How to build your social startup with no team and no money



Excuses. We’re all good at making them. Whether it’s why we can’t start exercising today or why we can’t start our startup just yet.

Jay Boolkin, Founder -

Jay Boolkin, Founder –

I often hear people tell me they have obstacles like

  • I haven’t got any money,
  • I can’t find a technical cofounder or
  • I live in a developing country.

The story I want to share with you today shows that all these obstacles can be overcome.

Jay Boolkin has built and launched a promising social venture, Promise or Pay, which helps people achieve their goals and overcome their excuses. And he did it as a sole founder, with no money while living in Cambodia.

Read our interview with him to find out how.

What is the problem you are trying to solve? What led you personally to tackling this problem?

Jay: We are all trying to improve – all the time. The problem is that sticking to self-improvement goals is really difficult. At beginning of 2013 I made some resolutions to change my life but despite trying really hard I was unable to follow through on any of them. I wasn’t the only one. In fact, while 45% of people make New Year’s resolutions only 8% stick to them. Change is hard. Even if we get really inspired – it’s tough to stick to new behaviours. What sucks is that when we fail to reach a goal, regardless of the effort with put in, we are often left feeling disappointed and discouraged. Screen Shot 1

What is the solution you came up with? Tell us about Promise or Pay.

Jay: I did some exploring and found that the chance of achieving a goal

  1. increases 33% if it is shared with others and
  2. increases by 72% if money is put on the line.

It was this research that was the brainchild of Promise or Pay. Promise or Pay combines both of these approaches to help you achieve your goals and change the world for the common good. The idea is powerful but simple. Promise or Pay allows you to publicly promise to do something & achieve it, using social media to announce your intentions to your friends, or pay a nominated contribution to a charity if you don’t follow through. Either you keep your promise thereby benefiting yourself, or you contribute towards solving a pressing social problem via your donation. As a result, it helps overcome the dispiriting and upsetting feelings that often arise when we fall short of accomplishing something important.

How Promise or Pay works - Click to enlarge

How Promise or Pay works – Click to enlarge


What has the response been since launching your beta in December 2013?

Jay: It’s been good. We have had 80 pledges made on the site, with a total of $4000 pledged. We donated $500 to charity in Jan and that increased 16% in February to about $1100 donated in total. We’re getting about 3000 page views per month.

Many entrepreneurs tell me their target market is ‘everyone’. But that is never true. Who specifically is your target market and how did you identify who they were and where to reach them?

Jay: Promise or Pay has massive potential as it appeals to the natural human instinct to set goals, to have dreams and to make resolutions. It leverages off the social trend to share experiences with others electronically and it speaks to a generation that have grown up in a world where social issues are impossible to ignore and are looking for a way to make a difference. I am currently targeting and testing a number of audiences with specific ambitions since the primary motivation of using Promise or Pay is not to donate to charity but to achieve a personal goal. For example, those trying to quit smoking, lose weight, eating healthier, and exercise more. I have zero budget for paid advertising and therefore rely heavily on social media to spread the word and connect with relevant blogs, bloggers and journalists. I also enter competitions as I have found it is great way to get free exposure and raise Promise or Pay’s profile.

How did you get the money to build your current site and launch the venture?

Jay: I had had the idea for a few months but no resources to start executing. I entered a competition called the Social Startups MVP program and was fortunate enough to win. The prize was a Beta version of the site with personal and digital marketing coaching thrown in. Because of this, I was able to spend 6 months developing the site with programmers who are based in India and then launched in December 2013. I have no budget for this so am using my time to market on blogs and social media.

What is your strategy for entering the market?

Jay: At the moment my basic strategy is to develop a strong understanding of Promise or Pay’s target audience and present clear, concise and powerful messages that resonate with potential customers and address their actual needs.

Entrepreneurship is a team sport. Who else is on your team? Where are you all based?

Adriel 'Bacon' Young who is a Bondi Rescue Lifeguard and up-and-coming triathlete and has promised to learn Swedish or pay $100 to SURFAID.

