The idea of building side projects to boost company’s profits is nothing new. We’ve tried it ourselves at Apptension. That’s why we’ve put together this article – to show you the challenges and benefits of side projects on a real-life example.
At some point of running your company you face the wall. The growth is not so exponential or ‘hockey stick’ as you’ve projected, the ROI is not high as you’ve calculated, or the visitors are not storming your website as you’ve probably imagined.
So you start to look for other ways of bringing traffic, acquiring customers and promoting your brand. Growth hacking, content marketing, paid advertising – you name it.
The problem with growth hacking is that it’s basically stepping on a thin ice, all the time, in pursuit of this one method or technique that will get you exposure, leads, and finally customers. Content marketing takes time, lots of it. Paid advertising is great if you have a budget, but at the same time it may be intrusive for your target audience.
And then, you come across the idea of side projects.
At the beginning it sounds like a distraction, something that you or your team would do in a downtime, half-serious task being constantly pushed on aside. Tobias van Schneider, former Spotify’s Design Lead, claims that it should actually be stupid.
As it turns out, it might be a very rewarding marketing strategy.
The Idea Behind A Side Project
You’ve probably already read about successful services or SaaS tools that have started as a side project, only to eventually become a profitable business: Gmail, Instagram, Unsplash or Buffer’s tools.
Aiming for creating the next big thing may be tempting, but starting with something smaller is also worth considering.
So let’s forget for a second about the big names and focus on Unsplash and Buffer. The idea behind their side projects was to add value to the already existing audience, in order to boost their business.
Here’s how it works for them:
1. Create value to attract your target audience
When Crew, the team behind Unsplash, decided to make their first side project, they had some serious troubles.
As Mikael Cho, the founder of Crew and creator of Unsplash, says in his article “How side projects saved our startup”, it was a matter of life or death for their startup to attract new customers.
They didn’t have time for content marketing. They didn’t have a budget to spend on paid advertising.
Actually, they were pretty close to be broke:
“A marketing budget? Please. We were just trying to keep the lights on” – mentioned Cho.
So they spent $19 on a Tumblr theme, 3 hours of work and a couple of high quality photos to create a site with free stock photos.
After submitting it to Hacker News, they received a ton of traffic to their website and a bunch of new customers, who actually saved their business. Why were they so successful?
It’s simple: because they created value first. A gallery of free, high quality stock photos to use by web developers and designers (actually their target audience at Crew).
To this day, Unsplash is their #1 source of traffic.
2. Create tools complementary to your core business
Another success story comes from Buffer, a content scheduling tool. Their main focus is to acquire marketers to use their product.
So apart from running a great blog and taking care of their social media presence, they’ve created a couple tools to make marketers’ work easier.
One of them is Pablo – a Canva-like tool to create simple graphics and easily share them on social media or to schedule them via Buffer (Do you see what they did there? Brilliant!).
Helping target audience to accomplish their goals and making their lives and work easier is a great and powerful example of how to bring value and attract people to use your product.
The Whole Truth About Building A Side Project In A Company
At Apptension, software development is what we do. We proud ourselves of building a very close-knit team of experienced and passionate people.
But every now and then even a team like ours has some issues with time and resource management, especially while working with clients from different time zones or handling remote team-members.
We tried different solutions, but time tracking based on filling spreadsheets led us only to inaccurate reports.
After trying out numerous tools and apps, we’ve decided to build our own. This is how teamdeck, a SaaS tool for resource management, was born. It had to suit our needs and be compatible with Podio, a complex project management tool that we use.
Another reason to build teamdeck was that we’ve found out that our clients suffered from the same pain. They are production companies, digital agencies, startups. They all have to deal with a proper team management.
At this point we realized that we shouldn’t only make a tool that we can use in our company, but build a product that other companies might use as well.
So we did, but but it was sometimes even more challenging than we had imagined.
The Challenges Of Building A Side Project
First off, in order to create a SaaS tool that meets users’ needs (including our own), we had to overcome some common challenges of product development.
1. Define the problem
At the beginning, we had to define the problem our product solves. As mentioned before, we’ve found out that production companies, digital agencies and other companies, especially the ones with remote teams, have problems with using their resources effectively.
Having similar pain points to the ones of our clients, we knew that we can address these issues precisely, providing a tool that people would actually need.
2. Define your target audience
Knowing that, we were able to define our target audience. We have settled on three key user personas:
- Peter the Founder – represents the CEOs and Founders of agencies whose main goal is to develop their businesses.
- Ankur the PM – project manager or scrum master who has to deliver the projects, struggling with managing all of the tools.
- Cord the IT Guy – tech-savvy IT Ops Manager, providing sensible tools for the company.
