When writing about the hyper-niche strategy, I thought back to all my own side projects. In this post, I offer a brief post-mortem for each one, so you can learn from my mistakes and don’t repeat them. (There were even more projects, but these were the main ones.)
Webmaster forum (2003-2015)
While this started as a side project during my university time, it became my main project between 2003-2006. This was my first project where I could feel real traction. In its best days, it had 100.000 unique visitors per month.
- The main mistake was a technical one. Most of our traffic came through organic search (SEO). In 2005, I wanted to rebrand the service and move it to a new domain. The new domain had a Google penalty from the previous owner. I didn’t know about the penalty, but I knew there were indexing issues, and I had an uneasy feeling. I did the switch anyways, mainly motivated by my ego. We lost all Google traffic for 90 days, until the ban was lifted. We never regained the past traction. F*ck! (I’m pretty sure that without this, the site would have grown to be 10x larger than it ultimately became…)
- Managing a discussion board is hard. I let myself be totally absorbed by reading and writing in the community. I neglected everything else. Bad monetization, no business development deals, no development of own service offerings. Instead of working “on the business”, I worked “in the business”. We should have outsourced more and getting more help from freelancers. Don’t do everything yourself. Get help!
- I just didn’t realize how many different monetization strategies could have been applied to this project. We only monetized with banner ads. We should have used more affiliate links. Write an ebook. Create paid directories of professional service providers. Promote our own professional services. Create a paid membership community etc. I’m pretty sure we could have come up with 25 different ways to monetize the site, while providing value. With banner ads alone, we made 15-25k CHF per year. Not bad for students. But not enough to make a real business out of it. It could have been a 250k a year business.
- We had a niche, but didn’t communicate well enough. We should have been much more specific in our positioning/branding, and don’t be afraid to repel people we weren’t addressing. What do we stand for? Who is this service really for? We never answered those questions.
- After moving on to our new startup in 2007, we held on to the site for 8 (!) more years. These were frustrating times for all community members and ourselves, and it went downhill pretty soon. Don’t hold on to projects you don’t want to focus on anymore! We eventually sold the site in 2015 for a small sum. In 2007/2008 it would have been worth much more, and we would have avoided much frustration.
- I learned a lot from this project, and it pays dividends until today. I learned HTML/CSS, SEO, SEM, Affiliate Marketing, and many of the core skills I use until this day.
Keyword-based arbitrage website (2008-2013)
The idea was to pick an affiliate program on TradeDoubler or Zanox, to build a highly specialized site around a specific set of keywords, attract organic search traffic, and redirect it to the affiliate program to earn commissions. I hired freelancers to write the content.
- I picked the wrong market and language. It was a Swiss site, in German only. Combined with the hyper-niche aspect the total addressable market was too small. Why didn’t I pick a global affiliate program and built a site in English? I wasn’t thinking big enough. Think big!
- I didn’t want to spend much money, so I hired low-quality writers. I wasn’t proud of the site. Outside of SEO, I didn’t promote the site. I didn’t want to put my name behind it. Life is too short to do things you are not proud of!
- At peak months, the site had 300 visits and made 100 EUR per month.
- All the money we made was reinvested in buying backlinks and content. The project was not profitable.
- In the end, traffic and motivation faded away, so I shut it down.
- I still think that picking a hyper-niche topic and building an authority site around it is a viable strategy. But it needs to provide real value or solve a real problem, and don’t be a pure arbitrage play.
Meditation app (2014-2016)
Since 2012 I had the desire to build an app. In 2014 I had the idea for an app based meditation community. The idea was “Runkeeper for meditation”, and it was my main project in 2014. I sold it in 2016 and it still exists today.
- My main goal was to build a lifestyle business. I outsourced the design and development to an app development company, and wanted to keep the operations as lean as possible.
- I underestimated the amount of work (and cash, if you use contractors) it takes to create an app. It’s much more complicated than a website.
- We got 40k downloads in the first two years, and our users logged 380k meditation sessions. Unfortunately, retention (in terms of repeat daily usage) and revenues were not very impressive. Only 3k Monthly Active Users and $200-$560 monthly revenues.
- A larger pivot would have been needed. Addressing beginners instead of experienced meditators, create paid audio/video guides, or trying out radically different business models would have been possible approaches.
- In the meantime, a different opportunity came up, and I decided to focus on that. I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes from the webmaster forum project (see above) and let the app die a death of abandonment. So I decided to find a new owner and found one. In fact, one candidate was a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur with >1M followers, but it ended up to not be a good fit.
- I was applying the Lean Startup methodology for this project. But, I was not totally rational, intentionally so. I really wanted to build an app. It was a bucket list kind of thing. It might have been wiser to create a lean web-based version first, to validate the market, before building the app.
- In the end, I learned a lot from this project. I now have the skill to build and market apps, and work with outside development companies. I was able to successfully apply this know-how at Exsila, where I led the creation of the iOS and Android apps.
- Read more: What I learned building the ZenFriend meditation app
Investor community (2018-2019)
The idea was to build a paid membership community for entrepreneurs and professionals, and to give them everything they need to define and implement a passive stock investing strategy.
- The main hypothesis was to make the discussion forum the center piece of the product. For members to share and encourage each other to take action. I recruited 40 founding members from my newsletter. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Even though it was a closed group, people didn’t feel safe (or simply didn’t want to) share their progress with others.
- The guides I created for the members area were helpful and valuable. I was proud of them. Members found them useful, and I was able to inspire at least two people to start investing.
- I wasn’t proud of the whole service. A larger pivot was needed.
- In the end, inspired by Seth Godin, I decided to shut down the site, to have the freedom to start again with a blank canvas. Build. Test. Learn. Repeat.
- I learned from this project that I don’t want to build online communities anymore. I want to have more direct relationships with people. Maybe in person. Maybe digitally enabled, but more personal. I also learned a lot about ClickFunnels, the service I used to build the site.
- I still have a desire to help people achieve financial freedom. But not in this format. Maybe one day, I will come up with something new.
- I seem to have trouble with Reid Hoffman’s wisdom: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” I am pretty good at starting things, launching quickly, and also being somewhat embarrassed. But, when I’m not proud of the product, I don’t want to promote it and stand behind it, limiting its early adoption.
- I seem to have trouble with pivots. When the initial hypothesis doesn’t hold true, I lose motivation to do larger pivots. On the flip side, people like Seth Godin recommend to better shut things down and start from scratch, instead of being influenced by the things you already have (a form of path dependency). It seems there is no clear answer. What is clear to me: don’t hold on to a product that is not working. Move forward, or go home.
I will keep creating new projects. I learn from each one, no matter whether it succeeds or fails. And also, to be totally honest, I see it as a personal challenge (and bucket list item) to build a side project that I am truly proud of, that solves a real problem, has traction, is fun and profitable. I’m not there yet, but I will keep trying!
What have you learned from your side projects? Let me know on Twitter.
PS: Here is a compilation of Thirty years of projects by Seth Godin.