I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent. I’ve always had one or two side projects. I’ve found that my biggest challenge as a developer was making a plan and sticking to it in marketing.
I would typically build a product and then try to reverse engineer the audience and find people who would appreciate it as much as I did. So, I would post it to a few websites and see that no one cares about it as much as I do. And then I would lose hope, give up, and move on to the next side project. A lot of them are sitting around on Github these days.
I realized that I was missing consistency and a long-term plan. I was looking at these projects like they were going to get magically picked up by the tech press and I would skyrocket to fame. But when you only have a few hours a week to devote to a side project, to make it work, you have to work on it consistently over a long period of time.
Consistency over time is what is going to make these side projects eventually go somewhere.
I read a lot online and one of the sites I really like is Indie Hackers, where a lot of programmers talk about side projects that they actually make money from.
Half of the problem is making people aware that it exists and making it stand out from the crowd.
I put the first version of this list together a few weeks ago. I posted it on Github and posted it on a few sites. A lot of people liked it. It really took off and was trending on Hacker News and was featured on several blogs and websites. It’s really cool to see your work appreciated by people all across the world.
I make a checklist for everything. That started a few years ago when I read a book called The Checklist Manifesto. He talked about how hospitals use checklists to make sure all the proper steps are taken before surgeries. And the hospitals that start doing this have their error rates go way down.
With software, I think about how to lower the error rate. At the end of the week, when we do our deployments, there’s a checklist. When new team members come one, there’s a checklist. When I’m hiring, there’s a checklist.
A checklist felt very natural for doing side project marketing because I don’t have a ton of time to devote to marketing for my side project.
Use a Checklist Before Automating
A lot of times non-technical people come to me at work with an idea for improving the platform. I usually tell them, before we build it, can you do it manually? Can you build a checklist and do it manually, and test it out before we spend engineering time on it?
It’s organized into these sections: before you launch a product, as you launch, right after you launch, optimization, and recurring tasks. As you use the checklist, you’re going to want to customize the list and move things around a bit.
One of the things in the prelaunch section is to look for competitors. And then another thing is customer research. You might want to start reaching out to potential customers on LinkedIn. As you go through the list, it’s going to give you different ideas for all the different phases of your product.
If you’re product is similar to other products, you want to know about them. The easiest way to know how to market your product is to look at somebody who’s already doing it successfully, and use them as a template.
Research Before You Start Building
A lot of developers start building something that scratches their own itch and then try to market it. And they don’t know if it’s useful to anyone else. That can work, but a better way is to start with market research and talk to customers before you start writing code.
Writing code takes time, so if you can put off writing code and hedge your bets by knowing what’s going to work and what won’t, it can save a ton of time.
This is where you talk directly to the customer. See what they really want and what they’re paying for when they go to your competitors. Those people you talk to are also your possible early beta users.
A lot of us developers think that the product sells itself, and that’s a pretty naive way to think about it. The truth is that most people will come to your landing page, leave, and never try your product.
Many developers are hesitant to set up a blog, because it’s just setting up more work for you to do later. You’re going to need to update it regularly to get the most value out of it.
The list has a lot of tips about blogging platforms and search engine optimization.
It’s really just in the last few months that I’ve learned the power of having an email list. Social media is great, but you don’t really own your audience like you do with email. I may have a 1,000 followers on Facebook. That’s great, but what happens when their algorithm decides to favor companies that pay money to have their posts show up in people’s newsfeed?
Email is really compelling because once people opt-in, that’s a direct connection that no one else can cut off. Email is much more powerful than trying to build up a social media audience. When you have a group of people that have told you that they’re interested in your project that’s a big asset.
There’s a blog post about email marketing tools.
You don’t have to create all the content for your email list.
People who sign up for your list are interested in certain topics. So you can include once article that you write and then link to 5 or 6 articles from other sites on the same topics.
knowem.com is a site that lets you search for the availability of usernames on various social media sites. That can save you a lot of time. But you may be able to just use your personal accounts.
Don’t try to post on every social media site.
You don’t want to make yourself post on every social media site every week because you’re not going to stick with that. It’s also really hard to find actual customers on social media. It’s more of a long-term branding strategy and you may not get much value out of it for side projects.
Once you launch, you want to start reaching out to the world.
The people you reached out to during customer research are the best people to reach out to at this point and let them know that you’ve launched a product. And you can reward them with a coupon code to reward them for helping you out.
Free Promotional Channels
There is a huge list of places to post your startup. It will take some time to post to these sites and directories, but you can take a few minutes a day to post to a few of them.
Paid Promotional Channels
Once you’ve gotten a bit further and you have some paying customers, you may want to experiment with online ads.
Once you’ve done a few things on this list, come up with a list of things that you can do every week, potentially forever, to continue to market your product. Don’t just work through the checklist and then hit the bottom and think that you’re done forever. It’s not that simple. You need to do some stuff consistently for months or years.