Ihave been on my journey for a little while now. I started working on UserEngine, now Supportman, back in November of 2019. I started out talking to lots of different potential users trying to figure out what I was going to build. Once I narrowed it down, I then started trying to figure out the problem I was going to solve and how I would solve it.
Something that I continually ran into during this process was figuring out what kind of problem I should solve as a bootstrapping solo-entrepreneur. To add even more limitations, I would be starting and running this business part-time while I handled my full-time job throughout the week. We might as well throw in more limitations - I have a wife, a one-year-old daughter, and another baby due this July!
With all of this in mind, how can I make a successful business that eventually becomes my full time gig? When thinking about these questions, I think you always need to think about your context, your circumstances, and your overall goals.
Hopefully now that you have a bit of context into my particular situation, my advice and opinions won’t catch you off guard. It very well may not be right for you!
Something that really helped me with these big decisions was deciding if I should build a main dish or a side dish.
I’d like to share my thought process of deciding which dish I chose, show the benefits of building a side dish, and why maybe you should too.
The first time I heard about this concept was in a blog post The Main Thing by Justin Jackson. There are many different main dishes (or entrees) and I think people can define them differently. But mostly, what I concluded was that a main dish is something that is a necessity for the buyer. It’s not really something that they can do without. They have to buy some version of it. They have to solve that “Job to be done” in some way.
It also means that there are most likely going to be a lot more people that need it. It’s probably going to be a bigger problem requiring a bigger solution…something that is harder to create.
A side dish, on the other hand, is something that tags along with a main dish. It’s a smaller problem which will most likely need a smaller solution. In many cases, side dishes are extensions or plugins to another platform. That seems to be the easiest way to identify them.
It helps to have examples of different dishes and the context around the entrepreneurs who built them so that you can apply their stories to your own situation. This really helped me when thinking about what I should do. Remember to take everyone’s story with a grain of salt. I tried to choose businesses that were established within the last two years and have either found success or are on their way.
- Transistor: Justin Jackson and Jon Buda are building a podcasting hosting platform called Transistor. This is clearly a main dish as every podcaster needs to host their podcast somewhere and there are many big players in the space. Justin and Buda have really pushed Transistor to be a big success in the last two years. Last we knew when their numbers were public, they were making around $30k a month. I’m sure they have far exceeded that by now. One of my main takeaways from their story is that they have a lot of competitive advantages that have contributed to their success. Jon had built podcast hosting software in the past and Justin has been creating podcasts and building an audience on the internet for years. Basically, they deserve this success more than anyone in the podcasting space.
- Fathom Analytics: Paul Jarvis created Fathom Analytics around the beginning of 2018. It is a simple website analytics tool that respects user’s data. This is definitely an entree as every site pretty much uses some analytics tool nowadays. It also has some big competitors such as Google Analytics. Although I don’t know what Fathom’s MRR is, I know it is a successful bootstrapped business and is profitable according to Paul. It has had 250 million page views tracked as of January 2020. Paul Jarvis definitely came in to the space with some great advantages as well. He has a pretty big audience that he has built online through his books and blog.
- Closet Tools: Jordan O’Conner built Closet Tools which is a Google extension built on top of Poshmark. Poshmark is a social e-commerce marketplace where users can buy and sell new or used clothing. Closet Tools is clearly a side dish as it is built on top of the platform and market that Poshmark has created. It helps Poshmark sellers make more money by saving time and getting more sales. Jordan has blogged a lot about his business and his learnings. This was his first business and he was really glad to begin with a side dish. He writes about the benefits of starting with an appetizer. He has turned it into a very successful business for him and his family. It generates around $20k MRR.
- Toolsplus: Tobias Binna started working on Jira integrations around two years ago. He has a couple of integrations that work with Jira. One of them connects to Intercom as well. This is a side dish as his whole product is built on the Jira ecosystem. He shared with me that most customers come right from the Jira or Intercom app marketplace. He generates around $20k MRR.
- Pigeon: Pigeon is a CRM and automation suite that works inside of Gmail, created by Pat Walls. Pigeon is an interesting one because CRMs are definitely a main thing. There are tons of companies fighting for this space and bigger companies all need a way of doing this. But Pigeon is built on top of Gmail and using the tool where people are already at. So I would say this is a side dish to the main entree - Gmail. Pat is generating around $1k a month so far. He is also the founder of Starter Story.
IndieHackers had an amazing podcast episode where Justin Jackson and Tyler Tringas debated whether it was better for indie hackers to build main dishes or side dishes. Tyler was pushing for side dishes while Justin was an advocate for the main thing.
In some ways, their differences were maybe more over the definitions themselves. Justin was really strong on the fact that that a business needs to have demand and the main thing that people need is where that typically lies.
Tyler’s main point was that most indie hackers (since they are usually a small bootstrapping team), simply can’t have the competitive advantage against their big-business rivals. This makes side dishes the best course of action for the majority of them.
This podcast was valuable in helping me think through the different sides and what would be best for my current life situation. Something that they both agreed on by the end was that there are clearly different situations and circumstances that make a main dish or side dish better for an individual or company.
One of my favorite takeaways from this discussion was Tyler’s matrix that he uses to bring the market into the mix when it comes to main and side dishes.
Main dishes and side dishes really start to be more useful when you bring the market into things. The Market/Dish Matrix shows what kinds of opportunities indie hackers/bootstrappers should go for.
A side dish built for a niche market is not a good combo because there aren’t many people in the market - plus, you would be building just a piece of what they really need. This is probably not something that you can make much money from.
