Coding for Pleasure: Developing Killer Spare-Time Apps

Loose notes from the SXSW 2010 session Coding for Pleasure: Developing Killer Spare-Time Apps, hosted by :

Gina Trapani of Lifehacker and now author of Google Wave book. Also made BetterGmail and ThinkTank;
Matt Haughey – Fuelly – public social miles per gallon site, also creator of MetaFilter (now a 4-employee corporation); Adam Pash – (playlist/music sharing site). Also Belvedere and Texter.

What kinds of apps can you build in your spare time?

Things will atrophy. Don’t be afraid to kill things that don’t work.

What does Fuelly get for Matt? “I just made the app I wanted to exist.” Now has 25,000 users.

“Scratching your own itch” is the most common motivation.

The level/quality of tools out there with minimal effort is amazing. Frameworks and APIs make so much of this stuff easier.

Don’t start with the idea that you will be able to sell it or make a lot of money. Metafilter took six years to make money. There’s a long slog where nothing happens. You have to ride it out. If your motivation is money, you won’t be making any during the slog period. If you’re using your own app every day, you’ll be motivated to keep making it better.

The whitehouse is now going to use Gina’s ThinkTank app to solicit public opinion.

The internet is so ready to give you an answer. When you’re doing this stuff outside of work, the skills you learn make you better at work. And vice versa (my experience backs this up – tremendous overlap).

But everything takes longer than you think it will. There are no shortcuts and if your life isn’t structured to allow that investment you’re going to have problems.

The easiest thing to give up is TV. Two hours of veg time daily can be recaptured. Make a deadline for yourself out in the future. “I’m going to have this finished in a year.”

Don’t reinvent the wheel. use frameworks. Copy/paste snippets of code from various places. Be an efficient re-user. There are plugins for everything.

You can learn enough of any language in six weeks to get a good start on our idea, no matter what it is.

Big props from Matt Haughey on the PSD2HTML service – 24 hour turnaround for top-notch CSS/HTML for $100.

Trapani: I never hire anyone but I barter. My build skills for your design skills. If you’re a designer, make friends with a developer, and vice versa. Work on those synergies.

Github is a social network for programmers. “There’s nothing better than waking up to a pull request from someone who checked out your code and contributed changes back in.”

Matt’s had bad experiences with open sourcing stuff. But then again he’s hobbled by using a non-OSS lanuage (ColdFusion). When he opened it up suddenly the world wanted to turn his app into something he never envisioned. Suddenly there were fights on the mailing lists, big management headaches. Wished he had kept the source to himself. Open source is a management problem. You get free contributions but you have to deal with all the people who write crap code or who see things very differently than you envision. On the other hand there’s also no guarantee that anyone will care. You’re going to need 10,000 users before you get 50 programmers, and out of those only one or two will actually be good programmers.

What about liability and legal? Pash wrote an MP3 sharing service and really opened himself up. Cost about $800 to become an LLC, which can insulate you personally from damages accrued to your company.

How do you get users? You could spend six months and end up with 5 users. Integrate with your communications. Make badges. Use social networks. If you’re on Flickr, Vimeo, join groups, create groups.

No blogger wants to hear from a PR person. They want to hear from the developers (that’s you).

Recommended : Screencasts that let you look over the shoulder of an expert.

One of the reasons why these self-built itch-scratching apps rock so hard is because there’s no design by committee – they benefit from a single unified vision. They’re consistent.

In this territory, even being able to cover hosting costs is dreaming big.

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