How to Launch a Side Project from Zero
At first, it wasn't clear which steps of the launch process were more important than others. But after my third launch, I had hatched a plan and started tweaking it. In this article, I will share the lessons I learned and walk you through the process of making a product. Hopefully you can take this as a starting point or inspiration, and make something tailored for yourself.
Start by checking out this checklist that I've developed over a number of side projects. Feel free to run with it and adapt it for your own projects.
1. Keep a Problem Notebook
Many of us keep an idea notebook, but I would advocate keeping a “book of grudges”: one with problems and wrongs you find intriguing to solve. Mine is a kanban board with different labels — design, social, security, etc. With these labels, I know what problem could be easily solved with a post-it note, and what could be solved by a clever app. I stare at this board often and maintain it diligently — it tells me what my current priority is, and what the next long term goal is.
2. Know Yourself First
If you’re like me, your book of grudges is extensive. To figure out what is worth spending time on, let’s start with why. Why do you want to create a product?
For me, there are two reasons:
- I like helping people and listening to their daily struggles. It gives me different perspectives on life.
- Nothing brings me as much joy as making things. The satisfaction of creating something of my own is far greater than any shiny new job or huge paycheque.
With the two causes combined, I noticed I’m drawn to smaller and refined issues. You can spot a trend among all the products I've made — they are utilitarian and focused.
So, ask yourself why to narrow the field of selections. If new technologies and the possibilities they bring fascinate you, maybe an open-ended, AR powered camera app would excite you. Whatever you choose, starting by understanding your cause will help you feel less overwhelmed.
3. Ideation and Design
Once you have a problem to tackle and you’re armed with enough knowledge regarding the problem, it’s time to ideate the solution. During ideation, the only goal is to generate as many solutions as possible without being judgmental. I write my ideas out in a Markdown file and keep the session around 30 minutes.
Sometimes, I sit on this Markdown file for several days while doing more research. Once I decide on an approach, then I can start writing user stories and sketching wireframes. Because these latter two steps both require a clear path, I try to iron out all the doubts and questions beforehand.
Writing user stories is like envisioning how the user would use the product in detail. Here is an example of what I did for Spider:
As you can see, every step explains “what user sees and what user does.” It creates a clear workflow that makes drawing wireframes a breeze.
4. Branding and High-fidelity Mockups
Often times I spend one or two days working on the visual design and branding. Many would argue that's unnecessary for an MVP — but I think there's a value in a good first impression and cohesive branding. Plus, the designer in me really enjoys this part.
To design efficiently, I recommend maintaining a small toolkit that consists of:
- an extensive UI kit in Sketch or Figma
- a few of your favorite fonts and pairings
- a few of your favorite color palettes
- a versatile SVG icon library
Also, focus on nailing these design assets first:
- The button style in hover and normal state
- The body font vs the title
- The input style
- The navigation
Remember, try not to spend too much time fussing over details.
5. Code It Up
When it comes to development, I (would rather) believe no one spits out beautiful code on the first go. Though time consuming, an iterative approach works better for me. Usually, I start by writing a functional app (with terrible code) to prove the concept. After that, I play with the end result and think about how I can do it better. Finally, I scratch the whole thing and rewrite everything — this time with quality and maintainability in mind. The second iteration should result in better quality code.
The Basecamp team rewrites their app from the ground up every four years. It’s an approach I find necessary if you want to keep a focused product and maintain a manageable code base.
6. Spread the Word
All the usual marketing strategies aside, what I found to be effective is simply telling someone about a thing by showing them how it’d be useful to them. With that in mind, it’s crucial to focus on these things:
- A clear elevator pitch for the product
- Demo video of how the product can help people
- Marketing website with a feature list and FAQ
- Consistent, high-quality promotion assets for various platforms like Product Hunt/Twitter/email
When people are confused about your product, they move on. Be as honest and clear as you can be — it speaks to people better that way!
We all have something inside that we'd like to share with the world: it could be an idea, a project or a talent. Don't let the imposter syndrome cripple you. More likely than not, you are ready to create something of your own. Add something to the world that only you can add to it.