Should you build it if nobody comes?

Published September 6, 2013

Not long ago I received an E-mail from an energetic and talented developer who was tackling an ambitious software project. He asked if I had any advice to pass along.

It all came flooding back. The daydreams. Springing out of bed in the dead of night because an idea can't wait. Months of painstaking work, coaxing that baby from rolling to wobbling to walking on its own. All of this for an eager audience. Except...

The cycle after the cycle

I must have drafted a half-dozen responses to his mail. I admired his enthusiasm and understood where his head was. But I also knew what likely awaited him after the arduous development cycle: another cycle of turbulence, a series of clashes between expectations and unfortunate realities.

Where did it all go wrong?

This is a dangerous question we ask ourselves as developers — "dangerous" because it carries the assumption that we did something wrong. It's entirely possible that what you've crafted is quite good, maybe even brilliant. The issue may have nothing to do with the quality of your work, rather your criteria for success.

So how does a developer accurately gauge the success of a solo project? I wish I had a concrete answer to that. Instead I can offer a few tips on how not to gauge it:

Tip #1:
Beware the social platform sirens

Ah, but they lure us in with the promise of mass consumption and acceptance. We seldom consider their ability to trample our spirits. It's possible that you'll spend months on a project, share it on Facebook with the vigor and excitement of a dog with a chew toy, and then watch the "Like" count soar to... 3. One of those came from your mother, another from a page you made to promote your project, and the other from an errant tap on a cell phone.

It's the same chilling effect you get from photos of abandoned amusement parks. You strain to imagine giggles of delight and unbridled excitement, and you struggle to accept what's staring you right in the face.

Meanwhile, your friend's profound status of "I like ravioli!" earns 23 likes and 16 comments. Popularity and substance are two different things, and we'll just have to live with that.

Tip #2:
The apathy isn't personal (it might not even be apathy)

You're already aware of this but it helps to be reminded. Most people have no concept of what it takes to pull off what you've accomplished. They don't realize you single-handedly built something that'd rival the efforts of an entire team. You can't, and won't, make them genuinely care.

Apps that set the world on fire generally fall under two categories: those that help users promote themselves, and those that require little thought. If your project requires a mental investment greater than that of Candy Crush Saga, here's the harsh reality: you're gonna end up with a lot of leftovers at your launch party.

Tip #3:
Think twice before soliciting feedback from your peers

In the film Midnight In Paris, aspiring writer Gil asks Ernest Hemingway to read his novel and offer an opinion.

HEMINGWAY: My opinion is I hate it.
GIL: You do? But you haven't even read it.
HEMINGWAY: If it's bad I'll hate it because I hate bad writing and if it's good I'll be envious and hate it all the more. You don't want the opinion of another writer. Writers are competitive.

Don't overlook the profundity of this exchange. It applies to developers, too.

Tip #4:
Like it or not, you're an artist

If you pour your heart and soul into solo projects because you enjoy the creative challenge, you're an artist. If you do it because you're attempting to solve a problem, you're probably an artist-engineer hybrid. If you do it strictly for the money, you bailed on this article a long time ago so it doesn't matter what I call you.

Just like the painters and writers and decorators and gourmet chefs of the world, we secretly hope the public will be elevated and inspired by our creations.

But there's a key difference. If someone isn't inspired by a painting, they're still able to appreciate the individual effort. With software there's no such luxury. It doesn't matter if you're the Rembrandt of the coding world; your app is a dud compared to Office 365 or Google Maps or Skyrim, never mind the fleet of resources required by the latter.

So... should you build it if nobody comes?

Yes. Because as artists, we are enriched by the overall process regardless of the end result. Trite as it sounds, we have the sense of accomplishment and the pride of knowing how much discipline it took to see it all the way through. We stimulated our minds, we learned what does and doesn't work, we gained applicable experience. The next project, whether it's personal or professional, will reap the rewards.