Don’t be intimidated by bigger competitors. Trust me, it’s a huge advantage being small, agile and flexible. Big companies dream about having the flexibility and options that small companies have.
Take software for example. People just love it when there are no nagging configuration screens and wizards in software. Simple wins every time. You can take advantage of this in your product as well. You have little time and limited resources so make your product as simple and easy to use as possible.
If you present your idea as a small and simple solution to a problem, there are lots of customers who will immediately be excited. This is how you can differentiate from your competitors and provide unique value.
The same is true in ecommerce as well. There are thousands of successful small companies who love what they do and stay small by design. Take the caudabe iPhone cases for example. It’s a small company in Chicago who makes perhaps the best cases out there. They win by staying small and not trying to imitate what the bigger companies do.
Staying small will force you to stick to the epicenter of the problem you want to solve. Your constraints will make you find creative solutions to difficult problems. In the end this is all that matters. Everything else can wait until much later.
You need to be creative about problems you are facing and find easy solutions that will get you forward faster. For example, do you need to create your own blogging system or will a wordpress installation work fine and save you hours of coding work ?
When you return home from a hard day at the office it’s hard to get back to work for another four or more hours. What will get you through the hard times of working more is passion. This gives you willpower and mental strength to go through the extra work.
To have passion you have to genuinely believe in your idea. If the idea you chose does not inspire passion in you, then it’s not the idea you are looking for. Keep the brainstorming going until you find an idea that does the click.
You also need to be excited about the technology and tools you will be using. Like we already discussed, it’s best to stick to what you already know. If your current tools feel boring to you, then it can be ok to extend your stack. However lots of people choose tools out of fear of keeping up with tech. This is a big mistake. Some of the biggest successes out there were created with good old fashioned tools.
Also if you choose to have a partner, make it so he/she is one that inspires you and gives you positive vibes. You can’t commit to something long term if the other person does not share your passion about the project.
Every one of the parameters of your environment (tools, tech, people) contributes to your potential success and raises your chances if you are passionate about it.
It may look as if a new project is a great time to try something new and exciting like a new programming language. Why not seize the opportunity to have fun while you work? After all this is your project. So why use the same boring stuff you do at your day work?
However, that’s not the case. Starting a business is a very hard thing to do. Even more when you start a side hustle. You have even less time and resources. If you spend time learning new things you further limit your available time.
On the search for customers and profitability you will be competing with others who have similar offerings on the market. Even if you start with a unique idea, others will try to steal it and copy your product. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do about it. That’s one more reason to play to your strengths.
You may have heard the “principle of least effort” or the similar term “path of least resistance”. It is a theory that covers diverse fields from evolutionary biology to web page design. It maintains that humans and animals naturally choose the easiest way to achieve a goal. In our case the “path of least resistance” is sticking to what you already know.
Sometimes you are forced to use something new. For example when you want to create an online store but you don’t know anything about websites. Even at that time you should do it in the simplest way possible without getting into the trap of adding more work to your plate.
Besides, let’s not forget that other than you, nobody will ever care what tech you use to provide a product or service. Nobody ever used Google because it was based on the X or Y tech stack. People use it because it delivers results.
The new skills you should be learning is talking to customers and giving solutions to their problems. What is the point of a fancy tech stack product if no people are using it? Like Arvid Kahl says in his article “How to kill your business”: “Entrepreneurship is about empowering people, not trying out new tech.”
If you are looking to side hustle then you need a great side project idea to build upon. Although execution and marketing/sales are far more important, a great idea gives you motivation to achieve that great execution.
There are millions of small businesses in need of a website or a landing page. Think of a small hotel for example. Most likely they take their reservations from some big player like booking.com but still, they need a small website to show their contact info to existing customers and provide credibility to their business.
Very simple, right? However the key point here is that they have absolutely no idea how to do it. There sure are many ways to build a simple website (and this is the customer’s problem here). You can use wordpress or wix or anything similar really. But which one is the right choice here ?
That’s the problem you will be solving with a website builder for small hotels! If your product is made for small hotels then it’s certain it will be the right fit for our imaginary customer. The same is true for all niches you can think of. Your product can target small hotels, hair salons, dry cleaners, you name it.
Your target market is small making this easy to promote. You only need to build a few features since you will be serving a small niche. This means it will be a simple product at start which is easy to make and you can get to market quite fast.
