This year in side projects (2014)

This has been another great year for projects, old and new. Last year's post was well received so I've written up another this year.

Here are my projects worth talking about:


TextBelt, my free SMS API, is growing quite a bit. The site now sends ~30,000 texts per month. Because the server is open source, there are additional people running it standalone or as a node module.

Growth rate

About 30k texts per month.

I didn’t work on it much this year, except to respond to requests to add carriers, but received some great contributions.

Textbelt's next steps are hard. International texting is unreliable and very difficult to debug without owning a phone from each carrier.

The service also needs better ways to prevent abuse. Some people send texts nonstop, for the most part getting “quota exceeded.” These messages, probably spam, inflate the volume of texts sent and jeopardize reliability for regular users.


AdDetector is a Chrome and Firefox extension that detects corporate-sponsored articles masquerading as unbiased journalism (a form of native advertising).

It was written up by the Wall Street Journal, Lifehacker, Engadget, and many others, with over 15,000 installs (and open sourced).


Yahoo Finance article on climate change, paid for by an oil company.

Interestingly, I was immediately contacted by a number of marketing execs and journalists of large publications and newspapers. Several companies specializing in native ads and content generation reached out too. I've noticed referrals from industry white papers and other inside sources.

I'm no longer working on this project due to potential conflicts with my full-time job. Despite this, it seems AdDetector influenced publishers' incentives and processes for evaluating deceptive native ads.


Although I sold Asterank to Planetary Resources last year, it still takes up time outside work. This project-turned-acquisition has led to many people and opportunities because it garners interest from everyone - media, academics, industry, and those who just like space (it's also mostly open source).

This year one of my favorite opportunities was my illustration for David McCandless's latest book, Knowledge is Beautiful. He's behind Information is Beautiful, the source of many interesting graphics circulating the internet.

Knowledge is Beautiful

The closest I'll get to being published.

I’ve also been giving talks about Asterank and open source in space, which tend to lead to more people and opportunities. My talk at a NASA conference on the economics of near-Earth objects formed the basis for a few consulting gigs.


Right before I burped and sneezed at the same time.

I think I had six other speaking engagements this fall. Some were small, some large, but all good ways to learn and meet people.

Other really cool stuff has come up too. For example, I'm working with some scientists and a VR-goggle company to bring Asterank and other 3D space simulations to true 3D virtual reality.

Asteroid Viewer

With Asterank out of my hands, I'm pursuing other space-related work.

This fall I judged a hackathon put on by NASA and the Minor Planet Center at the SETI Institute. Some of the scientists there study and map asteroids, so I created this asteroid viewer and polished it up after the hackathon (source code).

Asteroid viewer

Many asteroids are shaped like potatoes.

Some asteroids are radar-mapped, but most models are derived from light curves as the asteroid passes in front of a star - making this was a great way to learn about the science and math.


For a consulting project I built this visualization of missions to the moon.


I think I'll be able to add a few more missions to this visualization soon.


At YC Hacks, a few friends and I built ListeningPost, which uses the Chrome Web Speech API to extract important things and concepts from spoken conversation, with the goal of providing useful context during meetings. We were one of the finalists and presented to everyone at the end, which was fun.


The prize was a lifetime supply of Dropbox tshirts.

Despite our success as finalists, I think the app is a few years ahead of its time. Maybe 5 years from now speech recognition will be so good it'll work perfectly out of the box..


CodeNav is a Chrome and Firefox extension that makes browsing code on Github much easier.


It took an afternoon to make and there are about 700 people using it. Unfortunately I can't keep up with all of Github's changes, which break parts of the extension.

Lessons learned

Nothing profound here, just a few notes from my personal experiences:

  • Good things build very slowly, and it's usually the unsexy projects.
  • Opportunities have a way of appearing when you build lots of stuff, swallow your pride, and put it out there even if it's a work-in-progress.
  • Giving talks/conferences is great fun but a huge timesink and the value is not always clear.
  • Beware scope creep when consulting.

Also want to say thanks to everyone who has supported my work! With luck, 2015 will be even better than this year.

My year in side projects

Side projects are a good way to stay sane and keep sharp. 2013 was a crazy year - my side projects were a lot of fun and they opened many opportunities.

6 total worth talking about, in chronological order:

Side projects

Verified Facts

Verified Facts generates random conspiracy theories. They sound crazy but they're close enough to real ones that it can be hard to tell the difference. This was a lot of fun to make.