Adriel ‘Bacon’ Young who is a Bondi Rescue Lifeguard and up-and-coming triathlete and has promised to learn Swedish or pay $100 to SURFAID.

Jay: To-date Promise or Pay has been a one-man show. I am the designer, marketer, customer service manager and accountant. I am currently based in Cambodia, however I am originally from Sydney and Promise or Pay is registered in Australia. Balancing work on Promise or Pay with my day-to-day job as a Program Development Officer at a local community-based organisation is a challenge. However I do have a strong team of collaborators that are providing ongoing direction and support. I have a very experienced strategic partner based in Melbourne, Omer Khan, founder and CEO at Social Startups and Impact Investors, who is providing startup expertise and who financed the development and launch of the MVP. I have a great CTO, Bhavi Chadha, managing director at Fluid3, and work directly with his fantastic development team who are based in India. I also have an advisory team that consists of a highly successful investor and business mentor, a digital marketing specialist, Jazz O’Donnell, Founder & CEO at Just Good Marketing, and a personal coach, Kerry Grace, Director at Evolve Network Australia.

Many people don’t understand that social ventures need to make some income to sustain themselves and keep operating. If site users are donating to charities, how will you make sure you get the income you need to cover the venture’s operational costs?

Jay: Revenue is currently generated through a per donation service fee paid by the charities listed on the website. Further income streams will be created by advertising fees paid by businesses for promoting special offers and tailored reward programs.

What are 1 or 2 things you have done that have had the biggest impact in launching the venture so far? What tips would you give other entrepreneurs wanting to launch an idea they have?

Jay: Practically, the most significant thing would be (entering and) winning a competition and therein receiving funding to develop a first proof of concept. Without this opportunity building Promise or Pay would have been very difficult. Building a social venture, and I’m sure this is not an uncommon experience, is absolutely engrossing – Promise or Pay is my life. My passion and commitment to seeing it through to success (or failure) means that all my energy is devoted towards it. I have never been more challenged or worked harder. There have been countless nights when I can’t sleep and will work until the sun begins to rise. There is no doubt I have seen the dawn more times in the past 7 months than I have in all the years of my life combined. And I wouldn’t change a thing. I love what I am doing. The journey to get where I am today, the people I have met, the lessons I have learnt – none of it would have happened if I would have listened to my intellect, where the fear of failure hides, and somehow, someway, convinced myself it wasn’t worth a try. What tips would I give? If you have an idea that you think is worth pursuing then put your doubts to one side and follow your instinct. I promise it will be one hell of an experience. Think big, start small, and stay focused. And enter competitions.

Where do you see the venture in a year, 2 years and 5 years? What are some of your goals for the venture?

Jay: While I have generated some excellent early results the current site is very much a Beta version. I intend to expand Promise or Pay in the near future to make it a community for self-improvement. My plan is to start working full time on Promise or Pay so that I can dedicate more energy towards improving the customer acquisition process, maximising conversion rates, automating a number of manual processes and further refining the platform. In 5 years, I hope to have achieved Promise or Pay’s mission, which is to inspire millions of people around the world to be the best that they can be, and at the same time, to have encouraged and facilitated millions of dollars in donations to charities.

What it is like building a start-up in developing country?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia where Jay is based.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia where Jay is based.

Jay: It’s still early days but it’s been great. I am currently bootstrapping Promise or Pay which is easy to do in a country like Cambodia, where the cost of living is low. This will also make it more feasible to start working on the project fulltime and still being able to have a good quality of life. I can get access to fast, reliable Internet which, at Promise or Pay’s current stage, is all I really need. Moving forward, the lack of access to outside networks, events, resources and investment may require relocating or simply a bit of flying around. But I am so much more centrally located (compared to Sydney) when it comes to international travel that I don’t see this as a big issue. So far so good.

