Finding purpose in side projects

I’d be lying if I didn’t say founding, or at least working for, a SaaS startup was a long term aspiration of mine.

I’m currently in the ‘learn everything I possibly can’ part of my career. I spend a great deal of time reading about not only startups but other things that interest me, like conservation, technology, business, journalism and current affairs, often in the belief that I’ll be forced to question the world around me, and therefore identify problems to which I can invent effective solutions.

A large part of web development is identifying these problems, and designing apps and websites to best solve them. I guess that’s why so many developers work on side projects: because they’re an opportunity tackle real problems [1]. It’s no secret that some of the world’s largest technology companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft) began as ‘side projects’.

Unfortunately, so many side projects I see online operate under the guise of ‘research’ and while they may be impressive from a technical point of view, have few real-world applications. I personally struggle to find meaningful projects to work on, ones that might actually make an impact on somebody, somewhere.

It often seems like a struggle. You commit your time to something, only to realise you’ve been looking in entirely the wrong place, or that the idea that seemed so original actually already exists. Paul Graham’s essay ‘How to Get Startup Ideas’ explains how often the ideas that are most successful are the ones that occur ‘organically’ [2], where a founder identifies an opportunity out of an experience of their own. The best approach to coming up with project ideas therefore is to ‘not “think up” but “notice”’, in other words, put oneself in a situation in which they’re more likely to identify real world problems.

A thread on Hacker News highlights a general consensus that is, if you want to come up with lots of ideas, read a lot. Immerse yourself in subject areas that you might not have thought would interest you. Personally, I try to read at least 4-5 articles a day on any number of things. In print, I’m an avid subscriber to National Geographic, but I sometimes dip into New Scientist, and of course I always read the weekend papers, which so often turn out to be waffle. Online, HN often points me towards articles I like to read. I frequent the Verge, Wired and New York Times websites for technology updates, and I can sometimes rely on my cultivated Twitter feed to send me in interesting directions.

Of course many of the opportunities that I do identify will lose traction, and I make a note of those and put them in a draw for a rainy day. I came across a site online, similar to an idea I had 6 months or so ago, that was a sort of food recommendation engine. My project had conservation in mind, but this one was built more around baking. I guess in a sense I dodged a bullet [3], but it’s interesting to see someone have a similar idea and run with it. Often I look back on ideas from as recent as weeks ago, and as writers do, ask myself, ‘How could I ever have thought that was a good idea?’

I think therefore, to come up with meaningful side project and startup ideas, it’s so important to question, ‘Does anyone really want this?’, and these ideas must come from actual problems people face. Do they have to be world-changing to be meaningful? Perhaps not, but the best startups are, and came from side projects that may not have seemed like they were.

[1] And learn in the process.

[2] “At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences ‘organic’ startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.” - Paul Graham, ‘How to Get Startup Ideas’.

[3] Or missed an opportunity. Who knows?

I’m Tim, a Software Engineer from the UK. I like to write code, cook, read & run.

More Posts