July 20, 2022
Side projects are so commonplace in software engineering that tech recruiters use it to find job candidates (see our previous post on landing internships with side projects), but when it comes to taking it to the next level, how do you gauge your progress?
Developers love to tinker with new technologies, learn new frameworks, and build cool stuff in their spare time, and for good reason. Side projects provide a low-stress, restriction-free environment to just explore.
Sometimes side projects are simply throwaway pieces of code to test a new library, but they can get serious too. Some of the largest companies in the world (Github, Instagram, Twitter just to name a few) started out as side projects.
As you grow your own side project into something more, you should take a step back and check how well things are going once in a while. You want to make sure your time and effort are being spent on tasks that will move the needle on your goals. Here are 5 tips to help measure your overall progress:
If your side project already has healthy user growth or revenue growth, things are looking really good. Typically businesses use month-over-month (MoM) or week-over-week (WoW) as metrics to measure growth.
There is no magic growth number everyone aims for, but typically a healthy MoM growth figure is 15-20%. As your project grows bigger and becomes a company, this growth will likely slow down, but in the early stages you want to aim for higher user and/or revenue growth numbers.
Consistency is the most important thing here. You want your project to continue to grow at healthy rates every month. There are, of course, exceptions (e.g. seasonal or event-based products) to this guideline, but in general you want to compare your metrics against a previous time period and see growth.
Another telltale sign your project is on the right track are vocal users. Users who are telling their friends, family and colleagues about your project are great indicators that you built something others want - not a small feat by any means.
If enough people are hyped about your project, it may even go viral. Typically users will first rave about your project on social media (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc.), and then small online media outlets or bloggers will cover it, and if enough of them write about your project larger tech media outlets (TechCrunch, the Verge, etc.) will also begin to take notice. Finally, if a bunch of tech news sites cover your project the global media powerhouses (CNN, New York Times, etc.) may include you as well.
Whether or not your project goes viral, you should follow up with these users, figure out why they like what you built, and incorporate their feedback into your feature roadmap.
If you are getting a lot of feature requests or customer support emails in your inbox, don’t fret because it’s a good thing. Users asking you for help (even if the requests are unreasonable) show that they care enough about what you built to contact you.
Most launched side projects will attract a few users and the owner will never hear from them, so if your users are actively contacting you, you should seize the opportunity and take them seriously.
Aside from responding to user requests on time and in a professional tone, you should try to get a sense of what your users are trying to do. Are they just playing around with your application, or do they need to use it for something business-critical? Try to ask follow-up questions and talk to them (if possible).
Similar to the previous point, even if you are getting complaints from users it can very well be a good thing.
Too often developers freak out over pushing live updates to their production services. Yes, if you are running a Google-scale application, a few minutes of downtime can result in catastrophic losses, but for 99% of side projects a small downtime is trivial.
So, if your users are complaining to you over downtime or an unexpected outage that’s a good sign. It means they care enough to complain, and that your project is actually important to them.
Finally, not all side projects are destined to amass thousands of users or generate revenue. Sometimes the end game is just to build an open-source library or a tool to use yourself.
Whatever side project you choose, you are setting the goals for it. Whether that’s making $5000 a month or just learning something new, as long as you are making progress towards your goals your side project is succeeding.