5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully build side projects

By Tomer Dicturel

Over the last month, I’ve been writing several articles on Medium on how things go wrong in software development. This is informational and all, but I’d also like to provide content to the community that centers more around how to do things the right way; so, I decided to create a series where I’ll be interviewing entrepreneurs, creators, and makers! I’ll try to post at least a few of these each week, so stay tuned.

For our first interview, we’ll be sitting down with Richard Zimerman of Z Creative Labs, who launched Blobmaker last week, a useful tool for designers that reached the pinnacle of success as the #2 Product of the Week on Product Hunt.

Tomer: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Tell me a little bit about yourself and your company?

Hi and thank you for the questions. My name is Richard Zimerman and I am a co-founder of z creative labs. We use data-driven design and storytelling to create meaningful web products, and are working towards making data visualisation, particularly mapping, a more integral part of communication tools. We work primarily with NGOs, think tanks, and academia.

My personal journey into design and data visualisation started at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), where I was involved in building the Federation-Wide Databank and Reporting System data portal. Later on I worked on the website for the Millions Saved project by the Centre for Global Development and also the development of mapping tools focused on estimating population movement in the wake of the Nepal Earthquake in 2015.

Millions Saved is a collection of success stories in global health — remarkable cases in which large-scale efforts to improve health in developing countries have succeeded.

Currently z creative labs is involved with work on UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and visualising the progress of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We have also been more product focused recently, starting in open source, where we created a mapping library for ReactJS. Of course we also have a whimsical side, hence Blobmaker, a useful albeit somewhat quirky tool for designers and developers. There’s much more in the pipeline for 2019 so keep an eye out ;-)

Make organic SVG shapes for your next design.

Tomer: What makes your business unique? Can you share a success story?

Z creative lab is a technical team with a humanities background. I think this helps us tackle each project in a unique, holistic way. Even though our work is often data-centric, we prioritise design and UX to bring storytelling into the foreground.

In terms of success stories, I am proud of what we achieved with react-simple-maps so far. The library has currently about 28,000 downloads per month and is used across a number of interesting projects such as Climate Watch and Trase, journalism, as well as government projects.

react-simple-maps is a library of React components to make SVG maps using d3-geo and topojson.

Tomer: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

Blobmaker was a rather funny experience for us. We are usually caught up in very serious work, so over the holidays, we wanted to do something lighter that would at the same time still be useful to designers and developers. We were very happy with the upvotes and wonderful feedback from the community. At the same time, we seem to have hit a nerve with some users. It was rather interesting to see that certain people have very strong opinions on blobs and whether they deserve their own app.

One of the most interesting experiences so far has been working with people we have never met in real life on GitHub. Particularly with react-simple-maps, where we received lots of great contributions and feedback from people who use it in their awesome projects on a daily basis. It’s wonderful to be part of this community.

Tomer: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I Started to build side projects” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Anything can be controversial. No matter what you do, there will always be someone who will not like it. What seems useful to you can be silly to someone else and vice versa. This does not mean a product is not good, just that it’s not relevant to everyone.

2. The first iteration should not be the last one. With Blobmaker we have a number of ideas on how to improve it and make it more interesting. The same thing applies to react-simple-maps. When we started, the first iteration did not get any traction. Only when we completely reworked the API to be more modular it became a popular mapping library.

3. Implementation is the best inspiration. Once you implement an idea you get 10 more. This is something that can’t be repeated enough. Solving specific problems can expose other areas where tools are not sufficiently streamlined or where certain processes take too long. This, in turn, can spark new projects that might even be more useful or successful than your initial idea.

4. Publish early and often. Getting community feedback can be a great way to improve your product. People have some great ideas, and you might hear from users who are not like you and who might find use cases for your product that you didn’t think about. By publishing often you get over the fear of releasing new things. Deployment phobia is real, especially for perfectionists.

5. Build for the market you know. Products like Blobmaker emerge out of a real need for a certain user group. It was built to tackle one specific problem, the creation of organic shapes for design. Since we are also part of the user group, we can identify specific design problems that we would perhaps not be aware of otherwise.

Tomer: As someone that has his own share of software development success and failure that always wished I got great advise if given the opportunity Is there a person in the world, whom you would love to have advised you in this journey? and why? He or she might see this. :-)

You can never get enough advice and perspectives. There are so many people I admire for their work and whose advice would be invaluable.

Since a lot of my work focuses on data visualisation, I admire the work of Shirley Wu. Her bold design aesthetic and desire to push online data visualisation into a new direction has been very inspiring. In terms of product development and entrepreneurship, I really admire the work of Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius (Mailchimp). Their bootstrapped approach and general business thinking is something I look up to.