Make Your Side Project Your Main Gig: Interview with Marco Arment

Ever dreamed of quitting your day job and working full-time on a side project you’ve had going for a while? You’re not alone! Certainly, many web professionals weigh up their work situation regularly.

Here’s an inspirational story about Marco Arment, who started a side project called Instapaper while working as the lead developer at Tumblr. For those unfamiliar with Instapaper, it’s an application that allows you to save pages for later reading. It’s currently on the iPhone, iPod, and iPad, and also available on Mac, PC, and even the Kindle.Instapaper began as a side project in January 2008. Last month, Marco stepped down from his job to concentrate fully on the application, and I had the opportunity to interview him.What was the main reason for taking the leap to go full-time on your personal project?It was opportune for both sides. It was a good time for me to leave Tumblr and devote myself fully to Instapaper. I had taken Tumblr as far as I could, and Instapaper’s popularity had reached a point where I really needed to devote more time to it to help it succeed.What do you see are the challenges for a web professional who has ditched a regular pay packet to concentrate on creating or improving their application?The paperwork is a drain, of course: health insurance is expensive, legal and accounting needs are time-consuming, and getting a mortgage is nearly impossible. And many people will have difficulty adjusting to the schedule and motivation required to work at home.The biggest change, though, is that there are no more tracks to guide you. Prior to this, everything in your life has probably been “on the rails.” Other people have been guiding you, and you always knew what to do next: do your homework, get into a good college, graduate with as many honor stickers on your diploma as possible, get a corporate job, get promoted.As soon as you decide to work for yourself full-time, the track ends. You can do anything, but nobody’s going to lay it all out for you. It’s up to you to look ahead, plot your own path, and guide yourself.If there’s one piece of advice you wished you’d learned before now, what would it be?That it’s okay to contract out professional services. Yes, they can cost a lot of money, but when you’re still an amateur in a particular field, the work of a professional can make a huge difference in your product’s quality, your business’s stability, and your peace of mind.What challenges do you imagine are ahead of you in the first twelve months?The biggest challenge I anticipate is managing my time. Being freed from the strict workday allows for greater flexibility and efficiency, but I’ll need to devise methods so that I don’t overwork, underwork, or spend too much time on tangents and distractions.Instapaper has both Free and Pro (at US$4.99) versions. What sort of user detail do you gain from having a product in the App Store? For example, do you find that most users who use the Free application multiple times end up buying the Pro?The App Store is much more of an impulse-buy market than most people expect. Most customers stick with whichever edition of the app they installed first. Many people go straight to the paid app, and many happily use Free every day and simply tolerate its limitations.There’s certainly an upgrade flow from Free to Pro, but more people just buy Pro from the start.Where to from here, Marco? Any plans for another application coming out soon?I don’t have any other apps planned at the moment — I just plan to keep improving Instapaper for the indefinite future. There’s a lot that I want to do, and even now, there’s still not enough time in the day.Well done, Marco, and thanks for sharing your insight with SitePoint.com readers. Best of luck in the future; I’m sure you’re primed for success!

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