Define Success Before You Start

Nov 22, 2018

I love starting new side projects. The promise of a clean slate, choosing a fresh, new design, picking the latest and greatest tech stack, no technical debt to deal with… it’s a wonderful feeling.

But we all know how side projects usually end.

Things eventually get non-fun. Reality sets in, life takes over, and the whole thing is taking way longer than you thought it would. In the end you’ve left one more repo for dead, cluttering your hard drive with more code that will never be released to see the light of day.

Creating, launching and marketing side projects is hard. Really hard.

I don’t have a fix for that. However, through my many failings, I have come across one strategy which definitely helps:

Define success before you start.

I don’t remember where I first heard of this idea, but when I did it immediately stuck me. When you start a project, you get to define what “success” means. The normal cultural meaning for success is usually some combination of money and fame. However, that sucks and you don’t have to use it. You can pick your own definition. You’ve got the power 🎶.

For you, in this moment, for this project: What do you want to call success?

I’ve started doing this with my last couple projects, and it’s made all the difference. It helps me stick to a schedule, stay on track when things are no longer fun, avoid scope creep, and (most importantly) actually ship the thing.

For some of my early software products, success simply meant building a functional app. Lately, I’ve been defining success in terms of my marketing efforts, as that is where I need to grow.

The beautiful thing is you really can’t lose, as long as you choose aspects of success which you have direct control over. Focus on the inputs (your behaviors and actions), rather than possible outcomes.

For instance, instead of definining project success as “earning $10,000” (which you really don’t have direct, personal control of), you could focus on “shipping within 10 weeks, and spending 50% of my project time doing marketing work”. Ultimately, you are far more in control of when a project ships than of how much money it earns. You are also in control of how much time you allot toward marketing. Focus on items you control.

I’m about to start a new side project- a simple web app for tracking credit card reward accounts for travel hacking. So it’s time to sit down, consider the aspects of the project I can control, and decide what I need to do to consider this project a success.

For me, for this project, I would consider it a success if I:

  • launch by Jan 31
  • use it to learn some new tech (GraphQL, serverless backend, no Redux)
  • post about the launch to Product Hunt and at least 3 other forums/groups
  • tweet and blog about the process


The underlying truth here is being thoughtful, intentional and focusing on the things you have control over. Nothing flashy or new, but incredibly useful. With a little bit of thought, you can reclaim the word success to help keep you motivated and focused on growing in the areas you care about.

Happy side projecting!

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© 2023 Mark Foster