To side project or not to side project...

For nearly four years I've been immersed in client work. Good proper client work. They send me a comp. I suggest some revisions. They make amends, I build it (or at least get it built), be it a website, app, email or whatever. I've been fortunate in that we've never really had to do much marketing at amillionmonkeys, but nevertheless the fear remains that the work might dry up and my bank account with it so for the past few months we've been thinking about how to diversify our income through either an app or Saas product.

After a few false starts, it feels like we've got a decent enough idea, a native desktop application that won't change the world but will make a few people's lives a bit easier and hopefully, will therefore make a few quid each month. We're fortunate to know a few people who work in app development and sell Saas products. They all offered some good advice and based on that the following plan has been hatched:

Build something decent, on a limited budget

For our product, there's a clear marketplace. I can almost tell you the number of people whose lives would be improved if they buy my app. If one percent of those people do buy my app, it would be a pretty sweet payday. But they probably won't, and I don't have the money to do the research to be able to be sure either way. Like every app therefore it's a bit of a gamble, but it's an even bigger gamble because I don't really know what I'm doing. So the question is what are we prepared to gamble?

In all honesty, my answer is not a lot. I'm happy to pay a designer a few hundred quid to come up with a nice UI, but I'm not going to pay devs thousands to build this and I'm not going to learn a new language to build it myself. Consequently, the project ground to a halt a few weeks ago. Until I discovered Macgap and Electron. Both allow you to build cross platform apps using web technologies. It's not ideal, as it won't give that native experience, but it does mean I can build something cross-platform, get to market without investing a lot of cash and fit in the development when client work allows. It also gives me an excuse to learn EmberJS which I've been meaning to do for about six months.

What is your Minimum Viable Product?

We spend a lot of time building web-apps for agencies and however much we talk about an MVP, inevitably they would prefer to pay and get it 'perfect'. We don't have the time or money to do that, so instead we're focusing on what is the minimum feature spec that someone would pay for. I've done a rough list and the final app has about forty distinctive features. The MVP has six!

Ship early. Ship often.

Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly.

Seth Godin

Here is how we plan to develop the product. V1 will be cheap as chips but have few features. V2 will be a bit more expensive, but have more features. V2 will be a bit more expensive again, but have more features. And so on, until a product that maybe costs $29, but is feature complete. Upgrades are free, early adopters will one day have an app that's feature complete and they will have got a bargain. I'm hoping by V3 we'll be making a profit.

Stuff swirling around my head...

  • How much do I charge at the outset?
  • How much time am I willing to invest in this on an ongoing basis?
  • Do I sell on the increasingly troubled app store?
  • Is there anyway I can make this a subscription service (probably not)
  • How much money do I spend on marketing?

On a more philosophical level, I also wonder what success looks like. Do I really want to be supporting a product? Do we have the capacity to do so? I think the answer to both those questions is yes, but keeping the stakes low means that nothing bad will happen if the answer is no.

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