Conspiracy excerpt

It went viral with over a half a million conspiracies generated. The highlight was when Neil Gaiman tweeted it to over a million people. Viral traffic spikes can be thrilling and nerve-wracking. We endured it with no downtime on a ec2 micro thanks to some clever caching + redis on top of mongo.

11 months later, the site ranks well for many conspiracy searches and is being found by people who aren't in on the joke. Here's a sample of recent search traffic:

conspiracy web traffic is making the world a worse place.

I wrote a more in-depth post on it, including an explanation of how it works here.


I built Watchtower with a few other guys from Room 77 for Jason Calcanis's LAUNCH hackathon. It's a service that watches your competitors' websites and lets you know when they change certain things. This is good for detecting their A/B tests, new marketing campaigns, etc.


Watching Amazon's top ad.

We unexpectedly made it past the first couple judging rounds. Before we knew it we were presenting to an audience of 1,000+ conferencegoers in a huge auditorium. I'm including this embarrassing video for completeness.

I'd love to work more on Watchtower because I think the idea is really compelling. Unfortunately it's hard to corral 4 hackathon participants to work on things long term. We're considering some offers to sell it.


My side-project-turned-startup Asterank was acquired by Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company. I started the project in 2012 and in June this year I signed the papers.


I also rolled out a crowdsourced asteroid discovery app called Asterank Discover. To date, people have reviewed over 115,000 images and spotted hundreds of potential asteroids, a significant contribution to science.

Now Asterank Discover is getting rolled into "Asteroid Zoo" at Planetary Resources, which was in the news recently when we announced our partnership with NASA, the Adler Planetarium, and the Catalina Sky Survey.

The other cool part about my Asterank project is that it got me several speaking invitations and job offers.

In June I spoke at ideacity, which is like Canadian TED. It was an awesome experience and I met tons of fun and interesting people. It was also a good exercise in public speaking, which I don't do much.

And this November I spoke at the World Technology Awards in New York, where I was nominated for an award in the Space category. My competition included Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), the founders of Planetary Resources, and the director of NASA AMES, so I was honored to be nominated and ok with not winning.

At the World Technology Awards in NYC. Yeah, I wore the same thing.

This project was the catalyst for my full-time plunge into building spacecraft. I could write a lot more about my journey with Asterank, but I've written about it in the past and I don't want to bore you to tears.

Asterank is open source.


A tool for frontend developers that automatically refreshes the page when you make changes to files. I made this because pressing F5 sucks. HN didn't like it but about 40 people per week install it via npm, which is fine by me.


Not as interesting as space travel.

Open source here.

Candid Candidates

I moved to Seattle and figured I had to try a Seattle hackathon. I joined the meetup group and saw that there was a Seattle Open Government hackathon the next week, hosted by Lincoln Labs.

We built a chrome extension that annotates news sites with important political context, campaign donations, and contact info. You hover over politicians' names and get that info.

Everyone knows that politicians are bought and sold, but that info is hard to get and it's not there when you need it most. This is a step toward passive political consciousness.

Hover over Ted's name to get his contact info and see who gives him money.

We won $1500 (2nd prize). It's also open source, but needs some cleanup. One of my first goals for the new year is to get this in working order so I can promote it and make the world a better place.

Looking forward

My birthday is also at the end of the year, which makes me extra reflective. I don't know where I am headed in nearly any aspect of life, but these projects give me a way to explore options. Next year I'd like to focus on my relationships and being healthy. With luck, I'll figure all that out while still building interesting things.

Follow me @iwebst or check out 2014 in side projects.

What I learned from getting my side project acquired

I started Asterank in May 2012. Earlier that week, Planetary Resources announced its intent to mine water and valuable materials from asteroids. Like many others, I was intrigued. It was an inspiring, impossible long-term vision.

My project began as a thought experiment: how much are asteroids really worth? The media published wild estimates without scientific basis. No one took a principled approach toward cataloging asteroid content and value. So, on a weekend afternoon with nothing better to do, I wrote the first version at a cafe in downtown Mountain View.

13 months later, when Asterank was acquired by Planetary Resources, it was much more than an asteroid value calculator. It was a full astronomical toolkit that included web scrapers, a data pipeline, powerful visualizations, and the ability to discover new asteroids.

I had no idea what I was doing, but here are things I learned along the way:

Lesson 1: Bug people

Relentlessly contact people who can criticize or help materially.

The key is being patient and not coming off as desperate. Follow up every two weeks if you've had near-term contact, one month if you haven't.

