I quit my job. I'm now unemployed. It feels great to finally be able to write this blog post. I remember daydreaming about making an aggregation site for flash games back when I was 10 years old. Teaching myself rudimentary HTML and CSS, I managed to build a page with tables and iframes. It wouldn't be until I went to university that I started shipping my side projects. It's been a long time in the making. Of all the side projects I've done over the years, most failed, with only two standing the test of time.
|Project||Why it failed|
|Flash games aggregation site||❌ Lack of tech skills|
|Line number remover||❌ Search volume too low|
|winkels.in||❌ Search volume too low (Dutch only)|
|gazelle-kopen.nl||❌ Search volume too low (Dutch only)|
|iplocation.tools||❌ Couldn't get it to rank in Google|
|Road cycling analytics webapp||❌ Drowned in technical debt|
|Pascal number visualizer||❌ Passion project, no growth potential|
|stars.ruurtjan.com||❌ Passion project, no growth potential|
|Avro file format parser||❌ Learning project|
|Tech talk aggregation site||❌ Hard to get high-quality data|
|Pastebin for Markdown files||❌ Hosting anonymous user-generated content is a legal minefield|
|Doing Project Euler exercises||❌ Learning project|
|Mobile game that divides the earth in hexagons||❌ Couldn't figure out the math|
|Automatic audio transcription||❌ Couldn't find a better angle than the competition|
|Linear algebra implementation in Scala||❌ Learning project|
|WhoIsMyISP.org||✅ Started 8 years ago, profitable and growing|
|NsLookup.io||✅ Started 2 years ago, profitable and growing|
Only two projects ended up becoming profitable. The first one, whoismyisp.org, was a bit of a lucky shot. I didn't do any research before starting, and it was only a single page when it launched. It took years before making even a small profit. Since then, it has grown slowly over the past 8 years, and now has partnerships with NordVPN and ipinfo.io.
Nslookup.io was more deliberate, with basic SEO research, financial and time investment upfront. It is a site where you can do DNS lookup online. If you're interested, I'll write a follow-up blog on how to pick the right side project some time next month.
What about money?
Quitting my job obviously means missing out on the largest part of my income. The opportunity cost is massive. I sat down with my wife to discuss if we want to make this investment, and how we'll sustain our family in the meantime.
I'm lucky to work in an industry where the demand for workers is growing faster than the supply, so I'm confident I could get a freelance gig (or a job) within a month if things don't work out. That means that the risk of this endeavor is capped at my missed income.
We were able to save up during the past for 6.5 years of working a tech job. Not owning a car and living below our means definitely made a difference here! My wife still works part-time, so we'll be able to survive for more than a year if I don't take any earnings from my newly formed business. I'm optimistic that it should be possible to grow to €4000 ($4600) revenue with €3000 ($3450) pre-tax profit within 12 months. That's the goal I'm setting for myself, and is enough to do justify doing this long-term.
So here we are. Two active projects, a laptop, and a year worth of runway.
The master plan
Do I have a plan? Of course! Well, actually three. Each with a different amount of uncertainty and payoff. I'm not pinning myself down to a fixed plan. Instead, I'll work on multiple things simultaneously, and double down on what works.
Stage 1: Grow SEO and add more landing pages.
Stage 2: Passive income through ad network (BuySellAds or Ethical Ads).
Stage 3: Partner with CDN or hosting provider.
This is what I've been doing so far. Build free web tools, get them to rank in Google, and sell ads through an ad network. This has a high level of certainty. Spend more time on SEO will almost definitely result in more traffic. So does adding more landing pages. Growth in traffic means growth in ad revenue. The payoff isn't very high, though. I'm currently getting a bit under $400 in monthly ad revenue from NsLookup.io. Growing to 3-4x traffic should be possible, but won't get me to my goal yet. Finding a CND or hosting provider that's interested in buying these ads would get the pay up, but that would still barely be enough to hit my target.
Stage 1: Grow SEO and add more landing pages.
Stage 2: Sell an API to visitors.
Plan B is to sell an HTTP API with DNS data on a monthly subscription. It has a bigger potential payoff, but also more uncertainty. There's a bigger upfront time investment to build the API and a developers portal, track usage, set up metered billing, and write documentation. I also don't have a clear picture of the use cases of this yet. Nor do I know if I can make something that's better than existing DNS APIs.
The good news is that I have already set up a very minimal API, a wait list, and two paying customers. There's still a lot of work to do to automate everything, and to position it well.
Stage 1: Make a one-off DNS dataset, give it away to founders, and find out how they'd use it and what they need.
Stage 2: Sell an updating dataset through nslookup.io and the Snowflake Marketplace.
Stage 3: Hire sales representative to do enterprise sales.
Enterprise sales are much more involved than selling to SMB's. On the other hand, it's about as difficult to get a one-off $250 payment approved, as it is to get a $250 subscription approved. So the potential for low maintenance recurring revenue is there. I have no experience selling to large companies, so if this proves feasible, I'd like to hire a sales representative. That's not something I'd be comfortable with before I've sold quite a few subscriptions. So I'm not confident that this plan will work out, but I want to give it a shot nonetheless.
Here and now
It's good to have a dot on the horizon, but what am I going to do this month and the next? I'll mainly focus on plan A. Grow NsLookup.io by improving the site, adding more tools, and investing in SEO. I'll also explore plan B by expanding the API, and talking to users. Plan C will get the least attention for now, but I'd like to talk to at least a couple of potential users.
Want to see how this unfolds? I'll share my progress on Twitter. See you there!
