was very easy to implement and their customers loved it.

Every time you work on something that is hard to do you should examine the possibility of an app or service idea. It is very unlikely to be the only person having this problem. If you have it, chances are others are having it too.


Another thing you need to look out for is repetition. Are you constantly doing the same task multiple times a day (or week)? This is another possible opportunity. For example, at the start of the month I get multiple emails with invoices which I then save to a certain Dropbox folder in my computer. Once I collect and organize them by name and date, I forward them to my accountant.

Of course this process takes place only once per month so I’m not sure if I would pay for a tool that solves this problem. However it illustrates the concept of repetition. People are willing to pay for something that automates a repetitive workflow. The reason is that everybody wants to save time if possible.

For example Zapier created a platform that automates all kinds of things. It connects 3000 different apps to allow you to create automations for all kinds of tasks. For example you can automatically save email attachments to your dropbox and have it alert you on slack.


Not everything worth building starts with a problem though. Many times you can “Take a sad song and make it better” as the Beatles used to say. This applies to you especially if you have an interest or background in design.

A lot of existing products have a bad design or in general have an ill designed workflow. This is a chance to take an existing idea/product/concept and create an improved version. For example offers a better way to issue invoices which look more beautiful and more professional. created a better, smarter way to use email. They used innovative thinking to create features such as: the screener, decide if you want to be getting email from someone. The imbox, a place for your IMportant email. The feed, for reading newsletters and casual email.

In our examples people took existing concepts (invoices, email) and brought them to the modern age. The world is full of old concepts in need of a renovation. You think gmail is boring? Why not create a modern gmail client?

Ask people for problems they are facing

If you still don’t have any good ideas, turn to the people around you for inspiration. Ask your coworkers, friends and family about their problems. This opens you up to a new world view as people from other professions share their own views. This allows you to break free from the bubble of your limited perception.

It’s important when asking for opinions to create an environment where people feel genuinely free to share their thoughts. The goal here is to gather information. Don’t criticize their thoughts (yet). The time for idea validation will come later.

Steal an idea

Still can’t get a great idea? Why not steal one? The concept is that it’s ok to steal someone’s idea but you still have to be unique. Take for example pizza restaurants. They copy each other’s concepts but all of them try to differentiate.

The same model can be found in the software world as well. There are many weather apps and there are many todo apps. Sure some of them are more successful than others and some of them make no money at all. But isn’t that the way things go in every business segment?

I’m not proposing that you create clones of things. However if you try to differentiate you can have a reason to exist (and succeed). Instead of the next generic todo app, try to make a todo app that integrates with a company’s intranet, or one that integrates with email systems, or one that uses OCR to scan handwritten todos.

Instead of the next instagram, try a photo sharing site specifically for mobile wallpapers, or one for cat pictures. The list of variations of successful concepts is endless and the only limit is your imagination.