Who to email

Cast a wide net. Contact anyone who can provide expertise, advice, or publicity. For me, this included:

  • my contact at Planetary Resources.
  • contacts at many other space companies or organizations.
  • scientists at research institutions.
  • scientists at NASA.
  • space bloggers.
  • the professor from my 100-person Intro to Astronomy course.
  • techies that could find my visualizations interesting.

Cold email guidelines

Emails should always be short and simple:

  • Briefly describe what I made and the success I've already had (visitors, news coverage, etc.).
  • Tell them what my goal is.
  • Ask them for something that will help me accomplish this goal.

This shouldn't be more than 2 or 3 short paragraphs. Follow-up emails should be even shorter:

  • Update on project - latest successes, features, etc. (skip this if you're following up on a promise they've already made).
  • Ask them for something.

Don't get emotional

Most of your emails won't get read. This can be insulting and stressful. Hang in there and take nothing personally.

Boomerang for Gmail is a great tool for email reminders. I used the free version and followed up once a month with people I was interested in.

Over time, people started initiating contact instead of the other way around, and my network grew. Persistent emails were the single largest contributing factor in the success of Asterank.

Lesson 2: Viral/social content is a boon and a timesink

When I launched, the only self-promotion I did was a Hacker News post, which gained a total of 2 points (I deserved this for the awful linkbait title).

Fortunately, someone picked it up and Asterank was featured on Universe Today, a popular space blog. A couple people including the Planetary Resources leadership contacted me afterwards. From then on, traffic was steady but with major spikes from social aggregators, news coverage, etc.

This brought my site down on Christmas.

If no one notices your project but it is genuinely interesting, just blog about it until they notice. I posted Asterank Discover on HN and it got 5 points. Then I wrote a blog post about it that made the front page. Go figure.

The caveat is that social traffic fades quickly and is mostly people who aren't interested in your actual product. It helped me get started, but the results were not permanent and the marginal benefit decreases quickly. Don't get caught up in it.

Lesson 3: A basic feedback form is essential

Some of my best contacts came through Asterank's About page. I provided my email address and added a contact form. I recommend having both (the form is low-friction, but some dislike the indirectness).

A basic form only takes a few minutes to add.

I also added a way to "subscribe to updates," but it actually just sent me their email address. I used this to gauge interest; there was no point in setting up a mailing list before I knew people would use it.

Regardless of how you do it, easy-to-find contact info is essential. It facilitated several job opportunities, conference invitiations, and media interviews.

Lesson 4: There might be leads in your analytics

Scan your analytics every now and then, especially referrers. I made a valuable contact just by noticing a link from company email. I reached out without referencing that I was watching the logs, but it's much easier to "cold" contact someone you know is already interested.

When I sent emails, I sometimes tracked clicks by linking, where n is a unique string. This way, even if they didn't respond, I could tell who was interested enough to click.

Lesson 5: LinkedIn can sometimes be useful

LinkedIn can be frustrating for software engineers, but it's especially important if you're tackling an industry outside tech. It provided an easy way for the Planetary Resources guys to find me.

The downside is that LinkedIn causes a lot of emails.

I know many software engineers who question the value of LinkedIn. It may cost you some sanity, but maintaining a basic, up-to-date profile was worth it.

Lesson 6: Open source everything you can

Most people are surprised when I tell them Asterank is almost entirely open source. It lends an air of transparency and invites collaborators. The project gains valuable feedback and perspective as a result.

Blogging about technical issues is a good way to get exposure in the open-source community. Techies are often interested in how specific technologies are used in certain applications. Asterank capitalized on this, with its visualizations making rounds in the webgl community. You can get the attention of smart and well-connected people by showcasing interesting technology applications.

Lesson 7: You need to stick with it

I have 5+ side projects. I'd like to make businesses out of them, but I often lose interest after a couple weeks. Asterank was the only project that I've stuck with for over a year, and it paid off even though there wasn't a clear path to monetization.

I should get out more.

It's hard to predict what will be valuable as a side project. For hobbies, working on what you're most passionate about is the best way to get a return. Otherwise you lack the discipline to follow through.

Lesson 8: Be grateful

I've had to make some hard decisions and turn down some great opportunities to wind up here. I'm really lucky to have options and support from friends, family, and coworkers.

I've accepted a Software Engineer position at Planetary Resources starting in November, and am very excited to learn a lot and see where things takes me.

Good luck!

Follow me: @iwebst