Greenfield – In many disciplines a greenfield project is one that lacks constraints imposed by prior work.
Since forever I’ve had side projects. While still in high school I was spending time after school on a rigorous (and probably unhealthy) schedule learning the ins and outs of Blender and After Effects (videocopilot.net has a special place in my heart), creating short videos and animations. A comment left on YouTube landed me a long-term freelance opportunity and the knowledge gained from all of that led me co-found Wolf3D in 2013. Being a CTO & co-founder of what is now a 16 person company leaves little, but just the right amount of free time. The shortage of free time presents a challenge to find the most powerful ways to achieve the desired outcome, promotes planning, minimizes waste. With little time you are forced to find clever ways to solve problems and doing side projects is a great way to train that muscle and carry the skill over to any problem needed to be solved. Everyone should have a side project, at least I know I wouldn’t function well without one.
Side project really can be anything you consider to be your creative outlet. For some time for me it was learning techniques for creating simplistic illustrations (I even have Nasa’s Voyager stuck to my apartment wall), there was time where majority of my free time was spent on reading astrophysics books, currently it is creating usually developer-oriented tools and utilities. I find the ~4-5 hours on weekends to work on a side project is enough to be beneficial.
Probably one of the most common problems with side projects is not shipping them. I’ve certainly suffered from it in the past - having 4-5 unfinished 3D projects that never saw the light of day. Here’re some techniques that have helped me avoid that.
Scratch your own itch
In the 100th Indie Hackers podcast Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad was discussing how there’s a massive amount of inefficiencies in the world. Chances are there is something about the software you use every day that could be made more efficient, perhaps a process that is annoying or takes too much time. Streamlining such problems you face makes a great side project many are likely willing to even pay for. Bonus points if it is super niche. Be your own first customer.
Keep the side project intentionally small and operationally resilient
This applies to products in general. The best products are the ones which do only what they’re intended to do and do it extremely well. Start small, define the minimum scope, most importantly figure out the viable part. It doesn’t have to be software either, check out how this guy creates complex 3D scenes in dead simple ways in Blender. Apply this hacker mindset to your side projects, it makes the chance of them seeing daylight so much higher. With software projects it helps to keep the surface area of failure extremely small so you don’t need to deal with putting out fires when you can’t. When sh*t hits the fan, you won’t have time to fix it. It helps to leverage existing APIs, technologies, code and nocode tools. Simple usually means less breaking parts, less bugs, simpler to use and above all else simpler to ship.
Work on it on a consistent schedule
Define your time for your side project. It can be an hour a day or every other Saturday, doesn’t matter. The key is to stick to that schedule. Without any progress it is just too simple for our brains to classify it into a bucket of “I’ll do it later”. If it’s a live product that people can use and pay for, make it so any support and fixes are done during this time too.
Define what you want to get out of the side project
For me it is usually solving my own problem, being my own first customer and therefore making my life a bit easier. Side projects are also a great way to discover new technologies, techniques and tools. Usually with every new project I try to find ways I can expose myself to a new tool or paradigm which carry over to work as well. This is how I discovered serverless which I now see as an invaluable tool for the right problem. Making a paid product from your side project gives ways to not just make extra income but get the best validation for what you’ve created is useful – someone willing to pay for it.
Previously I made AirBar, Superbar, gitsheet.wtf landing ProductHunt #1 and #2 of the day, nomination for a Golden Kitty award in “Best Side Project” and a feature in Smashing Magazine. The interactions I’ve had with people on Twitter, the technical discoveries and constructive feedback received has become invaluable to me and I hope I’ve sparked at least one person’s interest to step on the green field.