Things I learned from doing a side project

I have a job as a designer at BCG Digital Ventures. There we create new businesses: we find out about problems that people have, then create it a product to solve that problem and make it a viable business.

Because we have business people working on viability and software engineers doing the technical execution, it’s my job to come up with product ideas and making sure the products are desirable. Having been on several ventures over the past few years, I thought it would be interesting to create something small myself. I’d be personally in charge of all the factors that make a product a success, for users as well as its creator. I also wanted to learn how web apps are created nowadays, so I wanted to solve a small problem with a simple product that I could build myself. I should write about the technical challenges I had some other time; this post is about what I learned about doing such a side project in general.

About my project

Let me first tell a bit about the product I created and why. At work we often run ideation workshops. These are meticulously planned sessions with managers from the corporations we partner with, taking around a full work day. There was one recurring issue I experienced during these workshops. These big bosses, already not in their natural environment, all of a sudden have to listen to someone they just met telling what to do all day. Especially when they have to stop talking and move on to the next item on the program, it can be difficult for both sides. We thought it would be helpful to use analog tabletop countdown timers, so it would be clearer to all participants when time runs out.

I am not happy with them though:

  • I never know in which direction the clock is running.
  • They are hard to read from a distance, doing a poor job showing the group how much time is left.
  • They play an annoying beeping sound when time is up. Although that sound does grab the attention of the group, I can just feel tension rise.
  • They run out of batteries fast.

I looked online for a solution. I looked for something web-based, because there’s no time for downloading and installing software if you’re at a workshop realizing you need a timer right now. I looked for something showing the remaining time as big as possible, so all participants could see it. I found some rather advanced sports interval timers, but I wanted something looking good in a work context. Something that you can use without instructions while facilitating a workshop.

I couldn’t find such a timer, so I decided to make one myself. The result is Big Timer: a fullscreen countdown timer that adapts its size to the browser window to as BIG as possible! After a failed attempt (read about my 8 ways to not do side projects, I started again. Because I actually designed and made a working product, I’d like to share what I think I did better this time.

Big Timer UI
I know, some big text and three buttons don’t look like much work.

Learning 1: I like making more than consuming

I have a part-time job, a family with a baby girl and a little boy and little time to do things on my own. Every time I watched Netflix before going to bed, I felt disappointed. Of course I did other things too, like being on Twitter for too long and getting lost in open browser tabs, which didn’t make me feel much better. I actually like things like drawing, painting and playing the drums, but without a clear goal (and the kids preventing me from committing to doing things with other people in the evenings), I never had the energy to do those things on my own. Because of that, I used to think that side projects wouldn’t be for me. Even more so if they involve what I do at work, I thought it would feel too much like work to be relaxing.

It turned out I was all wrong. I get much more energy and satisfaction from creating rather than consuming. I enjoyed the design part because I could work on all kinds of details that commercial projects rarely allow. I loved the technical part, because I finally got to understand how those now development tools work. It’s amazing: pretty much all the world’s best web development software is completely free! And it all works so beautifully together—if you spend enough time figuring out how. I liked the programming itself too. It was like solving little puzzles I created myself. And when I got stuck, there was the wonderful Stackoverflow community helping me out.

I spent many of the occasional free evenings I had in the last couple of months on the project. I didn’t regret it a single time.

Learning 2: Making websites in 2018 is different from 2014

I will save the technical details for another post. What I want to mention though, is I expect that in 2022 web development will be very different again. Any learning investment in this area should have quick returns!

Learning 3: It helps to treat a side project like a work project

I find relaxing after work important. When I work too much, I create routines and take shortcuts that are the opposite of creative. That is a threat to my main purpose as a designer: solving problems, creatively.

Therefore, I set some ground rules:

  • The project cannot become a source of stress
  • Because of my limited and unpredictable time off, I did not want to make commitments to other people, as I could disappoint them and that would create stress and not only for myself.
  • I would be a good boss with an infinite budget to myself: not demanding to cut corners, allowing to take up all learning opportunities.

I managed to stick to these rules by making my side project as much like a well-managed professional project as possible. That meant in this case things like task management, planning, version control and documentation. I initially thought that making my free time even more like my job would not make it very leisure-like. Here’s the thing though: if my work is well-organized, I can work faster and I make fewer mistakes. That avoids stress and frustration. The side project has no time constraints (and somehow I never really noticed I was looking at a countdown timer most of the time). So by working professionally, I got all of the benefits and none of the pressure.

Learning 4: Try to invalidate ideas, not to validate them

I knew this already, but… The idea of making a countdown timer for workshops had been on my mind for a long time. When I was looking for existing products online, I was actually hoping not to find a timer that met my needs. My confirmation bias was strong here: I really wanted to make something myself, so after a few Google searches my conclusion was that a good timer didn’t exist. Competitor analysis done!

After going live with Big Timer, I submitted it to the Google index. I wanted to check with what keywords it could be found. I had to try many different searches and had to click through to search results page 4 to find it. Next time I’m trying to validate the uniqueness of an idea, I should search at least as thoroughly.

Alright that’s it! If you have any tips on how to make my projects a success, let me know. And have a look at Big Timer and let me know what you think of it!