Takeaways: (Susan’s notes)

What we can learn from this entrepreneur

  • Jay was committed enough to his idea to find a way to execute. You may say that he was just lucky to win the competition, but you know what they say about luck being preparation meeting opportunity!
  • Jay has not taken on a co-founder as yet because it has not been necessary. He has all the skills he needs to execute at the moment. Because of this, he has preserved the equity in the venture and been able to keep it lean so it can work as a social venture. At the same time, he is able to keep his motivation high and stop himself from feeling isolated by using his mentors.
  • Promise or Pay in its current form is a low-feature platform compared to Jay’s ultimate vision for it. By buildinjg and testing the most important hypothesis first (will people make a public promise and donate if they don’t achieve it) he is testing whether the whole idea has legs. So far it seems that the answer is ‘yes.’
  • Winning the competition and being based in Cambodia has helped Jay keep costs as low as possible until he knows whether he is getting traction in the market. This is important, because it gives him a longer runway to make the venture a success.

Next Steps

  • Jay’s understanding of his target market is a bit fuzzy. He needs to choose a couple of niches and test their interest in his venture. He could also do a survey of people who have already pledged on Promise or Pay and look for patterns that may give him clues about the segments of people that will use Promise or Pay.
  • Jay has been on a learning curve in terms of his marketing strategies. He is using some strategies that are giving him good results, such as social media and blogger outreach. He is also developing a good following on Facebook. It is probably a good idea now for Jay to work on developing a full marketing plan. Formalising his current strategies into a plan will help him determine whether they are going to be enough to meet his goals for the venture and will also help him uncover new strategies.

Join the Conversation:

Do you have any questions for Jay? Pop them in the comments. And head on over to Promise or Pay and make a commitment to achieve one of those goals that has been on your list for a while. 🙂


  1. Hi Jay, congrats on the success so far. Especially with winning the social startups MVP program. It’s great that this is a side project for you, and is inspiration for other part time entrepreneurs what can be achieved.

    As its already been highlighted the good news is that Promise or Pay appeals to a wide cross section. The drawback is you spread yourself thinly. I agree with Susan’s advice to target a niche so that you get a foothold and critical mass. For example you could target diet, health and fitness influencers and companies. I would love to hear more about how you went about social media and blogger outreach. Good luck with the next phase.

  2. Hi Geoff,

    Thank you so much for your comment and encouragement.

    I agree with Susan and you regarding the current targeting strategy being too broad, it is something that I am working on.

    In regards to social media, I am currently only focusing on Facebook and Twitter. I would like to utilise more platforms but being the sole employee with no funding means I already have my hands full. I am no social media expert, but I could perhaps be an expert at listening to experts (if there is such a thing). Doing so allowed me to found The Yoke Project (back in 2011 when I was still at university), which works exclusively with not for profit organisations from around the word to help extend their networks by setting up and managing a Twitter account on their behalf. To this day I continue to make a conscious effort to explore new and efficient ways to maximise engagement and reach. Some work better than others and I have discovered this by simply giving them a try myself.

    I utilise these social networks (Facebook and Twitter) to discover and connect with other relevant bloggers and like-minded individuals. I am very selective in who I approach (perhaps to my detriment, I’m not sure). In reaching out to a specific blogger I will take a considerable amount of time exploring their work, understanding their background and trying to get a feel of who they are and what drives them. When I feel the time is right I contact them on a sincere and personal level. I let them know what it is specifically that I like about them and/or their blog and I tell them about my work, my background and what drives me. I believe that those who respond to my request do so because they can sense that my interest (in their work) and motives (in my work) are genuine. Although this takes time I have found it is an approach that is not only effective but also, and perhaps more importantly, one that I feel comfortable with.

    I hope that answers your inquiry. Thanks again for your good luck wishes!

    Kind regards,


    • Just wanted to add that the strategy Jay is using of personal contact with influencers is a good one and one that is recommended by experts such as Jon Morrow.

    • Hey Jay, thanks for the detailed response. I think its great that you’re doing something that you’re obviously so passionate about, it comes through loud and clear. Keep at it, even though its hard when you are a solopreneur juggling everything and developing your own skills as you go. Keep in touch and tell us about your progress.

