Start with One Customer

I’ve had many side projects over the years. An app to find a local photographer, an app for writers, an app for printing photos… the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, none of these side projects ever even made it off the ground. 😳 Sound familiar?

Trash on the street

Photo by Mert Guller / Unsplash

We developers start building side projects because they sound like fun, or we want to play with some new technology, or we’re convinced we can build a much better product than what already exists. So we build it, and then we get bored. We always get bored.

Or at least that’s what we claim. I think it’s more likely that once we have a working product and actually need to find paying customers, that’s when things get hard, and we get scared. We don’t want to admit we’re scared, though, so we chalk it up to boredom and move on to the next shiny object.

My latest side project, Rails Autoscale, has been a different story. Last week — two years after my first commit — I hit $1k MRR (monthly recurring revenue). Far from full-time income, but a big milestone for a side project. Besides, it’s growing each month, and I love working on it.

So what made this side project different from the others?

Starting with one customer

When I say “one customer”, I’m not talking about yourself, and I’m not talking about a hypothetical “persona” of a customer. I’m taking about one real customer who needs the product you’re building.

In my case the customer was Real HQ, where I worked at the time. Our internal app was only used during the day, and we were paying a fortune to keep it scaled up on evenings and weekends. We needed to autoscale our app, and none of the existing solutions we tried worked out for us.

I knew Real HQ would use a better autoscaler if I built it. They would depend on it, and it would be very painful if the product went away. That did two things for me:

  • I got early feedback from real usage, guiding the direction of the product.
  • I had external pressure to improve and maintain the product.

Having that one customer from the beginning made all the difference. If Real HQ wasn’t using Rails Autoscale in production during those first months of development, there’s no way I would’ve stuck with it.

Two years later, Real HQ is still a Rails Autoscale customer along with about 80 others. It’s these customers who give me the motivation to keep working, keep improving, and keep growing.

Are you building a side project right now? Who’s your first customer?