Filters Shaping My Next Project Idea

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Taking inspiration from Derrick Reimer’s post Finding My Next Bootstrapped Business Idea I’ve been working through a collection of notes for what my next project should be. Derrick quotes Jason Cohen as saying:

instead of trying to rank your ideas, run them through a set of filters to eliminate those that don’t fit.

I have a bunch of project filters to share but will open with some higher-level observations.

Why I Want To Do A Product (Again)

Outside of my initial post-college employment and a four-year window where I worked full-time at development agencies, I have been self-employed my entire career. Self-employment income has come through a mix of products and consulting. For some years, I’ve been able to make my entire living from my products, and other years I’ve had to lean more heavily on consulting. I’ve always viewed consulting as a means to an end towards product development. I prefer products because:

  • I find satisfaction working on a whole solution. I enjoy being involved with the design, the marketing, the customers, the support, and so on. In my consulting work, I typically have a very limited scope of influence.
  • I value passive income over time-based consulting income. Consulting income can be more lucrative in many ways, but I prefer the flexibility of passive income. In the past, I’ve been able to take time off or work on other projects while still getting paid, and it is incredibly addicting.
  • I enjoy having flexibility in my work hours and activities. My consulting life is already pretty flexible hours-wise. Still, there is no getting around when I burn out on a particular activity, such as meetings or code review, it can be hard to avoid my billable commitments. When working on a product, there are many activity types, and I could easily skip a few days of programming but still be productive towards the product by working on other things I enjoy, like UI design.

Recent Product Failures

Since returning to self-employment in 2017, attempts have failed to recreate my previous successful products. I failed with OwlDeck after spending six months of development, eventually making the realization that the tech stack I would need to master (CoreText) was over my head. I then had a significant change of heart towards Apple platform development, starting a multi-year period of self re-discovery, eventually finding a new home with Elixir. Guildflow began in 2019, but ultimately, I decided it too would be shutdown last month, November 2021.

With awareness of these recent failures, I am trying to be very mindful and intentional in picking a new project and planning my work.

My Project Filters

The market needs to exist already. I should be able to observe profitable competition who are not executing as well as I feel possible. I am not looking to break new ground but claim a space to offer a unique and valuable offering.

I need to feel comfortable interacting with the audience. For example, I’m not very excited about online advertising. I don’t think I would much care to drink coffee with a random ad sales person, so that would be a poor audience for me to serve.

I need to be able to learn fast. I am not interested in going into the tank for 9-12 months before gauging if I am on to something. I need to find ways to validate my ideas and deliver value to paying customers in a short window, like 3-5 months. I don’t need to cross a specific success threshold at the end of that timeframe; I just need to observe the positive trajectory I need.

The business needs to remain small. I am not interested in traditional venture capital funding. I am not interested in building a huge team. The product needs to be crafted so it can be successful but small at the same time.

I do not like managing people, but I would enjoy working in a ‘small band’. I think I would enjoy collaborating with people on this project, but I worry about finding the right match of talent who shares my vision and goals while also being a good counter for my own skillset.

The product needs to generate enough profit to provide a comfortable living for its creators. I don’t need this in the short term, but it is a significant part of that earlier learning goal and observing success over time.

The product needs to solve a pain worth paying for. With profitability and sustainability high on my value list, we need to connect with paying customers. It should be easy for them to justify the value and pay for it.

The product needs to solve a pain worth solving. I don’t need to change the world, but I should feel like I am solving worthwhile problems and not adding to the virtual noise I eagerly try to silence in my personal life.

Making sales should not require more than a few decision-makers. At the scale I have in mind, we can not afford complex sales cycles.

The project should not be mission-critical. The team size I am interested in managing is not big enough to offer that level of uptime guarantee, so we should filter out products that require it.

The product should not be for any industry with heavy regulations. The team size I am interested in managing is not big enough to manage that level of complexity, so we should filter out products that require it.

The product should not require mobile apps. I am not interested in building a business that requires deployment approval.

The product should provide value without asking for an outright replacement. Guildflow was a hard ask since not only did the group organizer have to buy in, but any transfer of a group from, say, to Guildflow would be a big ask of all the members too. I want to avoid this kind of big ask as much as possible.

The product does not need to be software. While I am a developer and empowered to deliver software-based solutions, I am not against building an educational products or other assets/toolkits/solutions.

My Superpowers

In addition to considering the above product filters, it is also essential to identify one’s superpowers. We each have a unique background and collage of skills/experiences. Understanding how you can contribute to a given product idea is key to its choice.

Elixir is a notable superpower for me. I’m well over the hump as far as being competent and productive with it. The language and the BEAM it runs on empowers me to build more concurrent and fault-tolerant systems than other startups of my size. I can likely solve some BIG scale problems that a Rails or Node person would have trouble with.

While I no longer do mobile development and have even filtered out any product ideas requiring a mobile app, I have roots in the community. I would not be against building solutions for that audience.

My attention to detail, particularly user experience, feels like a competitive edge. I do not consider myself a UI designer. Still, I could have a very collaborative and productive relationship with a UI designer, with the outcome being a well-executed app experience.

There is no time crunch to pick a new idea, but it is something I need to keep working towards. I’ll continue to share as it comes together.

If you ever want to grab a virtual coffee and chat this over, schedule some time on my calendar.