  3. Thank you Geoff.

    I appreciate you taking the time to connect with me and offer your kind words of support. To be honest, it is the little pieces of encouragement that keep me motivated on a daily basis. I will let you know how things progress.

    With gratitude,


    • Hey Jay, you’re more than welcome. Its hard being a team of one. I’m just giving some thought as to what challenge I can set myself on promise or pay. Might be something around getting fitter, or starting a side project. I’m thinking about a side hustle of a micro bakery. I was inspired by a BBC podcast on how people were starting them from their own kitchen and baking fresh bread. One inspiring entrepreneur was preparing the bread on a Friday night, then using a local pizzeria’s wood oven at 5am on the Sat morning while it was still warm. Anyway its got the creative juices flowing…

  4. Hey Geoff,

    That’s great to hear! Something tells me you’d bake some tasty goodies. I just checked this successful kickstarter project ( it’s a little old but may help to further inspire you. I’m always excited to receive a new promise, each one is special to me, so if you think of something that would be awesome!

    It’s so motivating to connect with like-minded and energised individuals like yourself, thank you again.

    Kind regards,


  5. Hey Jay- good job here man. And for Susan, you always get the inspirational stuff here, it seems. I just landed here and I think I’m going to be stuck here for a while.

    Speaking about Social Media- I’d love to help, if any to-do-good help needed.


  6. Hi Jay

    What a fantastic idea and I think you are definitely onto something big! I’m going through a similar experience with my start-up charity Oz Fair Trade. It’s also a one-person show at the moment, and I wish I have a team of experts I can refer to as you do. At the moment I rely on a lot of readings to learn all about running an e-commerce, including accounting, marketing, photography etc. etc. I also have a full time job to support me financially, and I do everything I can to cut down costs. I really like your approach towards bloggers, and that’s one of the areas I need to focus on.

    Best of luck with Promise or Pay! I think it’s absolutely fabulous!

    Kind regards,


    • Hi Qinnie,

      I’m glad you found value in the post – Susan knows her stuff and does a fantastic job. Thank you for your positive feedback and for sharing your experience, it sounds like we are on a similar journey. Being a one-man team can be tough, I can absolutely empathise, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I have learnt so much, both professionally and personally, that I otherwise wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had to do it all myself. As you touched on, this startup thing is all about learning. And that’s pretty fun if you keep the right perspective! Just keep it at. Even if it all ends up being one big failure I have no doubt the experience will have been worth it.

      Definitely start reaching out to relevant blogs. And for those areas that you are having difficulty with, start trying to connect with people who you think may be able to help. If you approach them with respect and genuine interest you’d be surprised how many will be interested in what you are doing and willing to connect. The entrepreneurial path can be a lonely one so if you ever want to have a chat just shoot me an email –

      Kind regards,


      • Hi Jay

        I wouldn’t change a thing either! It pushes me to keep learning and I enjoy the process tremendously. I feel fulfilled every day. I used to envy people who have a passion, now I am one of them.



  7. Hi Jay,

    Truly inspiring story and a great example for not allowing any barriers to stop you achieving your dreams.

    When my family, friends or clients spill out a load of excuses I always ask them… Is your glass half full or half empty?

    My next plan of action is usually based upon their response!


    • Thanks Naomi! There is always more than one way to see the same situation, it’s all a matter of perspective. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for your kind words.

  8. Hi Jay

    I love how you don’t give up and you simply keep going. I’m a student at UNT trying to start my business with little to no money and aside from learning in the classroom I have learned so much about life while trying to start my campaign, The Smartest Weight Detecting Backpack. Stories like these give me hope!

    • Hi Kayla,

      Thanks for your very kind comment! Wow, it’s been over a year since this was posted and so much has happened since then! It’s a great reminder of the power of resilience and tenacity. I just visited your Kickstarter page and watched your promo video – awesome stuff! I wish you the best of luck. As you said, ‘don’t give up’!

      Warm regards,


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