This post is a story about how I started a side project, grew it, became more productive as an individual, and how to be effective at your full time job and your side project at the same time.
Last November, I started this website you’re reading here. Right now, it’s averaging about $1K/month. But primarily, I work a full time job as a software engineer.
Before getting into the post, I want to note that I’m definitely not the most productive person in the world. There are some people I envy very much about their productivity.
In this post, I wanted to lay out what has worked for me.
I think that productivity is a learned skill, and you get better at it over time by making progress, both through your habits and tweaks to daily life - as well as progress with your business.
Also, as your business grows in value, so does the value of your time. So naturally, you strive to be more productive with your time. This is a powerful cycle of:
Your business gains value.
This causes your time to gain value.
Then, you optimize your time to become more productive and get more done.
Getting more done causes your business to gain value.
Rinse and repeat.
I don’t want to foundersplain you and tell you what to do, I’m just going to explain my journey and what worked for me.
When I first started last year, I wasn’t productive at all - I was actually miserably unproductive. Back then I was piecing together an hour or so of work per week - and I was dreading it.
Since I was mostly in the ideation phase, I didn’t really know how to get things done on this project. I think this is because I had little vision and focus. Looking back, this feels like the hardest time - I felt very lost.
Getting my idea out as early as possible
It’s funny, I "soft launched" Starter Story with only 3 interviews (one of those below didn’t even make it).
From idea to launch, it took me 2 months to release 3 interviews! Nowadays, I release 3 interviews a week, plus a couple blog posts…
But more importantly, I had gotten something out in the world. I started posting these interviews on my personal Facebook and LinkedIn. I also created an Instagram.
I was so tired of looking at these interview drafts that I just needed to get them out in the public. Once I posted to social media, people started asking me about it.
And when people started asking about it, I would explain my plans for the project - which ultimately gave me the motivation to execute on those plans.
I tried to stop caring about being perfect and what others would think. Most of my friends (not in the indie hacker world) were like "what the fuck is this?" - it really didn’t make any sense at the time.
Forcing myself to work
In the beginning, finding time to sit down and work on the project felt like pulling my own teeth out.
Not because I wasn’t excited about the project, but getting started was less about writing code (which I do gladly), and more about doing interviews over the phone and writing - a lot of writing.
Transcribing audio and converting it to a blog post is extremely time intensive. I remember it taking two weeks to get my first interview into draft format.
The best thing that worked for me was allocating a couple hours after work on the weekdays. I had to force myself to work on it. Get off work, walk straight to a coffee shop, sit down and commit to two hours of work.
I remember this being so painful, but when I finally sat down and got to work, it wasn’t that bad.
After the soft launch, I became more motivated - by dedicating some time on the weekends. Because this was all during the holidays (November & December) I then found time to work on it during work holidays.
Setting a launch date and sticking to it
After completing 6 or so interviews, I decided to launch on Product Hunt. This changed everything. I set a date on the calendar for early January.
The most important thing I did here was setting a date and letting people know that I was launching.
Once I did this, I was basically forced to launch and be productive.
I needed to get a bunch of more interviews done for the launch and my site needed to look 10x better.
The pressure of the launch put a fire under my ass - I published 12 interviews in a span of 30 days.
I ended up launching about a week later than planned, but this really what got my ass in gear.
The launch wasn’t as amazing as I expected, but now my product was even more "out there", so I became even more productive.
Productivity tips & tricks
The launch was many months ago, and since then, I have tried many different productivity hacks - here are some of the things I think I’ve learned.
Giving up weekends
I’ll be honest, I’ve worked a lot of weekends, but I never work the whole weekend.
I’ve found that working a half day on the weekend works really well. I can still have a life while still feeling good about my progress.
For example, I’ll often wake up early on a Saturday, and get work done from 9AM to Noon. Most of my friends are still waking up and don’t do anything until 2PM on a weekend anyways.
The only thing that will prevent this? A bad hangover. If I drink a bunch the night before, the next day is basically a waste.
Mornings or nights
Pick one. I’ve personally never been a morning person.
What worked for me was making a habit out of hitting up a coffee shop for a couple hours after work.
I wasn’t doing anything valuable from 6-10PM anyways, other than eating dinner, watching TV, and browsing Instagram. I replaced that with a couple hours of side project work and rewarded myself with some takeout.
Music & noise cancelling headphones
Hands down, the best purchase I’ve ever made are the Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones. They can turn any noisy place into a distraction free environment.