The green checkmarks show really good opportunities. This makes sense because a huge market provides more opportunities - allowing someone to create a side dish that helps some of them and still be able to sustain a business.
However, if you’re interested in a niche market, you’re probably going to have to build a main thing because it is such a small pool of customers that you’re catering to.
The square with the question mark indicates the opportunities that could potentially be good for a small number of indie hackers but most likely are not. This is where the big companies and venture-backed startups are competing. Everyone wants to be the one who creates the main entree at the restaurant that everyone loves! The only thing that could give an indie hacker a chance in this situation is their experience and competitive advantages. If you really know what you’re doing in a specific space and have a network or audience of people following you, then you might be able to pull it off. My guess is that most of us indie hackers are not in this space though.
Your past is another large part of your story that will help determine the kind of business you should build. It will influence your direction and your why.
In 2018 I started CoffeePass. My co-founder and I were really trying to make a big business. We wanted to scale it to the size where ultimately some other big companies would want to acquire us.
Because of this goal we set, we were somewhat forcing ourselves into a risky situation, to have to build something that hadn’t really been done before in the same way. It was a “go big or go home” type of business.
After two years of working on it and even moving to work on it full time, things weren’t going as well as we had hoped. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great experience and we learned a ton, but we weren’t scaling the business to where we wanted and things weren’t looking that promising for the future - especially in the area of being able to financially support us two full-time co-founders.
We decided to sunset the business. It’s still running in the background and we are actually in the process of potentially selling it to someone else for at least a small dividend, but it isn’t my main focus anymore.
Because of my experiences with CoffeePass, I now want to build something at a much smaller scale. I want to build something that works at least for my family. If anything, I would be happy if my first project only paid for my monthly rent! That would give me a good starting point to jump off from.
I have also realized that the “go big or go home” mentality doesn’t really work well with a family. It’s not very calm. It heaps a ton of stress onto yourself and those you are close to. A bootstrapped business where I have more control of what decisions are made fits much better with the kind of lifestyle I want to have.
With these goals, a side dish makes a lot more sense to me! To be honest, I don’t necessarily have the major competitive advantages that would allow me to go out and build a successful main thing. That is perfectly fine. You have to start somewhere and I think starting small is great!
There are some great benefits to building a side dish. Hopefully these will help you decide if a side dish makes sense for you.
One of the hardest aspects of starting a business is finding market demand. You obviously want to create something that people are lining up to buy.
When you are building a main dish, you can look at competitors and see that people are using their services, but it’s really hard to know if there is room for another one in the space.
A side dish makes this easier because you can see the platforms that people are already lining up to spend money at. And then you can go be a part of the action!
For example, there are many companies that use Jira for their product management. It’s a huge platform! You already know that Jira solves companies’ main needs. Most likely, there is a subset of those companies that have some unique problems/needs around Jira. You can build an add-on app that is perfect for their problems. Its also nice to see that those companies are already willing to pay lots of money for Jira which is solving similar problems.
In most cases, a side dish is easier to build than a main dish. You will most likely be able to get your business up and running quicker. Like I mentioned earlier, side dishes are typically solving smaller problems or subsets of a problem.
Platforms give advantages in this area as well. They give you the tools to build on top of. They give you the starting blocks to work with.
This is quite an advantage for a solo-entrepreneur. You don’t have a lot of resources and a lot of manpower. You need all the advantages you can get! Building on top of a platform that already has the building blocks means you can get from idea —> MVP —> paying customers quicker.
I really like the idea of starting with something small and then building from there. A side dish allows you to do just that. Quicker implementation allows you to get going and level up your skills along the way. Then you will have the ability to tackle bigger problems. Maybe you will eventually even be ready to tackle a main dish!
This is probably the biggest benefit of a side dish. Most platforms have an app directory or marketplace that allows you to sell directly to their users. Free traffic to your business is a huge perk! It also helps you get started faster because it can take awhile to find other channels that work for your business and build them up.
The one little trick with this is you need to align with the platform. They aren’t going to promote you much and help you sell if you aren’t serving the platform’s specific goals.
Distribution was a big deal for me because I am not a marketer myself. I don’t have much experience marketing. So any way that I can leverage other platforms to help me get customers seems like a big win!
Of course, there are some downsides to a side dish. Building on top of a platform will put some limitations on your business.
Most likely, there will be specific limitations for each platform. There are also limitations that are more general on all side dishes.
You won’t have as much control. A platform could make changes that are a detriment to your business. They could change their app directory structure and kill your distribution channel. They could make you obsolete by building your app’s features right into their main product. Or the platform could die completely and you would sink with it.
Building a side dish means that there is probably a limit on the max size the business could grow to. The platform you’re building on has only so many customers and you can’t get more than that.
You need to keep all of these limitations in mind.
All this being said, there are some good reasons for indie hackers to build side dishes. Even if you do want to build a main thing, I think a side dish is a great place to start and get your feet wet. I have decided that is the way to go for me. I’m building Supportman on top of Slack and Intercom.
If you are a first time founder, I think a side dish could make a lot of sense for you. The benefits that a platform gives are hard to replicate on your own. It takes many skills and lots of knowledge to build a business by yourself. A platform gets you that much closer.
Of course, the decision is yours and you really need to think for yourself what’s best for your circumstances and situation. Where do your goals align - with a main dish or a side dish?
I hope this was helpful in some way. If you liked it, sharing the thread on Twitter is really appreciated!