The By-Products Are Everywhere

I’ve always loved the idea of selling your by-products: When you’re making something  software, a house, french fries  you’re also making something else. You might be making a reusable framework you could sell to others. You might produce scraps that can be processed into other material. You might create the unshapely ends of a potato that can be packaged into the arguably-more-tasty tater tot.

Creating other usable by-products while you’re working on the main product makes your time investment that much more valuable. It adds incentive to keep going when motivation is waning.

But sometimes, the sellable by-products just aren’t in the cards. The next software I help develop likely won’t emerge with some extractable, revolutionary new web framework. The next blog post I write might not lead to a book deal. How do you fight the urge to quit an uphill battle when there aren’t enough potential by-products to be had?

You find them. They are there  nestled behind corners you thought were empty.

Over time, I’ve learned that by-products are found beyond just making money. Here are two quick stories — proof that there’s by-products to be found everywhere.

The Developer’s Code

When I originally began writing The Developer’s Code, a by-product of four years of posts on this very blog, I set my expectations high. Find a publisher. Publish the book. Make some money. Build a personal brand. Those would be the by-products from four years of periodic inspiration.

I spent the summer curating what I had written, organizing over a hundred posts into a handful of general categories like Motivation, Productivity, Automation, and Complexity. I added a handful of extra chapters too. By late October, I had over 25,000 words in-hand, ready to ship to any awaiting publisher.

And so began the pitches. I contacted Apress. Denied. New Riders? Nope. No Starch Press? It won’t sell. O’Reilly was the only publisher that seemed partially intrigued, but after a month of back and forth, they fizzled too. Andy Oram, my contact at O’Reilly, suggested I publish the book online, for free.  Hmm, free didn’t seem like a great way to sell a by-product. But I went ahead anyways.

So, I devoted another few weeks to try something new: Publish a book completely free, online, for anyone. It gave me a chance to visually design again – something I rarely find the opportunity to do these days – and combine some simple jQuery with my own penchant for creativity.  I ultimately came up with something I’m quite proud of  a single page site with an in-page bookmark feature. I started a Twitter account and began tweeting the link around.

Here is that by-product.

I had fun building it. Fun is a great by-product.

Though, when I was finished, something felt missing. Lots of text on a page felt drab. That’s when I contacted Jason Cohen, the founder of WPEngine and Smart Bear Software. I’d always liked the cartoons he used in his blog posts and wanted to know more. He referred me to Mark Anderson of Andertoons, a cartoonist who’s style of artwork and humor seemed perfect to lighten up my book. I scattered a few dozen of his cartoons over my book, and it suddenly came to life.

Despite the “failure” of not having a published book just yet  the original by-product I wanted to create  I still had created other by-products from my labors:

  • I experienced the exercise of curating years of writing into a cohesive piece. If you’re an obsessively organized person, you might know how euphoric that feels.
  • I built a web page I was truly proud of. It scratched the design itch that had gone unattended to for years.
  • I started to self-market.
  • I made connections with a cartoonist.

Fast-forward a few months later, and the story gets rosier.  I managed to hit the front page of Reddit’s technology section one morning in June.  I got 12,000 hits that day and 32,000 for the month.  I then sent the site to The Pragmatic Bookshelf, with no expectations.  Andy Hunt replied a day later:

Would you consider having us publish it through the Pragmatic Bookshelf?  – /\ndy

Half a year later, the book is out in five different languages, with a publisher that truly is the perfect fit.  I even brought Mark’s cartoons over and paid him for it.

But, had the story ended prior to Reddit and prior to a book deal with PragProg, I still would’ve considered the time spent worth it.  I learned a ton and had something to show for it.  The by-products were already there.

Kin (Our new product)

For the past six months, a portion of We Are Mammoth has been devoted to building our next product, Kin. Kin is an HR management tool.  It, too, is a by-product of our experiences with hiring and onboarding a team.  And, as the team continues to get Kin to launch, other by-products are already showing.

In six months, here’s what we’ve created from Kin:

  • Through The Starter League, we’ve created The Founder Forge, a workshop with the same goals in mind as Kin.  I’ll be developing a talk on hiring and building a development team that I hope to reprise elsewhere – another by-product of Kin.
  • For nearly everyone on the team, this is their first experience building a product from scratch.  What’s worked? What hasn’t?  What’s important? What’s not? What processes have morphed since they began developing in November? The list is extensive.
  • We’re using Backbone.js, the .NET Web API, and other technologies we wouldn’t have been able to integrate elsewhere.  There’s no greater by-product than learning new stuff.
  • We’ve built relationships with other small businesses around Chicago, are in the middle of producing a series of videos to highlight their stories, and have talked to numerous companies worldwide through our support forum.

The by-products of Kin are already showing up even before the first penny.  And, in the seemingly endless days of pre-launch development, those are the things we can hold onto to get to the finish.

Want to read more by Ka Wai Cheung? Ka Wai’s new book on the modern-day programmer, The Developer’s Code, is available in eBook and print. You can follow him on Twitter @developerscode.