Evaluating Side-Project Ideas

Part ~2b of documenting my journey to start an independent side-project. See previous posts:

Over my cross-country flight at the beginning of lockdowns, I created an iPhone note which evolved to a Google Doc and then to a Notion table to brain dump (or brainstorm) any and all ideas that popped into my mind. The first wave of ideas were inspired while listening to The Lean Startup audiobook on my flight. More recently, I've been driven by Y Combinator's video on How to Evaluate Startup Ideas.  Both are 100% worth the time, and each helped me develop a  framework for evaluating my own ideas, which I'll get to later. But first, a few concepts for the idea stage stuck with me:

  • From The Lean Startup: Your idea can be simplified as a hypothesis to test. You don't need a fully-formed solution to start. Find something to test, and iterate from there. But, is also important to keep your tests focused. If you try to test too many assumptions at once, you may not actually learn what works and what doesn't.
  • From How to Evaluate Startup Ideas: Start with the problem, not the solution. Good questions to ask: How important is the problem? Is it a growing problem? Do you have a competitive advantage, or are uniquely qualified to solve it?

Free promotion - I thought the Y Combinator How to Evaluate Startup Ideas video was awesome, especially for a beginner like me:

My Working Framework

Interest and Feasibility

From these two resources, I decided that I needed to set up some taxonomy to structure how I tracked my ideas and problems (motivating the switch from Google Docs to Notion). I was starting from a list of 15 or so random stream of consciousness ideas and notes, and I'd have to remind myself each time "which ones to I actually like?" or "what can I easily test?"

So, my first taxonomy system was fairly simple:

  • Name: How am I describing this idea in < 5 words ( so I can find it easily among my list). I kept my more detailed idea notes within each entry, as you'll see by the page icons below.
  • My Interest: Each idea I wrote down seemed like a game changer at the time, but now that I'm re-evaluating, am I actually excited or interested in it? I've gone back and changed my interest level on a few ideas over time, I think that this is a healthy practice. Inputs were controlled to "Minimal," "Low," "Medium," "High," "Maximum."
  • Rating Reason: In text, why did I rate something the way that I did? This served as a reminder to myself in case I forget, or re-discover the idea sometime in the future.
  • MVP Possible?: Could I figure out a way to build a working MVP (Minimum Viable Product - a bare-bones version of the product)? Or do I have enough of an idea to start building it? As I've learned more about no-code tools, and the proliferation of landing page waitlists, most MVPs are "possible." So, this evolved to be more of a reflection of  if I felt that the idea was ready to start working on or not. Inputs were controlled to "Yes," "No," "idk."
How my first pass at taxonomy looks in practice. Let me know if any of these look interesting.

This step worked to filter out the ideas that I already saw a few holes in, and the ones that I didn't actually like regardless of how good they once seemed. You can see that some of the lessons about differentiation already had some impact in my reasoning, although this was not the intention.

Idea Upside

I created a new filtered view for the ideas which I rated either High or Maximum interest, and where an MVP was potentially possible. From there, I created my own rating system, which was was heavily inspired by the Y Combinator video. Not every idea needs to be venture scale, but the thought of "going big" gets me excited, so I kept pretty close to an investor framework.

I judged each idea on a 1 - 10 scale within the following factors:

  • Market: How big is the opportunity? Does it have a general consumer purpose (10)? Is it a niche subset of people (1-3)? Is it a select group of enterprises (5-8)?
  • Problem: How important would it be to solve this problem? Do people have this problem frequently (10)? Is it a "nice to have" (1-5)?
  • Growth: Is the market or the opportunity growing, or is it where the future is going (10)? Is it shrinking (1)? Is it not changing (5)?
  • Solution: How well do I think my idea will solve the problem? Will it revolutionize industries (10)? Or comparable to what exists today (1-3).
  • Differentiation: What is unique about my solution to the problem? Is it a position of strength or a moat (10)? Or could it be easily copied and replaced (1)?

These ratings should reflect how you feel about the idea, not what the world is telling you. If you or I think that we have a unique insight that everyone else is missing, this is where we could reflect that.

Of course, these ratings are all completely subjective. But, it did force me to actually think through the landscape and the opportunity. Maybe more important, when I felt that I was completely guessing, I took it as a sign that I needed to do some research.

To compare ideas, I created a Score, which just summed up all of the 1 - 10 ratings (very scientific). This was intended to directionally show which ideas stood out vs others. I would never expect to prioritize one idea over another because one was a 34 and other was a 32, but it would helpful to distinguish between a 7 idea and a 50 idea.

My scoring structure. Some of the ratings are illustrative.

And.... Repeat

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm still working and waiting to find an idea that I have conviction about. Right now, I'm thinking deeper through two of the ideas in the screenshots above, trying to gain some clarity as to which (if any) I want to start working on.

I see my ideas log (which I need to rename to a problem log) as a living document. I believe that tracking my ideas and interest levels, and attempting to keep a structured scoring system (and iterating upon it) will help me cut through the noise and continue to make a little bit of progress every day.