I made 7 projects in 12 months

It’s approaching the end of the first year with my bootstrapped projects and it’s been quite interesting looking back at what I’d done to date. Here, I’ll share the why, how and what I made, as well as learnings and what I have planned next. A summary:

  • 7 projects (mariohayashi.com/projects)
  • 6 products
  • 3 active products (IH profile)
  • 2 newsletters (that I’ve not been on top of as much as I should have been!)
  • 2 open-source projects [1] [2]
  • ~17 domain names (went nuts on Black Friday)
  • ~37 git repositories

All the projects are self-funded by my part-time contracting work (some of which I’ve documented on contracto.dev).

Why?

Building is what I enjoy most, creating things to see how it might turn out. To see what the reception might be. I can definitely relate to Josh Pigford’s long list of projects in this sense. There’s enjoyment in exercising creativity and intellectual curiosity to bring an idea to fruition. It’s effectively playing. Like playing with Lego, I want to see how the different pieces fit together. Whether it’s engineering, product, marketing or growth, they’re all different pieces of the puzzle that you want to optimise for, for your target audience. Indie making maximises the exposure to that puzzle, so that’s why I decided to focus on making things while supporting my work with software contracting.

How?

  • Set up AWS resources (my bread-and-butter)
  • Whip up a web/mobile app
  • Iterate on said app for set time frame until I have an MVP

Of course, I try to keep the MVP as lean as possible. For example, I made CopyOcean (incl. landing page and web app) very recently in ~1 week. I probably could have cut more corners but I figured a week is not a huge amount of time to build a working product in the grand scheme of things. I’ve found that building quickly is often the shortest path to “real” user feedback. Some have the gift of conveying their abstract ideas in a compelling way. For me however, I seem to express things more clearly when I “show, don’t tell”. As Suhail (Mixpanel founder) puts it:

Stop overthinking it. Talk to users, build it, and see what happens!

Next, after making, I try to find as many channels as possible to test the proposition. This part I’m still working on, as I find this to be one of the most difficult parts when starting out! Some channels work better than others for your target audience. There are lots of books about this area including Zero to Sold by @arvidkahl and Traction by Weinberg. Going by the puzzle analogy again, some puzzle pieces are bigger than others depending on your vertical. But finding them takes experimentation, patience and persistence.

What have I made?

CopyOcean (beta)

Started November 2020.

Write copy in Notion, export with CopyOcean. Made for copywriters and product managers who work on web/mobile apps with developers.

I’m a big fan of Notion. I’ve started to see it being used at a lot of businesses. A majority of my contracting clients are heavy users of Notion. Copywriting is a natural fit for Notion because Notion makes it easy to write. I can’t remember a time where writing was more fun! While I’m all for copywriting in Notion, I felt there was something missing to get the copy into production web/mobile apps without needing to bug developers. So, I built CopyOcean very quickly to test out the concept. CopyOcean is still in its early days (just ~1 week old), so a lot can change based on feedback. E.g. there are plans to add an API/headless CMS to it!

It’s in private beta at the moment. You can try it today at copyocean.com.

Also, I use it for www.copyocean.com itself (I’m a fan of dogfooding).

Pageably (beta)

Started May 2020.

Pageably publishes your Notion pages as blogs, personal websites, marketing pages and more. You can add a custom domain, SEO, custom CSS and performance boosts to your Notion Pages without code.

In a slightly different twist to Super.so and Fruition (both of which are excellent products), Pageably’s goal is to present your Notion Pages in any way you like. Imagine you could have a very custom look for your blog but the content were based on Notion content. That’s what Pageably wants to be. Adding custom CSS to your Notion Pages is a start, but there’s obviously more that can be done!

You can try it today at https://pageably.com.

I use Pageably personally for making quick sites/blogs, e.g pageably.com itself, blog.pageably.com, help.copyocean.com, blog.mariohayashi.com and more!

See Memo

Started March 2020.

With See Memo, you can create custom widgets for your website in minutes. Offer helpful hints or gather feedback with simple but flexible widgets.

This was a project inspired by some of my work at my previous UX analytics startup that helped businesses gather user feedback when the user displayed frustration. I felt a general-purpose widget builder was not available and thought it was worth testing! See Memo was also my first Product Hunt launch (wrote about here).

See more on See Memo.

Picture Cook (inactive)

Started March 2020.

