2021, a year in review

2021, a year in review

(Photo by travis blessing from Pexels)

This post was inspired by another one shared by @Rinas.

Tweet about postmortem for 2021

This has certainly been a year. A hell of a lot happened. Me and my wife moved to a new city, got covid19(maybe twice), and I changed jobs. I also did more side-projects than any single year before, which is good. 👍

I thought it would be a good exercise to reflect on what happened, what I learned and what I could do differently going forward.

Side Projects

This year I tried to focus on validating ideas in order to know if I should continue developing them, or put them out to pasture. I simply didn't want to put weeks of early morning work into stuff no one would care about anymore.

Now this begs the question - what did said "validating" consist of, and was it successful?

For me, validating consisted of a more-or-less 4-step process, in the following order;

  • pick ideas based on what people talk/ask/complain about
  • check Google Keyword Planner if there were more than 1000 searches for keywords related to the idea
  • tweeting about the subject and monitoring the response
  • scraping together some sort of landing page or light MVP
  • only continuing if more than 20 people actually responded, signed up or reached out to me about what I was up to

(As a note, I'm not sure tweeting to validate is useful if you have a small following like me, the sample size is just not there, but it cost me nothing to at least try. 🤷‍♂️)

Let's have a look at the the projects I worked on this year.

WeightHackers Diet Program

When the pandemic hit in 2020, I finally got my shit together and figured out how to predictably lose weight. This, to me at least, was kinda a big deal. I thought that, hey, other people surely would want to this too, since most seemed to have GAINED weight during the lockdowns.

So I wrote a blogpost about it, shared it on HackerNews and whadyaknow, it actually got a response! I considered, "Hmm, maybe there's an info product here", but didn't act on it immediately.

Then, in early 2021, I finally got to work, fleshed it out into a rough book outline, and formalised the methodology into a gradual program that should help most people lose quite a few pounds relatively painlessly. And then I threw together a landing page for my WeightHackers program.

I chose to try a long-form sales letter approach, since I wanted to see if I understood the pain-points correctly and hoping I would get better feedback based on my written assumptions.

I shared the landing page on Twitter and Reddit, and hoped for the best. But, crickets. Nothing. No signups, barely any comments. After two weeks of silence I heard the tiny, sad violins playing and realised that, clearly, this was not going anywhere.

Reasons for failure

I think there are a couple of reasons why this failed

  • not enough social proof - weight-loss products need lots of photos, videos and testimonials as proof. While I did lose a lot of weight myself, I did not have a shredded 6-pack and roided-up shoulders. And in today's world, those are like entry requirements
  • Not shared on enough(and the right) distribution channels. A single long-form sales page shared to Twitter won't cut it. This is a job for Insta and TikTok
  • Weight-loss is a highly competitive and saturated market, filled with really fit & savvy 20-year-olds. I don't fit this mold.

I think this idea might still have potential, but it would take an incredible amount of work, persistence, luck and time to get ahead.

I would definitely need to cut down to a 6-pack and maintain it permanently and really get going with sharing the selfies.

Then I would also need to get some clients for more photos and social proof, and hussle daily(hourly?) on Insta, TikTok and Twitter. This would be a full-time endeavour, and best case, I would come out as the middle-aged guy trying to be a fitness influencer.

Nah. I simply don't have enough time, audience or stamina to fight it out in this super crowded market.

StockMonitor

The next project I tried was StockMonitor, a bot that monitors the S&P 500 for undervalued stocks.

At the time, I saw a few posts on HN and Reddit about people wondering which stocks to invest in, and when. And I had the same problem too. I always felt that I didn't have time to sit and watch the market for the best time to buy which companies.

So I conjured up a little NodeJS bot that would send me alerts when there were good opportunities to buy. Every 3 months it would automatically look for and rank companies based on my preferred fundamental analysis criteria, and then calculate an estimated ideal market value for each, with a customised formula based on the Benjamin Graham formula.

It would watch the live market prices like a hawk twice a day, and let me know if any bargains were a-foot.

I thought I would scratch my own itch and dog-food this little MVP while sharing the progress. At the very least, it would be useful to me, and best case scenario, other people would be interested too.

And some did, in fact, seem to like the idea. A couple of them expressed interest in it and I received a couple of DMs from people asking if they could use it too. Good sign!

Reasons for failure

Ah, but one particular concerned DM warned me that this thing could be a huge legal liability if I actually made it a product!

