This is the startup story of Jay Boolkin who founded Promise Or Pay a website that’s built around an online honor system where you publicly promise to do something or pay a nominated amount to a charity if you don’t follow through.
‘So tell me, where did the idea come from?’ This is a question I have been asked a lot over the past 7 months as I, like so many others, journey through the process of building a startup. Not that I mind. Sometimes I wish I had some ridiculous story to tell. That a robed monk whispered something in my ear as I climbed the steps of the Potala Palace or that I had an epiphany when diving the Yongala shipwreck. The real story is that I had a similar experience to millions of other people around the world, did some hard thinking (mixed in with a little luck), and was eventually rewarded by being struck with an idea that I thought was worth testing. I had zero experience in startups. Heck I didn’t even know what a startup really was. The less you know the more you fall into place, right?
The first definition of a startup I read was along the lines of it being about starting something new, that no one has ever done before. Sounds about right, I thought, why not give it a shot? I had no idea what I was getting myself into. No idea. In practice, I think a more accurate description is that provide by LinkedIn Co-founder Reid Hoffman who once described a startup as like jumping off a cliff with all the parts of a plane and assembling it on the way down.
At the time I was living and working in Phnom Penh Cambodia (I still am). I started by getting my idea down on paper, fleshing it out with my girlfriend, jumping on the net to see if I could find if it had ‘already been done’, and then sent off an email to a few people I really respected asking for their honest opinion. The feedback was overwhelming positive. My small salary working at a local NGO meant I didn’t have the funds to hire a developer and make the idea come to life. In hindsight this was a blessing.
A famous author once wrote, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. Of course I don’t believe that, but that’s exactly what happened. I conceived the idea in late July 2013, entered a competition before the months end and was announced as the winner in early August. As a result I received funding to develop a first proof of concept, which successfully went live with a Beta launch in late December. There was no need to raise any external capital and I used what little resources I had to cover the cost of the website domain and company registration. I haven’t spent a cent since.
Building a social good startup, 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 devote 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 meet, 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.
I am still very new at this startup thing and while I want to encourage others to take a leap of faith, I didn’t make it this far based on purely instinct and feeling. In fact it is quite the opposite. I have learnt that building a startup is an organized process of discovery and therefore I’m constantly listening and learning to improve my chances of success. This has required focusing on small tasks that will, I hope, fulfill my grander vision. As a result I have learn’t the importance of being able to differentiate between the things that are enjoyable to do and the things that actually need to be done. I could spend hours tweaking a photo or changing the copy of the website, but I realize that if I really want to get the things moving fast and test the idea, I need to be as productive as possible. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many hours that can be used effectively, so I frequently re-evaluate my to-do list and prioritize those tasks that are most pressing. ‘Can this wait?’ ‘Should I be doing this now?’ ‘How important is this?’ – I am always asking myself these questions. It remains an ongoing challenge as I am constantly drawn to the more exciting (but less important) elements of building a startup. Nevertheless without adopting such a work ethic I would probably still be mulling over the logo.
To know that I can take an idea, a simple thought, and make it a reality is an extremely rewarding and encouraging feeling. To truly understand the power of believing in oneself, having faith in ones own abilities, and not fearing to be wrong is a wonderful thing. It is astounding the amount of energy that materializes when you love what you are doing and when, oddly enough, the harder you work the more the universe seems to conspire in helping you. That is not to say I don’t have doubts, I have doubts on daily basis. I have to constantly remind myself that it is still just the beginning and to just enjoy the ride, one day at a time.
It has never been easier, cheaper and more rewarding to build a startup. If you have an idea that you think is worth pursuing then I urge you to put your doubts to one side and follow your instinct - ‘Leap and the net will appear’. I promise it will be one hell of an experience. Think big, start small, stay focused and believe in the power of entrepreneurship. Because if I can do it, any one can.
Promise to do something – anything – give up smoking, save more money or run a marathon. Try Promise Or Pay to get things done.
I promise to finish reading Shantaram or pay $50 to African People & Wildlife Fund – Michael Khan