Olly Headey

October 3, 2023

Building apps for fun or (probably not) profit

If I think back all those years (decades 😳) when we were building the first beta of FreeAgent, foggy memory-bank notwithstanding, there was a lot to get excited about in the day-to-day. Writing code and building the product was great fun for the most part, setting up infrastructure a bit less so (weak *nix skillz) but super-rewarding when things worked. Then there were the times coming up with marketing copy, or doing some customer support, or even trying your hand at sales (rather badly) at networking events… happy days!

Building is the fun part.

What’s interesting is that as an employed software designer or developer, when your job is literally to do the building, every day should be super-enjoyable, but sometimes they're not. This is because you’re not building apps for fun, you’re building for profit. You might end up having stressful deadlines with a product manager on your case, customers could be moaning about your latest "outrageous" UI change, or obscure exceptions could be machine-gunning your inbox. Or all of these, sometimes all at once. Now it’s not exactly a hardship getting paid daft money to sit in a warm comfortable office (which is probably in your warm comfortable home) and suck up the nags, but everything is relative so it often seems like a chore and you start to daydream of other places where the grass looks so much greener.

At FreeAgent we ran Hack Days twice a year which gave everyone two days away from their projects to hack on anything they pleased. Originally this was a whole week, but that felt a bit much so we ended up making them two days which is a perfect balance of time and pressure. It’s a busman’s holiday but people generally loved it. Two days to build apps for fun while getting paid! What’s not to like? You get to do the best bits of your job without any of those irritating things like fixing bugs, OKR scoring or product prioritisation meetings putting a downer on everything.

For the past month or two, in-between major downpours of life admin that seem to occur when you don’t have an official job, I’ve basically been doing my own Hack Month. I sat down on day one with a vague idea of something to build, then pressed ahead to see what would happen. I haven’t used this time to learn new-fangled technology, I much prefer to slouch in my Ruby on Rails onesie and apply what I know (and enjoy) the most. I've also been using ChatGPT as my personal code servant which has been remarkably helpful (more about that in a future blog post). It’s been really enjoyable, a trip down programmer memory lane with boundless creative twists. 

Trouble is, everything good comes to an end. 

This isn't bad per se – things wouldn’t be special otherwise, everything would just be normal and boring – it's just the next stage in the journey. With side projects, after a certain period of time lethargy creeps in. You get bored, become distracted, then you wonder why you’re wasting your limited and valuable time on such a fruitless task. If you manage to avoid chucking everything away at this point, you’ll need to make a decision about whether what you’re doing has legs. Is it a side project, or just a daft hack? Or are you going to take it a bit more seriously, cast the line out and see if anything bites?

This is where I find myself today. I’ve built a thing which took 4 or 5 weeks total dev time (yes I time-tracked it in FreeAgent because I am that guy), and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve even hooked a little bait and tested the waters with a few very kind volunteers. I think what I’ve made is okay and I kinda like using it day-to-day (even though I’m sat here on my lonesome, journalling as if I’m working in a team of 100 which is weird to say the least 😅), but should I put it out there, or put it on the shelf and move onto building next thing which will, of course, be far more fun? Or maybe I could do both? Small bets are all the rage right now.

I've called the app I've built Teamlight. It helps you get to know your team, both personally and professionally, which (my theory goes) makes your team happier and more productive. It’s simple to use, and it sits somewhere between your flaccid HR system and the cacophony of Slack. It shines a light on your great people and their great work, two things that get lost in most enterprisey systems and workflows despite them being the most valuable things you should care about!

So if you’ve been wondering who Martin (or is it Marvin?) in Accounts is, Teamlight can help. If you want to know what Marina in Engineering has been up to for the last couple of weeks, Teamlight can help. If you’ve been sunning yourself in Lanzarote for the past fortnight and want to catch up with everything that’s been happening in only 10 minutes over your morning coffee, Teamlight can help. It’s currently an employee directory / team journalling Q&A mash-up. An AI-free celebration of the power of regular, thoughtful writing. It looks like this:

It’s very much a bare-bones MVP so there’s a lot of polish that could be applied to the current app, and a very long list of new things it could do (Slack integration, eNPS, polls, AI summaries are obvious extensions). Without some positive reinforcement though, it’s staying as it is. So help me decide! Roll the dice and double down, or park the daft thing and move onto the next (I have a long list 😆)? If you’re involved in running a business, or even just a team or department within a larger org, I’d be keen to hear what you think of the premise. Could it solve a problem you have with visibility about who's who and what they do? Let me know. If it sounds ridiculous and you're utterly perplexed as to why someone would build a worse version of Geekbot, let's chat. If you're reallly enthusiastic and want to actually try it, you can but I’ll need to invite you – so email me or signup to the waitlist on the website and I can do the rest.

Help me escape this trough of disillusionment one way or another. You're my only hope!

About Olly Headey

Journal of Olly Headey. Co-founder of FreeAgent. 37signals alumni. Photographer.
More at headey.net.