You see, I learned just using it myself is all good and well, but once it's an official product that gives stock buying "tips" or "advice" to paying clients, it starts venturing into financial regulation territory. And if it's a global product with paying clients all over the world - well let's just say that I'd need to hand over my banking passwords and future first-born to some really tight-ass lawyers.

That was all a bit heavy for a solo dev to take on. And the demand I saw was not large enough to try and pursue this with VC money or whatever it would take to do this right.

So I noped out of that one and just use it myself now.

Atsh.io

Next up was Atsh.io(short for Advanced Twitter Search Helper). And yes, I did indeed choose the domain name because it sounds like a sneeze. This was just a toy project.

I was inspired to create this tool after seeing a awesome Tweet by @dickiebush

I went out looking for more Twitter search hacks and made a thread of my own

This was all good fun, but it occurred to me that constructing weird-looking query parameters on Twitter might not be everyone's cup of tea. Lots of non-technical people use Twitter too, right? Right.

At the same time I had wanted to try switching up my tech stack. I had wanted to try out NextJS and Vercel and thought that this would be a good opportunity to build something fun.

So I built a page with a more user-friendly UI that would help you do advanced searches on Twitter.(Yes, I know Twitter has a version of this too, but honestly, mine is just a little bit better.)

atsh.io - Powerful adv Twitter search
atsh.io is an adv twitter search tool that helps you find what you need without messing with advanced search operators

I shared it on a view channels(Twitter, Reddit, HN, IH), but again, not much interest.

I really thought more people would have found it useful, looking at the response Dickie got, but guess not. 🤷‍♂️

But, I also wasn't really to phased to make this a revenue generating product, so no sweat.

I don't actually consider Atsh.io a failed product, I gained a lot from it;

  • an awesome new tech-stack going forward
  • Went with Vercel for all future projects for super easy deployments
  • I use Atsh.io myself, quite a lot actually. I find it genuinely useful
  • It consistently gets 40+ visits a month, so at least someone is using it

SoSpace

SoSpace was another tech exploration exercise, not really mean to be a product. I wanted to learn how WebRCT worked, since I was using video calls so much at work.

The idea was to create a sort of virtual coffee shop, where remote workers could cowork with other people in a casual way.

After a few weeks I got it all working with a mixture or NextJS on Vercel and a propriety peer server solution running on DigitalOcean. It came out quite well, a few bugs here and there, sure, but it actually worked as I envisioned it.

I shared it on the Twitters, but once again, no one cared. I think I got 5 visits during the first week, and had a total of 20 visits by the time I shut it down last month. Ah well.

LoglineAI

Then something exciting happened, I finally got access to GTP-3!

I applied for access like a year or so before and had never gotten even a response, so I frankly forgot about it. But there it was - an email saying I now had access. Sweet! Time to build something again!

Now first some background - during that period, I was tinkering with the idea of writing fiction. I love writing. So story telling, world building and things like coming up with compelling dialog was on my mind a lot.

I watched one of the best movies ever made again, Oceans Eleven(2001), and thought, "Damn! That's really some superb story-telling". The acting, editing, directing, dialog - all of it was really A+.

Then I wondered how much of that came from the original screenplay, and how much from the other talent involved? So off I went looking for the script. And so Rik stumbled into the weird world of screenplays and scripts.(And you'd be surprised just how much of the awesomeness in that movie came straight out of the screenplay)

Long story short, I learned a lot of new things, one of which is the concept of a logline. A logline, dear reader, is a one sentence summary of a movies' plot. This is what screenplay writers use to pitch ideas to producers.

It's rather a lot like startups. A logline is like an elevator pitch and the studios are like the VCs.

Loglines are the central premise of the story, condensed into a paragraph or so. Learning about this I thought to myself, "Self, this looks like a good job for AI".

And so the idea of LoglineAI was born. It is an AI-based tool to help screen writers come up with good ideas for screenplays. You would give it a short prompt, and it would dish out a logline for you to get your next hit movie.

I threw the idea of validation before building out for this one, since I realised that it would actually need to be build first, to see if it would work well enough to actually be useful. I also reckoned that writers would want to try it out first, to know if it was something they would like to use.

I spent a day or so training and tweaking the GTP prompt, and then got to work on the front-end of the site. Then, when I had a basic MVP version up, it was time to see what some real writers would think.

I generated a few ideas and shared them on /r/screenwriting, with a link to the site for them to try it out themselves. And they loved it! I got like a 140+ upvotes within a day or two, and most of the comments were, surprisingly for Reddit, very encouraging.

Of all my projects, this one had the best reception I've ever had, and seemed to have at least provided a bit of entertainment for the intended market.