2. Web hosting for a small framework
You’ve probably heard of Ruby on Rails and Laravel, right? They are two of the most popular backend frameworks in the programming world. But what about Sinatra, CakePHP or Flask? They are smaller, less known frameworks. Despite their lesser popularity they are in use by thousands of developers around the world.
There are great options out there to deploy and host apps made in one of the popular frameworks like heroku is for Ruby on Rails apps. However if you are using one of the less known frameworks, the options are often very limited.
Sure you can deploy Sinatra in a generic Ruby server, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a specialized Sinatra hosting company that supports just your favorite tech stack? Having them take care of all the right settings and default configurations would be a huge time saver. Plus all the performance tuning on the server would be much more effective versus a generic Ruby hosting platform.
As a developer you probably already have experience tuning your server environment for your framework. This means you can buy a server on Amazon or Digital ocean and set up a way to practically resell that hardware in small chunks. As you will be selling specialization and customization you can charge more than the average hosting provider. And that’s what makes this a great idea.
3. SaaS website as a service
As a developer it’s quite likely that you spend a lot of time using websites of SaaS products. Have you noticed how they all look alike? It’s only natural since they have in common that they sell software on a monthly basis.
They all have pricing pages, case studies, a ‘features’ page and so on. With the notable exception of Gumroad, you can use a SaaS website for a couple of minutes and immediately tell it is indeed a SaaS website.
Where there is repetition there is opportunity for automation. And automation can be a product you can create and provide to the market. Why spend money and time on creating a SaaS website, if there is a product on the market which does just that.
Besides, with the rise of no-code tools many people with no technical background are creating SaaS products, mobile apps and web software. All these people need a website that presents the product and allows people to rent it or buy it.
Most chose no-code tools because of their lack of coding skills. It’s this characteristic that will lead them to effectively rent a website for their product.
4. Stock image marketplace using AI generated images
Most business websites rely heavily on stock photography. All those generic “smiling women using a laptop” pictures you see on websites are bought from stock photo marketplaces. There are some core problems in this type of service.
It’s very hard to find the exact photo you need. It appears search “intelligence” is not yet on par with the way we humans think and communicate. The search engine of the average stock marketplace cannot help much when you need something very specific.
Stock photos are all over the web which means that your website looks very similar to lots of other websites. What’s even worse is that there seems to be a race over who will get the best pictures first.
What if I told you that AI is now advanced enough to generate realistic images. Imagine a service that will generate a stock photo based on your exact and specific requirements. And on top of that, each photo will be unique and totally different from all other AI generated images.
This is exactly what the Stable diffusion project offers. It’s up to you to make a service that will make use of it, to generate and sell stock images.
5. Support chatbots
Chatbots are not a new thing at all. There have been many efforts in the past to create an AI powered bot that will help customers of your business. Unfortunately results have been average at best and this trend never caught on.
The reason was that the tech behind it was not ready for prime time. However this changed very recently. With the introduction of chatGPT, AI is now ready for you to create software that can have conversations with humans without much difference from traditional human operators.
The description in the chatGPT homepage will give you an idea of what I’m talking about:
The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.
The best part is that the market is huge and unexploited. Every e-commerce website is your potential customer.
6. Build a programming course
As a developer you probably have specialized yourself in a few programming languages so far. However there are lots of amateur developers out there, not at your level yet. Lots of people are just starting programming and are thirsty for learning material.
You could create courses for other software developers which you can sell or rent for a fee. There is competition on the market but the barrier to entry is very low. You can easily be inspired by your favorite programming books to create similar training material with a personal tone.
You are probably already part of some developer communities where you can promote your work. If you have a personal brand on top of that, things get even better. A large twitter following can help you easily spread the word that there is now an easy and cool course about X language or framework.
7. Tools/helpers for video games
I don’t know if you have been a professional gamer at some point of your life, but unless you’re living under a rock you should know that esports are huge nowadays. Millions of people play video games or watch gaming “matches” on twitch.
And the thirst for gaming goes beyond the tools provided within each video game. Professional (or just above average) players have a need for stats, comparison tools, leaderboards and so on. You rarely find those in the familiar, basic UI of a video game.
For example let’s say you play Diablo or World of Warcraft. How do you know which item sets are the best? There are websites which can give you information about in game items and make you a better player.
