There is an infinite stream of problems to solve. However, finding one that’s worth working on is another matter entirely. Nothing comes for free, so we have to pick and choose what we focus on. Here’s some of the questions that I’ve asked during the course of my investigation.
The Ultimate Question: Should I Build This?
Q: Is this particular project worth my investment in time, effort, and money?
“Ultimate” has two connotations: last and most important. This question fits both of those; not only does it override everything else, but it’s only answerable after you resolve all of the underlying questions. However, it’s easy to lose sight of goals, so it needs to be asked first. This is where we can apply a fringe benefit of being a programmer: we’ll push it onto the stack and come back with an answer later. Asking this first gets us started though: it forces us to ask “How do we answer this particular question?”.
Q: What do I get by working on this project?
Here’s my answers thusfar:
- Potential for profit. At first glance, this product looks like it should be able to make some money. More investigation needed here.
- Potential for huge profit. Actually, the chances of striking it rich selling to small bakeries seems pretty small. But stranger things have happened. This is a very minor (i.e.: unlikely) benefit but it’s nonzero.
- Potential for profit without spending lots of ongoing time. Everyone is limited in the amount of time they can spend on any given task. When you are directly converting time into money (which I do as a consultant) there’s a hard upper limit to the amount of money you can earn; all of your growth must come from increasing your per-hour rate, and eventually that will max out. Selling a product like this can circumvent that limit; the amount of money earned relates to the number of people who buy your product. This is potentially a much deeper pool than time. (Fun facts: there’s roughly 94,000 working hours in a lifetime, but 7 billion people on the planet right now.) See also: revenue per employee.
- Opportunity to learn new technologies. I can read all I want, but to actually know something I have to do something with it. Real-world projects give me the chance to solve real-world problems and get practical experience.
- Practice at building a business. Same as above, but outside of the technical realm.
- Helping a friend. Never a bad thing.
- Exposure to a new industry. New stuff to learn. New people to meet. New opportunities. One more basket in which to put eggs.
- Credibility and Reputation. I can say “I did this.” It’s action, and not just talk.
- Exposure. It’s good stuff to write about, and may get some good attention.
- Enjoyment. Building new stuff is fun. Having the results is fun. Making decisions is fun.
Q: What do I give by working on this project?
- Time. This will necessarily take away from other things I could be doing. Here’s a few: spending time with wife, family & friends, hobbies (photography, gaming, hiking), exercise.
- Opportunity Cost. Pretty much the same as “time”, but with a money angle to it. The time I spend on this project means that I’m not working on other projects I have on the backburner. The question becomes: which project has more benefits/profit potential? I think that this one is reasonably good.
- Ability to start a new project. Very similar to “opportunity cost” but specifically focused on an unknown future project that has a greater net reward. I don’t like starting projects that I don’t finish (though that happens far too often). This is more applicable to this project since it involves a friend.
- Effort. Building stuff often drains my personal energy, leaving less for other stuff. (See “Time”; it’s very closely related.)
- Money. This project should be pretty cheap in terms of actual cash outlay, but there may be some costs ahead of revenue. Right now I see graphic design and some hosting setup costs.
- Credibility and Reputation. There’s a downside here too. I’m not too worried about the fallout from the business failing, but there is potential for bad decisions and actions to negatively impact me.
A lot of this is incalculable, and thus hard to analyze. However, the costs seem to be quite manageable. Time is the biggest one, but it has to be spent somehow, and I think that investing it in something with a payout potential is worthwhile. There are some guaranteed intangible benefits.
As usual, the deciding factor is profitability, which is the next thing I’ll look at.