Have you ever head the phrase, “attention span of a goldfish”?
When it comes to me and side projects, that goldfish has nothing on me.
I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘creative’ person. I’m more analytical with a tendency to think things over, weighing the pros and cons. I’ve been building websites since I was in school, and when it comes to building functionality, I’m not half bad. If I hit a roadblock, I’ll do some research online and figure out what the problem is. However when it comes to being creative, I may as well be blind.
Whenever I’m faced with a creative task, I usually go online and repurpose/steal/take inspiration from other people’s creative works. Nowadays, I simply pay someone with more imagination to do it for me. They happily crack on with the work, armed with a copy of Photoshop and one of my uniformly vague project ‘briefs’, that usually contains the words ‘modern’ and ‘minimalist’ somewhere in the style requirements section.
On the other hand, when I’m faced with a technical task (like, programming a PHP website) I know what the finished product should do, just not necessarily how it should look. I work my way towards that outcome, one step at a time, and eventually get the finished product.
Or at least, that’s what should happen.
My side projects
Over the years (i.e. since 2009), I’ve had a number of what I used to call ‘awesome business ideas’, but would now call ‘viable product ideas’. These are ideas that I immediately jump on and starting creating. Some might interpret this as a gift for innovation or entrepreneurship or something, but I’d disagree. Why? Because I never finish the damned things!
So, for the second post on my brand new blog, I’ve decided to focus on a touchy subject: failure, or in my case, an innate inability to follow through. The purpose of this post is to show you where I began, what I’ve tried, what hasn’t worked, and most importantly, what I should have done.
(~2009-10) The iShop was my first ever business, and involved selling phone cases and accessories. I built an online store with ZenCart, got a cheap logo designed and used what’s known as a ‘dropshipper‘ to send products to people I’d badgered on social media.
So what went wrong? First off, the products weren’t all that great. I never actually saw my products, and never bothered to get myself some samples to see if they were any good. I naively assumed that my supplier (a company somewhere in China) would be ridiculously happy to get a new distributor, and would therefore give me the best quality products, at the best possible price.
I also naively assumed that when it came to sales, cheaper = better. In the face of what I now realise was poor competition, my only unique selling point was the price. I was selling silicone Keep Calm and Carry On cases for the iPhone 3GS for £3, and ‘Apple Compatible Earphones’ for £5. I then wondered why people started asking for refunds because the cases were shitty, which I immediately gave along with a £5 gift voucher to apologise. I was terrified they’d never come back, or that they’d tell their friends bad The iShop was.
I kept The iShop going well into my first year of university where it proceeded to dwindle, along with my student loan and my liver function. Eventually I stopped getting sales, and I shut down the website.
- Never try to compete on price in a market where literally everyone is competing on price.
- Don’t be afraid of losing the occasional customer. There are 7 billion people on this hunk of rock we call home. There are other opportunities. It’s not like that one customer will be able to tell the other 6,999,999,999 people that their ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phone case had a typo (not uncommon).
(2011) Club Hunter was essentially an online nightlife directory/app. The idea was to enable people to find out where the coolest bars were, what time they closed, what was open near them, drinks deals, and so on. It was essentially Yelp, but with a focus on nightlife.
I built the platform with a little help from a developer friend based in South Africa, and we had high hopes for the site. Unfortunately, no one was particularly interested, and it took me a while to figure that out. Turns out, people like to be spontaneous on nights out, rather than referring to a travel guide with ratings and opening times.
When I approached a few people who owned some of the more popular bars in Liverpool (some of which I’d actually worked in), the response was luke-warm at best. It was the first time I’d ever put myself out there and tried to market something face-to-face, so I stumbled between meetings with a terrible elevator pitch, bad answers for very reasonable questions and unusually sweaty palms.
After a few months of completely changing the website features every other day, I eventually allowed the project to slide into the bin whilst I focused on my ever-increasing university workload.
- Find out if your idea has a market before actually building it. At the very least, ask random people if they’d use it, and see what they would find useful to inform the features. Build the product around the market, not the market around the product (it’s not impossible, it’s just hard for a second year university student without product marketing experience)
- Don’t be afraid to approach potential customers companies for their needs and feedback, especially when they’ll be a key part of the offering.
- Make sure you have a solid product idea, a simple elevator pitch, and a tissue for sweaty palms if you get nervous easily!
(2012-13) Student Earners was my attempt at cashing in on the growing job board market, with a focus on part time jobs for students. As a student, I had trouble finding a job that fit around my degree, beyond the usual door-to-door charity fundraising and seedy ‘Work From Home’ gigs that plague the part-time categories on most job websites.
I figured that with my web development skills, I could build a fairly straightforward job board and approach recruiters and companies that are known for hiring students. The actual building of the website was the easy part. I took inspiration from other job sites, like Monster, Indeed, Jobsite and direct competitors that I’d identified, but ended up trying to create a size-fits-all offering, CV storage, an applicant tracking system and a complicated application form with social media integration.
Once that was done I started approaching potential employers, and got absolutely nowhere. Out of the 50+ calls I made and emails I sent over the following two weeks, a painfully small number actually responded, and an even smaller number showed an interest. I learned that people don’t like to spend money hiring students (I was charging per job advert), because students are regarded as low cost hires with few skills who’ll disappear within a few months. I’m paraphrasing of course, but that was the general sentiment.
I resorted to finding student-friendly jobs online and adding them to Student Earners manually, which took hours of my time for little return. Employers remained uninterested, and whilst a few people did actually apply for the jobs, I quickly lost motivation. Eventually, I put Student Earners to one side, and I ended up binning it.
- Once again, make sure there’s a market for a product before building it. Otherwise, it’s not a product, it’s merely a bunch of code and pictures with no value. I didn’t do any initial research on my main target market (employers who’d pay to use the service). I only discovered the lack of interested when I finished building the website.
- I should have stuck with the manual research and posting for a little while longer. As Paul Graham, one of the co-founders of Y Combinator once famously wrote, “Do things that don’t scale”. The fact that students were actually applying for the jobs I posted was a good sign. In reality, I was too demotivated to notice the value in that, and should have continued to do the manual posting until it gained traction.
- Don’t be afraid to offer things for free. If people aren’t buying what you’re selling, see if you can operate on a freemium model. I could have allowed employers to post one or two job adverts a month for free. This would’ve had the dual benefit of populating the job board, and showing them the value of the applications they were getting.