What to work on?

I face a dilemma, and I believe it’s a common one. Where should I spend my side project time?

We all have ideas and passions. We all want financial stability and/or independence. But we have limited free time for side projects. So how do you decide where that limited time goes?

For the last couple of years, life was dominated by recovering from amputation and moving our family of four to a new state while building a new home. Side projects weren’t really an option. I also had a minor update to Starting & Sustaining to finish, but it evolved from an update to almost an entirely new book and set of resources. So there wasn’t any free space to ponder choices about side projects.

Now that life is a little more predictable and Starting & Sustaining is complete, there’s a dillema. After choosing an elective amputation, you’d think any other less life-changing choices would be easy. They’re not.

Lately, most of my side project time has gone into researching non-profits and content management for what will become Adaptable.org with the goal of helping other amputees become more active. It’s been over three years since I wrote code full-time, and a lot has changed on that front as well. So there’s been a lot of learning going on.

Then there’s the elephant in the room.

As far as effort goes, the second edition of Starting & Sustaining fell short of my hopes for it. It recently covered its fixed costs. Editing, audio production software and equipment, podcast transcriptions, and various other costs all totaled about $7,000, and that’s how much revenue it’s brought in. But the 200-300 hours in labor above and beyond those fixed costs yield a pretty crummy hourly rate of return on that effort. Is it a failure to move on from or a project that just needs a little more love? Let’s break it down.

The first edition sold around 700 copies and made about $60,000. The second edition is approaching 200 copies and $7,000 in revenue. The revenue isn’t critically important. With lower pricing and selling the book individually, I expected lower revenue. It was more important to me to make it more accessible and available to more people this time around. So while I expected less revenue, I didn’t expect it to sell so few copies.

In hindsight, had I known the second edition would barely cover its costs, I likely would have dropped it to focus entirely on Adaptable—not because Starting & Sustaining wasn’t important, but simply because sometimes you have to make a choice. Once Adaptable was on the radar and the update to Starting & Sustaining was wrapping up, my vision was for the revenue from Starting & Sustaining to be the springboard for Adaptable. With it barely covering costs, if you add in the hours spent on it, I believe directing that effort towards Adaptable would have been a better use of time. With only 200 copies sold, I feel like it still has some potential energy in there.

Now, this isn’t a sob story. It’s just context. We all face decisions around sunk costs and how to apply our time. So now, the question is whether I made mistakes and can breathe some new life into Starting & Sustaining for Adaptable’s sake or whether that ship has sailed and I need to move on to work direclty on Adaptable now.

If Adaptable was going to be a for-profit business, it wouldn’t really be scary, and the decision would be easier. But, as a non-profit, it’s not easy to justify financially. Non-profits aren’t inherently self-sustaining. We can spend our own money to get it off the ground, but there’s a point after which, we won’t reasonably be able to support it out of our own finances. With a business, you can strategically justify putting more money in, but with a non-profit, that changes. That requires a leap of faith.

I’ve obsessively researched options for keeping operating costs low and finding ways to build it with incredibly low overhead, but at some point, software requires money. Hosting. Continuous integration. Email. Bandwidth. If we’re not cautious, we could be in a tough spot in the future no matter how low our operating costs.

That’s where Starting & Sustaining came in. It was going to be the financial bridge to ensure that we had a few years of semi-steady side income to help cover Adaptable’s costs until it became strong enough to justify outside financial support. As it stands, that’s not the case, and we have a choice. With the low revenue from Starting & Sustaining, I’ve significantly scaled back my vision for the initial version in order to ensure it’s financially viable. Although, I worry then that it won’t be as compelling to build a supportive audience around.

It feels like Starting & Sustaining isn’t a content failure. It’s simply a marketing and awareness failure. It could be that the optimist in me gave so much of the content away for free that few people felt like paying for it. Or, maybe it’s the fact that since it’s a second edition, people have dismissed it as being redundant. Or maybe there’s simply too many books and blog posts about SaaS and startups these days that folks simply aren’t looking for any more advice. Or, more likely, it’s a little of each.

Should I consider all of the effort in the second edition a sunk cost, or are there correctable mistakes I could fix? When I have heard from the people who have read it, they have nothing but great things to say. So there’s something there. Is it worth further investment if it can help Adaptable’s future?

As it stands, I’ve chosen to work on improving the Starting & Sustaining site and resources. That goal was always to help people build and launch a recurring revenue business because it helped me so much, and even if it doesn’t make a single additional sale, making the information more available and accessible is a good step in that direction.

Starting & Sustaining needs a little love, and it deserves a little more focused effort to see it through. Adaptable can wait a little longer if it gives it a chance of a stronger future. Theres some more preparatory work for it anyhow. It’s emotionally difficult to not dive into Adaptable right away, but I have to see Starting & Sustaining through. Flitting from side project to side project is rarely an effective approach. Besides, I’ve got a lot of technology to catch up on, and it’s the perfect place to ramp back up.