Do you cook at home? And do you struggle with wordy, lengthy recipes? Picture Cook offers a visual alternative to textual recipes. It attempts to make cooking more fun with pictures. This was a fun project, I really indulged in the making of it. I probably spent way too long on the React DnD drag-and-drop interface and the original artwork but that was the fun part! It was also released on Product Hunt. I’ve not been working on this project for a while now as (a) it didn’t fit with many people’s cooking habits (mostly only mine!) and (b) I was ready to try something new.

You can see recipes at https://picturecook.com/recipes.

Tugboat App (inactive)

One of the most ambitious projects I attempted in the past year, Tugboat App was an app that converted Figma designs into React components. With re-usable Figma components, it generated React components that the developer could re-use in the production web app.

The vision was to allow No-Coders and designers to create production-ready components to be inserted into web/mobile apps. The idea validation was quite positive. Designers loved the concept. But problems emerged as Tugboat App wasn’t able to produce the components at a high enough fidelity. Even with lots of thought-through engineering work, it wasn’t scaling well. Maybe it’s a thing for ML (pix2code variants, I'm looking at you)! There was also the problem of the 2-way sync between Figma and Tugboat App, which wasn't easily reconciled. If a developer changed the component, how could that be reconciled in Figma? Sadly I shut the project down but I see more projects in this area, especially with ML-backed solutions, which appear promising!

Wondercask (inactive)

Started Nov 2019.

Wondercask was an app for craft beer lovers to find and rate beers, and navigate festivals. I’m big on craft beer, so wanted to try a project where I could marry my love for good beer and my product/engineering skillset.

The admin dashboard I made for festival organisers was a lean MVP. After I made it in less than a week, I sent emails around for validation. They didn’t come back positive and it seemed the market was very small (not broad enough a niche), so I parked the project.

Learnings

  1. Opportunity cost: There are financial upsides to joining a Big Co and there are career upsides to jumping back into leadership at funded startups. But I’ve always loved the idea to build from scratch and that’s where I’m finding most enjoyment at the moment, supported by software contracting. (Of course, this might change over time!) This topic gets talked about time and again (e.g. see @mijustin’s thread here ).
  2. Set goals: Related to opportunity cost, know what you’re trying to achieve ahead of time. It’s important not only because you (a) want to know what success looks like but also (b) you want to know when to move on.
  3. Your personal brand: It’s easy for this to be neglected but I’ve found this to be important for me as a maker (both for others’ perception of me and for myself). Be clear about what you’re about, define it for the public and be happy with it! For me, right now, it’s software contracting, No-Code and making. @anthilemoon’s Make & Shine was a good read on this topic.
  4. Balance your strengths with your weakpoints: My primary strengths lie in product/engineering/design but that doesn’t mean I should build all the time. That could work in a wider team but, as a bootstrapper, that’ll neglect all the other important aspects: finding, engaging with and building an audience. What I’ve found is that sometimes you can use your strong points to offset your shortcomings (e.g. build extremely quickly to have something to show people). Not building anything/having anything to show prior to validation doesn’t work, just as building things without talking to users doesn’t. It’s a balance as a bootstrapper.
  5. Making is the easy part: Alluded to above and I wrote about it here. Making is, at least for me, the easy part. The hard part is identifying a need beyond your own (I often build things for myself) and spreading the word. Finding your audience and then doing customer development are hard things. Takes persistence and patience.
  6. Do your basic homework: If all you want to do is make for the sake of making, then you won’t need to do this much. But if there’s any intention of taking it to a wider audience, estimate your potential reach, how your funnel looks like, what drop-offs you can expect in your funnel and how many user’s you can expect. E.g. out of a total addressable 2M users, 40% signing up and 3% converting will amount to 18k converted users. Ask yourself if that makes sense to you.
  7. Take regular breaks: I’ve started to enjoy going for walks (not only in part due to lockdowns). Indoor fatigue is a thing, so take care to get some fresh air. I take hour-long walks, when I can think about chores, responsibilities and project plans I want to keep in check. It’s also ok to just take a break without thinking about anything. (Binge Netflix if you must.)
  8. A healthy balance: If you’re balancing making with other things (a full-time role, contracting, etc.), it’s important to know what your limit is. When I was trying to juggle five days of contracting with making during weekends, I knew I reached a limit. My head might have exploded if I did that for too long. 😅 So, I’ve re-balanced my time so that I have more time to make while contracting a few days a week. This has been good for both mental well-being as well as for my creative energy!

What’s next?

I’ll be setting goals to add more structure to my projects. In the immediate future, it’ll involve my recent projects (e.g. CopyOcean) but I will have more lined up and to look forward to in 2021, including a novel way to learn the Japanese language.

Thanks for reading. 🙏 If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment below.