Three years ago, after seeing that my wife was dealing with a bunch of spreadsheets to keep track of the reading progress of her students, I took a stab at making that process easier. iheartreading.co was born.
What started as a simple little project quickly became my main side project as I wanted to see how fast I could come up with a solution, and if it could become the first side project of mine bringing in my first dollar.
What was iheartreading.co?
I Heart Reading was supposed to be an easy-to-use platform that allows students to track their independent reading, submit responses to reading and start a conversation, through comments, with their teacher about a book they are reading. Making reading a habit can be difficult for students. I Heart Reading helps students build regular reading habits by allowing them to add books, update their progress (number of pages read, books finished) and write reviews about books they have enjoyed. All of the responses to reading, reviews and progress the student inputs into the site are accessible to their teacher, making it a simplified and streamlined solution to independent reading.
There are a few reasons I think contributed to shutting it down, and why I wasn’t able to monetize it. Those are just some reflections thrown out there, not polished, so take it with a grain of salt.
I was targeting K-12 schools. Schools are a really tough audience to go for. It is really hard to get schools to use new products, and even more to have them pay for it. Even if a teacher is interested in a product, it is not up to them to decide if they can use it or not. They are tied to a budget, and more importantly, compliance. My platform would have students under the age of 13 signing up, meaning that I would need to be COPPA compliant. The issue is that getting a COPPA compliance means going through a rigorous process, an expensive one too. It was too much of a risk for me to spend that money to get the right certifications as long as it was still a side project. It became kind of an endless loop: how am I supposed to look serious in front of schools without the compliance? how am I supposed to justify getting the compliance without having enough customers enrolled on my platform.
I was not working to solve one of my problems
The project didn’t start from a problem I was encountering for myself, but a problem someone else was encountering. Despite being married to a teacher, the classroom world is still an unknown world for me. I see it from an outside eye. This makes it hard to know what to work on exactly. I was most of the time focusing on the wrong features to add.
I was not solving a real problem
Running a reading group, and have your students track their progress is not something every teacher in every school is doing, so was is really worth spending money for a platform you would use on a weekly basis? It became clear after a little while that it was not the case, and made me realize that I was trying to create a solution to a problem that was not necessarily existing.
I was motivated by the technical aspect, not the product aspect
When I started this project, I was really into Laravel and React.js. That was a good opportunity to improve my skills using those tools. When working on features, I rarely had moments where I was telling myself: ‘That is a cool feature’ or ‘It is simple to use, it works’, but more of ‘I think the database layer makes a lot of sense and will be easy to extend later and so on and so on’. This showed me that I was working on this project for the wrong reasons, even if it was a great learning experience.
Decrease in motivation
I was maintaining the codebase, fixing bugs, trying to find new possible users, trying to get advice from people that were successful in that space, thinking of way to make the product better, seeking more feedback from the only school using it. I felt like I was not really going anywhere. New project ideas popped into my mind that I wanted to explore, but felt guilty of not continuing working on iheartreading.co as I spend so much time on it already. Nevertheless, the motivation was not here anymore.
It failed. That sucks but..
I learned a lot. A freaking lot. Whether it was from a technical perspective or product/marketing. It felt really nice to have a project I wanted to work on for so long. It felt great to put something out there and gather feedback. It was comforting to hear positive feedback, and motivation when I got the negative ones.
This project failure also made me change the way I approach exploring new ideas now. I try to always keep in mind that the technicals don’t matter, your potential users don’t see that, they see the product.
Get something out quickly, don’t polish it. The faster it fails, the better it is. The faster you know it fails, the faster you can move onto something else. Working on side projects should be fun.
Fortunately, I don’t need that extra dollar so I don’t necessarily need to chase it. Getting a dollar from a side-project would be gratifying, but it doesn’t define me as an engineer. It would still be cool though :)
Hacking on side projects is really about one thing: learning.