The best part is that most games will give you an API with which you can build your tool of choice. The complexity of creating a stat tool for example is quite low. You mostly only need to fetch data and parse them to create nice looking tables.
If you are already part of a gaming community, you probably know by now the needs and wishes of other players. If not, you can start playing some video games and discover business opportunities on the way.
All those side project ideas we’ve seen so far are quite large undertakings. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The easiest approach to side projects is to start small.
For people in their 20s it’s easier to quit their job and pursue their dream. But for the rest of us it’s not a wise choice. People with a day job have limited time and cannot easily build a large product.
That’s why sometimes it’s best to do something small. For example a design system for figma if you’re a designer (like Molly Hellmuth). Or a WordPress plugin if you are a software developer. And if you are wearing many hats, a micro-SaaS product.
This will give you a small cashflow. Depending on your initial success you may be able to quit that day job. And this is your ticket to be able to devote all your time and attention to the real goal.
Then you can either choose to expand your mini product into something bigger or you can start a real project from scratch.
9. Mobile game with in-app purchases
This is the largest project on this list and for a good reason. In order to create a game, you will need to do coding yourself and partner up with a great illustrator. Which means it’s the only project that requires at least two people.
By why a game, and what about in-app purchases? Why is this important?
The reason is that the market for this type of games is huge. According to Business Of Apps:
In-app purchases account for 48.2% of mobile app earnings.
Users are spending $380 billion worldwide on in-app purchases.
It’s easy to dismiss the potential of this type of product as something you can’t see yourself doing. I’ll have to agree with you on that. I can’t see myself spending money on fake game currency either but…
As the numbers point out, there are many people out there with less financial concerns and plenty of time to burn. People buy entertainment with their money and that’s what is important to you as a founder.
This is a great project for younger people who are more comfortable quitting their day job and devoting their entire workload on this.
10. Create some content
For the end I’ve left perhaps the best side project idea of all. It’s the simplest one and most tried. Also it’s the approach we are following here at Deskhot. And that is, create content before you get to the point of creating a product.
And by content I mean one or more of the following: Blogging, video blogging, podcasting, starting an email newsletter, writing ebooks etc.
Producing quality content is very hard. It took me 3 sessions of 8 hours each, to write this single post. You have to do lots of research, editing, polishing and of course producing the content itself.
But it’s way better to spend time on creating content rather than working on a product. You know what they say about digital products? Build it and they’ll come. Well they are so damn wrong on this one.
There is nothing more damaging to your psychology and ego than spending 6 months creating a product only to have nobody use it. It’s far better to spend your time creating a following with a blog and growing your mailing list.
We’ve discussed many great side project ideas in this post. Some involving web development, some including AI and some involving content creation.If you need a mindset that will allow you to generate more ideas, be sure to read my prior post: Come up with an idea.
Please note that most of those ideas are not validated. This means that I cannot guarantee you they’ll work. It’s up to you to set up a validation method and get a better view of the effectiveness of each idea. To learn more about idea validation, check out: Validate your idea.
One of the skills you’ll need for your side hustle to succeed is prioritization. The reason is that it is something you will do in hours outside of work. You would be lucky if you can allocate three to four hours a day, five days a week.
When your resources and your time are scarce you have to learn to prioritize. This means that you have to be careful about spending your money and resources and even more careful how you spend your time. Actually everyone should learn to prioritize anyway. Nobody ever has infinite resources.
Focus on the things that matter. Write down what the most important parts are, and focus on them. Do you need a professional made logo for your project ? Well in theory it would help but is it important at this point? A lot of things “would help” but they actually don’t. Instead they take time and resources you need to allocate to the core of your business.
Let’s say you are building a todo app. What is the epicenter of your app? Task management, right? So focus on getting that right first and foremost. The ability for people to chat through your app, or to export their calendar is nice but it’s not the epicenter. People will expect great task management by buying your app. Everything else is secondary.
Say no to anything other than the epicenter. Say no to nice-to-have features. These will be created later. If and only if you get the basics right first.
Set some goals and create action items based on them. For example if your long term goal is to quit your job set smaller goals. Like getting the first paying customers. Create all the features that will make people pay for your product and ignore everything else until the time comes. You’ll know when the time comes because it will be the next step required to reach your next goal.
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?
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!
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.
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.
Table of Contents
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 GetSuperApp.com 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 Sufio.com offers a better way to issue invoices which look more beautiful and more professional.
Hey.com 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.