Saturday, April 10, 2010

SXSW 2010: Coding for pleasure (or martyrdom?): Developing Killer Spare-Time Apps

The "Coding for pleasure" panel's synopsis, "Every startup origin story is about a couple of developers who abscond to a garage and end up building the Next Big Thing. But money and fame don't need to be your end goal. You can significantly improve your life -- and impact others' lives--by coding for pleasure in your spare time," was rather more optimistic than what the panel was really about. I caught only the second half of it, so perhaps I missed the part where they discussed how you significantly improve your own life by coding for pleasure. Well, there is the obvious -- you hone your programming skills, have something to put on your portfolio, and perhaps attain some visibility in the tech community. But if the audience expected advice how to attain fame or lucre by developing spare-time apps, they would have been disappointed. In fact, most of the panel was spent to caution the wide-eyed would-be garage entrepreneurs NOT to expect worldly goods, or even too much acknowledgement to come from it.

Realistically you can expect that maybe in 6 months someone will mention your application on a popular blog, and its web site will get lots of traffic. So don't build it for money. Instead, build it for yourself -- write an application you will use every day, or one that's useful for your career. Gina Trapani says she developed her application (she didn't say what it was called, or maybe I missed it) for 9 months before it got noticed. Even if your creation starts getting paying users, don't expect that it will ever make more money than what's needed cover web hosting (about $100 / month), says Adam Pash. That's what is considered success in the world of spare-time projects, unlike the world of commercial software that thinks in terms of 100 million dollar projects.

(I would hope that there is a long tail potential in this -- a few lucky and hard-working hobbyists may be able to make a living writing niche software that no big company will bother with, because its revenue won't be even a blip in its budget.)

How do you get users, asked a guy from the audience, who admitted he was the only user of about half a dozen of his apps. Matt Haughey replied that it was a difficult topic, worth an entire panel of its own. "Integrate them into whatever you do to communicate," suggested Haughey somewhat vaguely, and explained: "We made badges for personal blogs." Badges... hmm... I remember there was a time when many website had Flickr or Twitter "badges", but I haven't seen them too many of them lately. Other than that, the panelists didn't have many ideas on attracting users, except to mention your app on Twitter, and pester your friends to use it. I'm guessing, as with all things, for your app to find an audience, it needs to be useful first.

Matt Haughey, Adam Pash, and Gina Trapani

Matt Haughey, Adam Pash, and Gina Trapani at the Coding for pleasure: Developing Killer Spare-Time Apps. More pictures from SXSW 2010 can be found in my photo gallery.

Not only there are no shortcuts to making money or attracting users, but there isn't any panacea to finding time for working on your pet project either. "The first thing that needs to go is television," said Haughey, not leaving much hope to those us who, like me, don't watch any television. Then there is common sense advice that most programmers probably use anyway, like reusing code, e.g. Javascript libraries and plug-ins that exist for all imaginable computing tasks.

Thus, a coder-for-pleasure faces the same dilemmas as any artist who has to work at a day job while finding time for his / her art at night, without any guarantees that anybody will ever be interested in it. So was there any advice specific to coders, and preferrably non-depressing?

Maybe this: programmer, don't try to also be a designer. Because let's face it, you are probably not artistically inclined, and your website design will look awful. (Ahem -- if you are anything like me. Or if you are lucky, it will merely look amateurish. :-))

Since you can't afford to pay a designer, trade work with him or her. That's what Gina Trapani does. In her experience, every web designer wishes he or she could program something. If you do some free coding for your designer, they'll design for you.

Is is a good idea to open-source your application? Surprisingly, even at SXSWi, in a context that preaches all things open and progressive, the answer isn't automatically "yes". Open-sourcing your application requires enormous amount of management. Matt Haughey says he's had horrible problems with open source code management. As everywhere, there will be personality conflicts here too. There will be issues of control over code, and petty disagreements. You may find yourself, like Haughey did, with 15 people arguging about a newspaper photo engine.

Tweets from Coding for pleasure: Developing Killer Spare-Time Apps: #codingforpleasure

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