Tis’ the season for spinning up new side projects and I feel compelled to free up some brain space. Here’s some prototypes of some ideas that have been lingering in my head for upwards of 7 years. These prototypes were tinkered on over various nights and weekends when I had a idea itching to be scratched. I’ve only shared them with a few folks over the years and even semi-formally established a “Brain Trust” to gather candid feedback. As much as I love them, I think it’s time to retire these ideas. Having secret projects is great, but it’s mental overhead I don’t need anymore.
Project 1: RunPlan
Started on February 11, 2014, RunPlan is a Couch-to-5K rip off that I made for my own personal use. It was actually pretty successful at helping me track my progress over the 9 week program. Under the hood it uses an unreleased tiny jQuery plugin I wrote called
checkov that turns any
<ol> into a semi-persistent checklist using
localStorage. The dream state of RunPlan was that it evolved into something bigger, a platform where you could create your own groupings of exercises and progressions (sets and reps), share that with friends, and check off your progress as you go.
Post-mortem: Obvious legal quandaries aside, this was a fun project but I (waving my hands at my general physique) am not extremely passionate about fitness, so I was rarely motivated to chuck time at it to improve it.
Project 2: Mindgame
Started January 31, 2018, I got an idea for a Mastermind clone. Boiling the concept down, it was “Mastermind, but with emoji.” I started adding a bit more complexity, using a few parameters (answer length, number of guesses, timers, etc), I could build out levels that vary the challenge and increase the difficulty as you progressed, similar addictive games to Candy Crush or Grindstone. A timewasting puzzle game, with an evil wizard or something thrown in there for a story line.
Postmortem: Mindgame stalled out when I pulled it down off Codepen projects and started converting it to Vue. Managing parent-child state slowed me down, but I learned a lot about Vue in the process. I would still want to tinker with this, but when looking up pictures of the original game, I realized the ideas I had weren’t too different from Mastermind for the Pocket PC.
Project 3: Tally
Started on December 7, 2019, Tally is a micro-spreadsheet app. It was inspired by helping my wife tally up contributions she was collecting for a group gift. She was using a mix of paper notes and her iOS Notes app. I thought it’d be an improvement to have a little spreadsheet app to help manage situations like that.
Postmortem: This is a fun idea and probably has the most potential of the whole lot, I did see some market validation, but there’s almost no go-to-market strategy here. People may install a little utility app like this, it would be somewhat helpful, but then they’ll forget all about it. Out of sight, out of mind is a terrible market position for an app. It’s extremely helpful, but so situational it ends up a bit impractical. It would be better as a feature inside of a notetaking app. I tried that very thing inside Notion, but it wasn’t great on mobile, so maybe there’s still something to this idea.
Project 4: Budget Blocks (aka “Billfold”)
Also started on December 7, 2019, Budget Blocks (later renamed “Billfold”), is a graphical budgeting app. Over the years I’ve realized I’m an extremely visual person and most budgeting apps are glorified spreadsheets that don’t speak to me or map to how I see inflows and outflows of money. For a long time I’ve wanted a way to visualize my money like Post-It®️ notes on a table, each square correlating to a bill denomination that fits whatever I’m budgeting. Seeing the 10,000ft view of my finances lets me visually weigh the value of each expense. I could even create one-off budgets for Christmas gifts or how I want to spend some birthday cash.
Postmortem: Budget Blocks has two major problems.
- People don’t budget like this. Most people want to see historical transactions from their bank account and balance it like a checkbook in something like YNAB. So one immediate challenge is evangelizing why this is a good way to visualize your income.
- The “block” metaphor is weak. I changed the name to “Billfold” because bills are already an abstraction for your money that everyone understands, but it still takes some explaining.
I think that’s two strikes against it. Even in my playtests, I started getting the idea that it was an uphill battle to convince people it was useful. Ultimately, I think this is a tool that’s very specific for me and how I think about money. That doesn’t pivot into a billion dollar acquisition, but at least it helps me.
Some final thoughts on prototypes
I really liked all of these ideas and it’s a difficult choice to not mature these into full-featured applications, but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s okay if prototypes go nowhere. By their nature, prototypes aren’t something you should be heavily invested in. For every 10 protypes I make, there’s probably one good idea I should explore further. For every 100 prototypes, there’s maybe one success story.
Letting go at this now is a lot better too. I don’t have servers costing me $5/month. I don’t have users. I don’t have accounts. I don’t have recurring billing and taxes. Sometimes the sole purpose of a prototype is to scratch and itch, explore an idea, and that’s it; that’s as far as it needs to go. These prototypes, humble and incomplete as they are, answered some critical questions for me:
- Is this a good idea?
- Is this idea worth pursuing?
- What’s the level of effort required to pursue this idea further?
That’s what I like about prototypes. They soothe a curiosity, reflect your ideas back, and inform the process ahead. The artifact still exists if I want to cycle back to the idea, but the prototypes are equally happy to part ways and say goodbye.