Lights-off for a Side Project

I received an email from my domain registrar last month. Actually, it was four emails. The domains for one of my side projects are up for renewal. It’s got me thinking about the project, what I put in, and what I got out.

The project in question is Electrious. You should click that link now because pretty soon it’s not going to work. The inspiration came from something as simple as my electric bill. One month it came with a small insert that described the “power mix” of the service–how much of our energy was being generated with nuclear, coal, hydro, and other types of generation. It got me thinking about what you could do with this data. One thing that I was struck with was the possibility of knowing the environmental impact of my electric usage, like how many pounds of CO2 were released into the air to run my refrigerator for a month.

It was another couple of years before I had a sense of what I wanted to do with this idea. Just being able to look up power plant emissions or Energy Star data wasn’t very exciting, and it certainly wasn’t anything more than looking up data that was already available. It finally came together in my head in early 2010. Around that time an odd service called Blippy was making headlines. By entering your credit card into the system, it would publicly share your purchase information. I realized that social was the key to making something like this work. The end result would be something like RunKeeper for your electric bill: enter the basic data (how much electricity did you use) and the site would put it in a larger context.

I worked on the site for much of the next year. I wrote a small proof-of-concept, then built it out into a full application. I came up with a name that I’m still proud of. I got the domain names (including .com, .net, .org, and the Twitter-friendly electrio.us). I spent several nights choosing colors, designing a logo, and drawing a cartoon-style background image. I set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I added a feedback service.

What happened next is entirely predictable: nobody used it except for me. “Calculate, compare, and share” the headline said, but after calculating your usage there wasn’t much to do if nobody else arrived. The site was limited to Maryland and DC at first (where I was living) because I had to manually enter the utility information into the database, and very few states made it easily available. For users, manually entering your usage data every month was easy to forget.

In his post “Shutting down a side project”, Bach Le concludes with three things he learned:

  1. Engineers like to build stuff, even if no one is asking for it (an engineer that truly loves the craft, anyway).
  2. Most engineers have a hard time SELLING. Many engineers have trouble getting out of their comfort zone and talk to strangers.
  3. Work on solving a problem that people have. Working on a problem that people don’t have probably means that people won’t be willing to pay for that product.

I realized that these were the same issues that Electrious had. I built something for myself, and it wasn’t even solving a specific problem I had. Bach is responding to Josh Sharp’s post “Shutting down blaster.fm, my side project of two years”. Both of them were looking to build revenue-generating services. While I did have revenue ideas for Electrious (ads, of course, and partnerships), that was never my reason for building the site. Still, no users meant no revenue. Most importantly, though, I am terrible at selling. I could never bring myself to shamelessly promote the site. The few friends who saw it gave words of encouragement, but it was never seen by a wider audience.

Even though Electrious was mostly dead-on-arrival, it was still a useful experience. I proved that I really did know enough to plan, build, and deploy an entire application with no outside help. I learned that given enough effort I can turn out a passable (if not stunning) website design. I had code I could share with potential employers. Most importantly, I learned that building a service that needs a large audience to work properly isn’t for me. My more recent side projects, like Whenopedia, have been about building something that is useful for me. If other people like it and want to use it, it’s reaffirming, but not a necessity. I think there is still an opening for exposing the data that Electrious combined at a consumer level. Even though Opower and the Green Button make accessing utility data easier for customers, they don’t get into the environmental impact. I hope that eventually someone else will give it a try.

By the middle of 2011, I had mostly walked away from Electrious. Still, there are costs to keeping a site up, even one without any users. It’s another thing to test when the server gets updated. It’s prevented me from using newer versions of software for other projects because I didn’t want to update the old code. Domains are cheap, but not free. I renewed them once in 2012, but this time it doesn’t seem worth the $60 to keep the site up for another year. I’ve kept it there this long out of sentiment and inertia. Luckily, the domain registrar can help me with those.

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