Top comments (75)
Thanks @natescode! It's been quite a long time in the making for me as well. So don't feel like you've 'missed it'. It's never too late to start something new :)
Wow impressive all your hard work on side project! very impressive!
I am also taking a break from being employeed.
Good luck for your planA and I will look forward to see more update from you!
Thanks! I hope you'll get what you're looking for in your break :) What's your plan?
Hm... not exactly easy to answer.
I am not actually a full developer, rather I've been a digital artist working in film/game industry.
Since I left a job a few years ago, I did a few freelance work but mostly my own project and study.
I sometimes feel concerned if it's really fine not to focus on fianallical profitable activity, but luckily like your own industry, my industry's demand for worker is very high. so when I think that, "hm I am never going to be starving even it's the worst case" and make me feel relaxed.
It was kind of surprising to me, though, that once I quit my job it didn't feel as 'free' as I thought. The power dynamics of a corporate job are gone, but it's replaced by a self-imposed pressure to make this once chance count. I can rationalize the risk by remembering that I can go back to financial security and try again later, but it still feels risky and I still feel pressure 🤷♂️ Still super glad I made the jump, and enjoying every minute of it! Mixed bag.
Yeah not feeling “free” as expect.. totally agree with that!
It’s definitely a big jump.
While the key point is being independent and self driven person, but also I discovered that lots of companies started to offer me way more than previous employer.
Unfortunately I couldn’t take the latest offer since my stupid visa takes forever for covid but you know… I can push myself alone even more.
Anyway you gonna be great. Congrat! 🎉
Well done, brave! If not a secret, what % of past salary are you earning from the last 2 projects?
Thanks @aloneguid :) I'm now making around 1/3rd of my past salary in profit. That said, no matter how much a side project makes, it's still 100% of your salary that drops when you go full time ;)
Cool! Thank you for sharing your failed projects and the whys, I really liked the idea and I will do same with my projects.
Great! Send me a DM on Twitter if you'd like feedback on any of your projects :)
Okay I am gonna organize it and create a Twitter account hehe
Thank you for sharing this.
And best of luck!
I just tried both of your services, it was a good experience.
Glad to hear!
Hi, we would be very happy if you share the story and development process behind your nslookup project. Great Article
Thanks, you can DM me on Twitter about this :)
Sure, in a minute
Its a good decision that you quit your job to make free web tools. It will increase your experience and you will learn a lot of new things. I want to make a tool of my website UniPrint. If you can do it please do let me know. I am ready to pay you for this task.
Thanks for the encouraging words :) You can contact me via Twitter DM or at firstname.lastname@example.org to pitch your proposal.
Financial is one of the most important thing in life. I'm excited to see what's coming next to you, quitting a fulltime job is not an easy decision to make, specially when you have kids. Thanks for sharing the story with us.
Best wishes for you in the future brave man!
Very cool, other than SEO, do you recommend other approaches for growth ?
I'm by no means an expert, but for my projects, SEO makes sense. People who need these tools will search for them, so that will always be the primary source of traffic.
Once I start making products (like the API), it could make sense to join communities of people that need those products. If only to understand the pain points you can solve and improve the product.
Other possibilities are blogging, podcasts, ads, setting up an affiliate program, but that depends on the product and niche I guess.
Thanks @ruurtjan , best wishes on the projects and adventures ahead!
I envy you! (In a good way…)
You got 17 ideas to explore (plus the ones you decided not to mention); I’ve been in the business for over 20 years and I haven’t gotten even one idea ever, even less a viable one, only making other’s idea grow. 😓
No need to come up with ideas! You can just be mindful of whatever you're using at any point in time. If you think you can do the same thing better, just take that concept and improve on it. The great thing about this approach is that you know there is demand for it, and you know at least one use case for it :)
How far did you get with your STT project? I left my job a while ago to build apps and one of them requires that I transcribe a phone call audio. Started to play with coqui go bindings.
I got the basics working, but lost focus and motivation along the way. My idea was that users could upload audio without logging in, get a 30 second sample from 3 different AI's (managed services from AWS, GCP, Azure maybe?), select one and transcribe the whole file for 1.5x the cost I'd have to pay the managed services. Much more light weight than existing tools, that require login and a credit card upfront. I didn't research the market lately, but there might still be an opportunity for this. Take the idea if you'd like :)
This is great. I also have a project where I leveraged the IPinfo API to do exact same thing you did with whoismyisp.org
Nice, which website?
I just re-checked (it's been a while actually). I realized I used Ipify not IPinfo. Here ipchecker.netlify.app/
Great article! One thing I noticed, you never stop trying and that’s a very good thing 👍 I wish you success. You gave me courage to move on with projects whenever it is a success or not, we get experiences through all of these.
+1 for the article. +1 again for linking to and mentioning your passion projects.
Glad you liked it!
I have a passion project, called ReShell (reshell.org/about-reshell), that I'd be interested in making an application around one or more of your APIs, if you're interested.
Reach out to me if that's something you'd consider. My LinkedIn is: linkedin.com/in/jeremyharrisconsul...
The code is open-source, and would just be an experiment of course, so this isn't some ploy to try to make any $$.
Hi everyone! I'll hang around in chat today, so ask me anything :)
Find something that already has multiple sites dedicated to it with decent traffic. See how they approach it, and think about how you'd do it differently. If you're confident you can do significantly better, give it a try.
I started NsLookup.io when there were already a lot (hundreds?) of similar sites, but none of the popular ones were any good in my opinion.