Over the last two years, I’ve built and launched eight tiny internet projects. From apps to websites, most of them have flopped — but together, my ragtag group of projects might be considered ramen profitable. My last project, Paper Website, lets you start a blog using pen and paper. It was a weird idea, but it has found a few die-hard fans paying to use it each month.
A side project is usually a hobby programming project that a developer builds alongside their job (my day job is co-founder and CTO of a fintech startup) — like a Raspberry Pi robot, a to-do list app, or an iOS game that makes a few dollars. However, something I’ve noticed is that instead of going all in on building one side project, developers are increasingly building lots of smaller projects, just like me.
What’s going on? Yes, no-code, Codecademy, and tools like Stripe have made it easier than ever to write and deploy a project. Those are the how and the why now. But even given all these advances, why are developers building so many side projects? In this post, I’ll explore some of the most interesting reasons.
🎰 Gambling at the side project casino
Sitting on a large gold throne in front of an audience of eager writers, George R. R. Martin was speaking about the career of an author:
“It’s a career for gamblers. Every time you write a book, you’re throwing the dice again, and you don’t know whether it’s going to crash and burn or be a big success.”
Martin won awards for his early novels, until his fourth book, The Armageddon Rag, bombed and almost ruined him. It took 28 books before he finally wrote A Game of Thrones.
Likewise, internet project builders are straight-up gamblers. The excitement before you click “launch” on your next idea is addictive; you just don’t know what will happen. A random game you made about flying a small yellow bird between Super Mario pipes could explode and become Flappy Bird, netting you $50,000 a day. The word puzzle you built for your girlfriend could go viral and become Wordle.
In short: The effort put into an internet project is often detached from its results. Embracing this randomness in practice simply means launching more projects. For example:
- Challenges like 12 startups in 12 months, undertaken by Dutch programmer Pieter Levels, has resulted in the solo developer running a portfolio of projects that generate $3 million per year.
- Websites like ProductHunt allow you to get an idea on Monday and launch it to thousands of people by Friday.
- As I write this, a post titled “Why I’m launching 25 products in 25 weeks” is a top post on the IndieHackers forum.
Builders are treating their side projects like a casino. By keeping projects small and launching often, their odds of hitting the jackpot go up.
🤳 Projects as content
The creator economy is booming, and it’s not just Instagram models posting selfies on a beach in Ibiza. Developer-influencers — a strange new type of creator, like the vloggers and streamers before them — are a very real thing. Projects serve as their content and monetization rolled into one.
Ben Awad blurs the line between developer and traditional creator more than most, with 1.3 million followers watching his project videos across YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter. “Some people call it tech humor, some people call it dev logs,” he told me, attempting to describe his content. “I don’t even know what I’d call it.”
As an example, one of Awad’s previous projects was a VS Code plugin for Tinder, where users can swipe on other people’s code snippets to find their perfect date. “The Tinder plugin did really well,” he explained, “and some people are even getting close to married on it.
“… The problem is, I know the projects were jokes — but I’m a serious software engineer, and I want to make them good. So, for the Tinder one, I literally made an Android app and a VS Code extension, because I was like, ‘If I was actually using this, I would want to actually get a push notification if I got a match. I’m not going to be on VS Code all day.’”
Since then, Awad has made videos about a streak of startups he’s built. “If something good happens in the project I’m making — fantastic. Something good happened, plus I can make a YouTube video about it,” he said. “If something bad happens with the project I’m working on, that sucks, but at least I can make a YouTube video on it. And people absolutely love it when something bad happens.”
He added: “The only reason I made all these projects is because I have zero good ideas. So, I better just start making stuff until I figure out a good one. … I think my goal is to have one business that is really big. I’m planting lots of different seeds to help me find the one big project that I really like.”
His latest project, Voidpet, a Gen-Z Tamagotchi-like game, has 130,000 users.