This way we made sure that in our future communication, blog posts, sales materials and email pitches, we would speak about our product to the right audience.
3. Determine your unfair advantage
One of our ideas from the very beginning of developing our side project was to discover our ‘unfair advantage’. It is a concept of creating something unique, which gives you an edge over your competitors.
We didn’t want to build a copy of existing resource management tools, or another timesheet-based solution for project managers.
We wanted to stand out from the crowd. That’s why we’ve developed a resource scheduling tool the main focus of which is to provide teams with better employee management, based on their availability and work capacity.
4. Convert your vision into functionalities
Another challenge is to convert the big idea into lines of code, designs and functionalities. Speaking with your team about the product, brainstorming ideas and planning features on post-its is one thing, but the reality of actually implementing them in your product is a completely different pair of shoes.
Implement Agile project management as soon as possible and first develop only the most important features, aiming to create a Minimum Viable Product (or Minimum Loveable Product, if you want). Having that, you can scale the tool, testing it with beta users at the same time.
After we’ve implemented the core features of our product, it was time to figure out how to show the benefits of using teamdeck to our target audience. Acquiring users is the first big test of your product, and a proof that your solution actually solves the problem.
As we have already been working with production companies and digital agencies, talking to them was our starting point.
Introducing teamdeck to our existing clients helped us to better evaluate our product, acquire beta testers and collect feedback from them. The other thing is that having companies like UNIT9 in our client base could give us some valuable credibility at the very beginning.
As an entrepreneur, you would probably want to monetize your side project at some point. There is nothing wrong with that, yet you should be aware that at the beginning it is much more like an investment.
It may take months until it becomes profitable.
There are, however, companies that made a successful online tools overnight – take Unsplash as an example. Although this is not impossible, it is better not to expect such scenario to happen and be prepared for at least a few months of work before your product reaches product/market fit.
How We’ve Benefited From Teamdeck
You can benefit from having a side project in many ways, not only by creating another revenue stream. For us it was learning new things, gaining experience, growing our team and forming new relationships with our existing clients and new customers.
Last but not least, we’ve created a tool that we needed, so it solves our own struggles as well.
Learning product development
At Apptension we create software on a daily basis, but developing a SaaS tool, maintaining and scaling it as product owners is a different pair of shoes.
After we’ve deployed teamdeck, it occurred to us that there are quite a few things we have to cover immediately: generating targeted traffic, user acquisition, onboarding, and in the near future calculating CAC and CLV.
We also had to test and decide on tools for analytics and monitoring, to constantly improve our product’s performance.
Gaining tech experience
Building a side project inside our company was also a great opportunity to test new technical aspects of product development like app performance. Developing teamdeck we could experiment a little bit and learn new things.
Speaking of which, our developers learned a lot during this experience. Many of them were juniors when we hired them, and now they are able to work on more complex products.
Growing our team
We’ve started teamdeck as a side project, but today it is a significant team within our company. Over time we needed to hire new web developers, project managers, QA engineers, and communication specialists.
Since we’ve started teamdeck project, its team grew to 12 people (and a dog).
Acquiring new clients
Acquiring customers is a lifeblood of every SaaS tool. We have started with releasing a free beta, then introducing a paid plan. There is now a free, 14-day trial available, and the application is free for teams with up to 6 employees.
Since the beginning we have been focusing more on the technicalities rather than marketing (although we’ve started doing this too, recently).
You can see a spike in traffic when we released ebook about the best practices of resource management on Product Hunt, and then another one after starting paid acquisition efforts. We will continue with content marketing, social media and paid advertising to get even more exposure and targeted traffic.
From this traffic and from our other activities, we’ve managed to acquire 357 companies to use teamdeck so far.
Moreover, having our own software product helps us to better present our skills to potential clients, which already ended up with new projects for Apptension.
Solving internal need
Building a side project as an answer to your internal need can benefit you in two ways. The first one is having a product you can monetize, creating additional revenue stream for your company. The second one is building a tool that suits your needs 100%.
At the beginning we’ve struggled with time tracking and resource management. Since we’ve built teamdeck, we do all of this in just one app.
And as we use Podio regularly, we’ve added an integration with this tool, to have even more control over the project that we run, both for our clients and internal.
Let Us Do The Code
As you can see, building a SaaS tool as a side project can be very demanding. There are lots of challenges, including:
- software development and maintenance
- product development
- acquiring and retaining customers
On the other hand, it may pay off either as a product for your own purpose, or as a tool for internal use.
We’ve already done that and we’d like to share our knowledge and experience with you. Let us do the code.
Do you have any other experience or ideas about side projects? Please, share them in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.