Here's some quotes

The end of human race one seems like a real allegorical horror film. This is very cool! Would probably serve some real inspiration.
That's amazing! That kind of AI could be great fodder for inspiration! Hope you make it public someday. Also I'd love to see that AI using a logline to generate a synopsis!
"Prompt - A movie about a legendary burrito.
Logline - "A young man and his dysfunctional family dine at a small Mexican restaurant during the Christmas holiday." I am here to watch this!
I wish I was joking, but this is better than 90% of the loglines people generate themselves. I guess we all soon will be replaced by the AI monkey writing the next Hamlet. (I mean, Fast and Furious)

But, alas. It was short-lived. The hype blew over quickly and I couldn't figure out how to monetise it. I tried sharing it on other subreddits, and email a couple of screenplay industry blogs to ask if they could have a look and share if they thought it good, but nothing came of it.

I eventually stopped development on it because the demand just was not there, and I figured existing popular screenwriting software would start incorporating AI prompts, like GitHub Copilot anyway.

Remixes of past projects

The next two projects I tinkered with were past projects I had previously abandoned. Honestly, I had run out of ideas, and these two still haunted me from time-to-time.

Peeks

First was Peeks, a SAAS service that combined analytics, customer service chat, and feature requests in one service. For this one I went back to trying to validate first. So I set up a landing page, styled it after advice from Harry's Landing Page Guide, and added an email capture form.

I then slapped it online, and shared it on the usual channels.

And nothing. Definitely no signups and barely any visits. This was not to be. And who am I kidding, was I going to compete with HubSpot and SaleForce here?

With that, I finally gave up on the idea for good. I will hopefully be using the domain name for some other idea in the future.

Blockchain Dev Jobs

Next I decided to try and revive my old job board from 2016. It had consistent traffic, albeit mostly from Russia, but I figured with the web3 hype it might go a bit better this time round.

I updated the design, and made some improvements to SEO and loading speed. I shared it on Twitter and Reddit, but again there just was not much traction. I added a companies section, and tweeted that out too but nothing. I honestly don't know what to do with this one any more.

I have competitors with similar boards who almost instantly got paid listings the moment they launched and I can barely get anyone to just visit the site. 😅😞

The final nail in the coffin was when I did some research to find where potential crypto job hunters hang out, and realised that most web3 devs find jobs on Discord servers these days, not job boards.

So I'm putting this one on ice again as well. I'm no Sisyphus.

Guided Twitter Growth Tool

This one was my latest idea. It started off a bit more vague, where I started wondering about how cool it would be to combine the idea of a course with an onboarding walkthrough.

I was about to tweet about it, and then saw someone tweeting about a Twitter Audience Growth course on top of my feed. Right then and there my little light-bulb moment flickered into existence and I started sketching out the basis of a browser-plugin based guided Twitter course.

The idea was that not only would you be learning the theory of how to grow your Twitter following, you would actually take action on your real account, while learning as you go along. This seemed pretty nifty, and I was pretty excited.

A couple of mornings later, however, while researching how exactly I would go about executing on this, it dawned on me that everyone and their dog is currently busy building Twitter Growth courses. This was clearly going to be a crowded market pretty soon. And while my take on it might have been unique, I simply didn't have the following to back up my product and compete with the guys getting into that pool.

So it's back to the drawing board. I still think this idea might have some legs, just maybe not with regards to Twitter, or in the form of an audience growth tool.

Conclusion

I have done a lot of side-projects this year, which is amazing. It was one of my main goals when this year started. I also upgraded and optimised my tech stack, which enabled me to execute ideas much faster.

But I made absolutely no revenue or gotten lasting traction with any of my projects.

I'm not sure how to improve on that, except for just continuing to try new things. I just cannot seem to spot or execute on any opportunities that would allow me to work on my stuff full-time. It's very disheartening.

I'm honestly starting to feel a bit dejected here. I've been trying to get stuff off the ground for a few years now and just haven't had any success. I know one shouldn't compare yourself to others, but quite a few people I follow seem to have gotten traction(and revenue) with their first or second try! How!? 😅

I'm getting older and life is getting more complicated and stressful as time goes on. With each passing year I have less free time to work on stuff and a lot more things to worry about.

Sometimes it feels like that, at this rate, I might never have a successful project of my own. But, what else am I going to do, I guess. I still like building stuff. I still like trying. I show up.

It's been a long year. Hell, a long December. And maybe next year will be better than the last.

Thanks for reading.

You can follow me on Twitter @Riknieu

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