I value playlists/mixes because they don’t require you to switch the song. I can focus, and lose myself in my work.
Daily progress was key
I don’t think there is any way around this, but I believe dedicating time to my project every day (even just 1 hour), or at least long working sessions (3-4 hours) over the weekends was fundamental to success.
I think people underestimate the time involvement of even the smallest projects, especially if they’ve never launched something before. If it’s your first project, there are so many little things to learn about marketing.
Working on it daily might be the only way to get it to launch without it fizzling out.
I believe that if you want to start a successful side project/hustle/whatever, you must sacrifice something in your current daily routine.
Whether that’s sacrificing watching all those new shows, a long gym routine, or going out for drinks after work, it doesn’t matter what it is - but something has to go.
I’m not saying don’t exercise, but if you really want to make your side project work, I think you have to sacrifice something in order to get it off the ground - even if it's just a short term sacrifice (a couple months)
Find and replace
Take a look at your daily routine, and do a "find and replace". Find the thing that you value the least, and replace it with your side project.
This is really powerful because it immediately turns your side project into a daily habit - and I believe making your project a daily habit will guarantee success.
In the early days, for me, it was giving up going out drinking over the weekend so that I could wake up early and focus. I got a lot of work done over the weekends thanks to that strategy.
I also gave up following and watching the latest Netflix shows and started getting more into YouTube for entertainment, since it’s harder to fall into the "binge-watch trap" and the content is shorter.
Embracing deep work
The message of the book is to make a habit of working for long, uninterrupted periods of time in a distraction free environment.
I can get more done in 1-2 hours in the zone than a distracted version of myself can do in 8 hours.
There is data to back this up. People working 8 hours at an office average 2 hours and 53 minutes of productive time. If you work 2 hours in the zone on your side-project, you are pretty close to matching a full-time employee’s productivity.
My routine is always changing
The best part about all of this, is there’s no right way to be productive.
I’m always trying new stuff. Lately, I’ve been waking up in the morning at 5:30AM. I’ve been running every day for nearly 50 days.
I’ve used Pieter Levels’ post it note method. I’ve implemented GTD in my email inbox. Now, I’m using Trello.
I’ve learned tons of little things, seeing what I like, and overall improving my productivity over time.
Staying focused on your full time job
Important to talk about this...
Once you start a side project, it becomes a lot harder to focus on your full time job!
For me, my mind would be racing at work about my new side project. I think this is a good thing, but I’ve found the best way to handle it is by getting work done every day.
If you actually work on it every day, you can better allocate your focus on your full time job during work hours. If you let all this inspiration build up without actually working, it will just clog up your mind. Work on your side project so you can stop thinking about it!
Whether you like it or not, these extra hours of work will ultimately affect your performance at your full time job. It’s going to be harder to be that "star" at your job, and that’s OK.
Hopefully, you plan to one day quit your job and take it full time, or at least have it be a considerable source of new income.
Instead of getting promoted at work, you promote yourself and give yourself a raise through your own business :)
The advantages of having a full time job
I think there are some serious advantages to starting your side business alongside a full time job.
1. You get to experiment without risk.
Since you have a full time income, you don’t need to worry about your idea making money right away.
You can build random stuff, expand your skills, and completely fail/fall on your face with no repercussions.
This is kind of similar to the benefits of having VC money. Companies with extra cash can focus less on profitability in the short run while focusing on growth and can even pivot entirely.
Think of your full time salary as your Series A funding.
With Starter Story, I don’t litter the site with ads or have annoying pop ups because I don’t care too much about money right now. I’m also not trying to sell any corny courses or e-books.
I believe this drives a more pleasant experience for the reader and builds clout around my brand. If I needed money, I might be more inclined to use these shadier business practices - I would need to pay the bills!
2. Time constraints are a blessing in disguise.
This is best summarized by this tweet by @jurn_w:
Let’s be honest, we’re probably not as efficient as we could be at our full time jobs. I think this is because we have so much time to get our work done (8 hours a day / 40 hrs a week).
If you have a full time job, then you probably only have 1-2 hours to work on your side project per day.
We only have two hours a day, but we are trying to build products that compete with other businesses that are run by full time entrepreneurs. Because of this, we are hyper focused and are realistically 2-3x more productive than our job-less selves.
We all strive for the day when we have a full workday to work on our side project, but if we did, would we be as productive? I really don’t think so.
Thanks for reading!
If you have any questions or comments, I’m on Twitter!
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Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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- Pat Walls, Founder of Starter Story