Pet Rock Projects (And Why They… Rock)

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Tony Dinh, a well-known indie hacker, recently shared an article about his Indie Hacker journey that reached the top of Hacker News. As usual, some people reacted negatively to an indie hacker sharing their story. One common criticism was that these small projects, or “pet rock projects,” aren’t valuable. There was a strong sentiment in this audience of mostly salaried software engineers that small niche solutions aren’t what developers should aspire to build.

There is more to this than the blatantly obvious envy for someone who is building something on their own terms, as Tony has been. The phrase “pet rock project” is meant to diminish the value of a project that is simple, has niche appeal, and is a little bit quirky.

Mo’ Edge, Mo’ Problems

I believe it’s perfectly fine for indie hackers to build these tools. It’s okay to create a product without a technological edge or something that isn’t highly disruptive. You don’t have to build the next unicorn to have a meaningful entrepreneurial life.

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In fact, that’s the core problem with many developers — my past self included. We’re conditioned to think that our true potential lies in building parts of a massive software product with equally massive aspirations. We want to work at FAANG companies, build the next Uber or work on the next big thing.

We’ve been sold a dream that our value as developers is tightly bound to the scale of the economic output of our code. The bigger, the better. And anything that doesn’t aspire to be that next big thing is quickly called a pet rock project. The founder who escaped the unicorn-seeking mind prison gets called a sham and a failure. To protect our self-worth, we shame those who don’t do as we’re conditioned to do.

And, as an ex-elitist developer, I understand just how big of a part of our identity this can be. Took me years to unlearn. And it hurts to see others so violently aggress against an indie hacker sharing their story.

I can’t say this didn’t trigger me when I saw it in the comments to Tony’s blog post. It just felt so insulting to the journey I had seen Tony be on for years now.

Nothing Wrong With Small

Tony didn’t build anything disruptive. But he sure built something useful. Tony built a great screenshot tool, a spectacular Twitter analytics tool, and a wrapper for generative AI. Nothing extremely unique or new, but all very useful for those who need such tools. And that’s what makes Tony enough money to live the life he wants.

That’s my favorite interpretation of the “indie” in indie hacking: building a life that doesn’t require the approval or permission of others. Indie hackers are perfectly fine developing a different version of an existing product that’s more convenient and useful for a specific audience. This isn’t a quantum leap, but it’s a move worth taking.

That’s the indie hacker way: finding something valuable to a small but significant group of potential customers. You’re not disrupting an entire industry; you’re changing how certain people do certain things.

Which also makes this approach widely usable: no indie hacker is trying to fully dominate a market. Indie hackers don’t need billion-dollar businesses to be successful. Making a few thousand dollars a month is already a big success, and anything beyond that is a stellar accomplishment. Most indie hackers want to build something good alongside other good products, offering an alternative rather than replacing competitors. The indie hacker community is one that allows both for competition and cooperation.

Case in point? Pieter Levels and Danny Postma have several competing products yet talk to each other about their work all the time. They openly talk about their businesses in public, being fully aware that potential copycats are watching. But there’s enough space for multiple solutions.

And that mindset makes all the difference.

If you think of everything as a zero-sum game, it’s easy to react negatively to indie hackers’ success. But let’s ignore the dismissive comments and keep building our small, additive products. Let’s create niche businesses that don’t reach for the stars, but are in reach for solopreneurs wanting to help a select group of people.

Staying away from the unicorn mindset is a secondary, equally powerful form of interpreting the “indie” in indie hacking: let’s embrace independent thought, creating our own dreams and making an impact in our own way.

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