If you can’t commit to downloading a creator’s app or following someone like Awad via their videos, just click around on #buildinpublic Twitter, and you’ll find developers with dozens of links in their bios to the various tiny businesses they’ve created. Follow one, and you can join them on a rollercoaster journey of launching a product, gaining a few users, and even exiting their micro-SaaS for several thousand dollars.
Then, a few months later, they’ll do it all again.
📉 Mitigating project disaster
Has your side project ever been destroyed by a revolution in Kazakhstan?
It’s not enjoyable.
Here’s what happened: One day, I found you could use emoji domains in email addresses, e.g. [email protected]👋.kz. Realizing there were many .kz emoji domains available, I decided it would be a great idea to buy 300 of them and launch an emoji email address service. About 1,500 customers later, my emoji empire crumbled when I got this tweet:
It turns out there was a full internet blackout in Kazakhstan, taking my project completely offline.
After 10 days of panicking, fortunately it came back.
Other people are not so lucky: API changes, tweaks to search results, and many other factors can kill a project. So, just like you might buy stocks on the S&P 500 instead of going all in on Dogecoin, builders are using a portfolio of many projects to mitigate this type of failure.
Daniel Vasallo runs an online community teaching people how to create a portfolio of small bets, which has grown to over 800 paying students since October 2021. “Sometimes I joke on Twitter and say my only business plan is to avoid having to go back to a 9-to-5 job,” he told his latest cohort during a recent talk on Zoom.
“… That’s why I like small bets. With small bets, usually, you know, you try something small and it fails, it’s not that de-motivating. If you try something big, it can easily sting and discourage many of us. It can be a ruinous event.”
He summed up his mindset like this: “Success to me is staying in the game. Basically, avoiding a game-over state forever.”
Sébastien Dubois knows this state well. Last year, his article “Startup failure stories: 20 months in, 2K hours spent and 200K € lost” went viral on Hacker News, and told a sunk-cost fallacy story of how Dubois spent two years coding a startup that struggled to ever launch. However, Dubois is doing great building multiple small projects now.
“I now build limited time and effort projects with more upsides than downsides,” he told me by email. He has built a community, created two “infoproducts” that are selling well enough, and even has a book project in mind.
“I’ve created a powerful flywheel between my portfolio of projects,” he said. “… Meanwhile, I didn’t ruin myself to get to this point. ;-)”
🌵 Fun, practice, and super creativity
Developers are highly creative people. Just like a musician composes or an artist paints, a developer can start a side project to unleash this creativity.
Ben Issen is a charismatic French developer running seven small projects. “I treat my projects like tending a garden,” he told me over Zoom from his Paris apartment. “It’s a pleasurable activity. My favorite projects are like a tiny cactus; they’re easy to pot, quick to grow, and require little water and maintenance.”
He then runs over to his windowsill and grabs a huge fern: “Projects like this require a lot of attention or they die.”
If you have lots of ideas, building many tiny, self-sustaining projects is just plain fun. You can build one and then move onto the next. Each time, it’s like a satisfying puzzle as you go from zero to a few users. And every project is more practice — another rep that levels up your building, launching, and marketing skills.
Often, new projects are inspired or smushed together using code from previous ones, leading to better ideas, and making them even easier to launch. I threw out a call for emails asking people why they’re building multiple projects instead of just focusing on one, and the creative process is a big reason for some respondents. “I’m a big fan of cross-pollination. Mixing things that don’t often go together lets you pursue something totally different,” wrote one person.
However, not everybody eschews large projects altogether. As another emailer explained, tiny projects can provide the creative insights that give large projects direction: “My small projects help inform how my big project is working, where my main project is the tree trunk and the tiny projects are its branches.”
🔮 Conclusions, and the future
What excites me most about all these projects is we’re going to see some totally unique companies emerge that wouldn’t usually exist. MSCHF is an extremely modern example of a venture-backed company launching viral projects every two weeks, but the numbers suggest it will eventually have a lot of company.
So, why are developers building so many side projects? Whether it’s the desire to create, learn, or get rich, it all comes down to a fundamental change happening with how developers view their projects. You used to put side projects on a CV to land a career in tech. Now, side projects can be your career in tech.
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