Personal Projects – Finding your Niche

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I wrote about personal projects a while back, to my great surprise it has become one of the most popular things I’ve ever written. I shouldn’t be surprised really, so many creative people have ideas about how to make a better this, or a cooler that — everybody has an idea they’re thinking about. Coming up with ideas is no trick, most of us have more than we could possibly ever act on. The hard part is the discerning which ones are worth investing our precious time in. That’s a good starting point really, to recognize that your time is indeed precious. Life is too short to spend it pursuing the wrong things, the unsatisfying things. The personal projects we choose to spend time on should be the things that we truly love, and that really do excite and challenge us. The pursuit of these things can lead to the development of new skills and maybe new products that can guide you away from what might be unfulfilling in other areas of your life, and toward something a whole lot better.

So how to find a personal project that you can get excited about? It’s easy to have the feeling that all the great opportunities have been taken, and done to death. I don’t think there’s an Industrial Designer alive that hasn’t tried their hand at designing a chair. But new chairs arrive on the market daily, and that can be pretty discouraging if the thing that really excites you from a design perspective is seating. App developers know that there are probably hundreds of “to do” apps on the market, none of them perfect, with more arriving all the time. The problem with both of these categories is that they’re very broad. Broad works well if you’re a huge company with deep marketing pockets, but it really isn’t ideal for small players trying to get noticed.

Nice Niche

The good news is that within each broad category, like seating or “to do” apps, there are always niches. You need to look for the lightly populated niches, the ones that everybody else has ignored. They don’t need to be a niche that nobody else has ever done. Not at all. They just need to be something where the incumbents are either outdated or just aren’t trying very hard. I came across a great example in the seating category recently – a chair design meant to replace pews in churches wanting to modernize. Maybe you wouldn’t consider yourself a designer of products for sacred spaces, but think about this – churches don’t buy one or two chairs at a time, they buy hundreds. That seems a lot more promising that selling a chair or two here and there. Interested yet? Even more compelling is the idea that this genre can be broken down even further, with specific requirements varying by faith or denomination within the faith. That’s a lot of niches. And that’s just one example.

Embrace Your Inner Expert

Anybody who has the least bit of natural curiosity is probably an expert about something. By expert, I don’t mean the world’s foremost authority, I just mean that you know quite a bit more than most people about a certain topic. It might be hot air ballooning, 1968 Mustangs, growing pumpkins or washing windows. Within each of these lurks a project worthy of your time. I can’t tell you what that project, product or app idea is, because I’m not an expert in those fields. But you might be. If you are, and if you think deeply about it, you can think of something that would make your life as an enthusiast or practitioner easier, simpler or better. There’s an idea worthy of your time.


One of the definitions of anachronism is “an artifact that belongs to another time”. There are more of them around us than we sometimes realize, and each of them represents an opportunity. As an example, in the few brushes I’ve had with speciality agricultural tools, I’ve found many to be apparently largely unchanged for perhaps hundreds of years. When my daughter was taking equestrian lessons, I was often struck by how antiquated the horse grooming tools seemed to be. Perhaps the tools had attained a state of perfection over time, but I really doubt it. More likely they are as they are because they work OK, and nobody has really thought seriously about how they could be better. Another related example I came upon a year or two ago were the tools used by a beekeeper at a demonstration I saw at an agricultural fair. They would have been equally at home in the hands of a 19th century beekeeper. I’m not the only one to have noticed this. Design BUZZ, a design contest being run by Develop3D magazine aims at bringing beekeeping tools into the the 21st century. With the rise in popularity of amateur beekeeping, it’s a very timely idea that has some great raw material to work with. Again, this is but one example. Looking around you, you may be surprised to find how many anachronistic products are hiding in plain sight.

Go For It

I hope I’ve been able to convince you that great personal project ideas worthy of your time and talent are all around you. It only takes a little effort to search out the small openings that have been missed by others or have been occupied by uninspired incumbents. Whether you’re embarking on a personal project to build new skills or are trying to create a new business for yourself — find something worthy, and go for it!

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