How I Started A $4K/Month Platform That Offers Opportunities To Go Volunteering Abroad

Published: August 6th, 2020
Shay Gleeson
Founder, HelpStay
from Dublin, Ireland
started February 2014
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Shay Gleeson and I started HelpStay in February 2014. HelpStay is a subscription-based volunteering platform where travelers of all ages can exchange their time, skills, and talents for accommodation. Our motto is ‘Give a little help, stay for free’.

HelpStay makes traveling and volunteering easy, safe, affordable, and accessible to everyone. One of the main benefits is that it drastically reduces the traveler’s accommodation costs when overseas. With HelpStay, you can literally ‘travel on a shoestring’.

We charge members a yearly subscription fee of Euro €29.99 ($33). These members can reach out and connect with hosts, and start planning their trip overseas. Our MRR is currently averaging approx. USD $4,000.

It’s exciting to curate a real community where our members can travel the world with a purpose, and benefit the communities they visit. Our typical member is aged between 18-38 years old, time-rich but cash-poor - educated to a high level and interested in traveling and giving back.

Screenshot of the mobile version of the HelpStay platform

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Before starting HelpStay, I worked in the IT industry in various roles. I started in customer care and then I got into web development for a time and finally ended up in hardware sales where I spent 12 years.

Along the route, we’ve learned a lot of useful lessons, made expensive mistakes, won and lost a few battles, and done a lot of flying by the seat of our pants.

I always wanted to branch out on my own but I was never quite sure how I was going to do it. In hindsight, I guess I was picking up a lot of valuable skills along the way. I wrote a blog post in our journal on how I found my calling.

I was interested in traveling and exploring other countries. I was particularly interested in slow travel, preferring to spend a few weeks in a new country.

During these travel trips, I could see that a lot of backpacker hostels were offering a free bed to guests in exchange for help with some simple tasks around the hostel. Tasks such as reception duties and cleaning.

I guess that was the kernel of the idea. I thought why not wrap a piece of technology around this exchange. But let's not just include backpacker hostels - let’s create a database doing this for Farms, House Holders, Art Retreat Centres, Ecovillages, Surf Lodges, Vineyards, Ranches, and Schools.

In February 2014, I left my full-time job. I had some savings which were enough to keep me afloat for 6-8 months.

I wanted to get the platform built as soon as possible so I commissioned an outside agency to build it. I could have developed it myself but I felt speed was of the essence. If I started building the platform myself, I knew it would involve a lot of learning. This was too big of a risk to take as I would have gotten bogged down in development and never have launched as quickly.

We launched version one of the platforms in May 2014 with 5 hosts. We got our first customer in a couple of days.

Before launch, I spent a lot of time on social media spreading the word about our platform. I always knew that as we were providing a niche service and that the best place to find our tribe of users was online.

We also ran some paid adverts on Facebook with mixed results. At the outset, we also collected email addresses and started building our newsletter list.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The platform was built from scratch using personal funds. We paid an outside web development company to build the platform.

The platform is relatively simple in what it does. It’s an online marketplace that connects hosts (who require help with their projects) with helpers (who offer their help in exchange for a bed).

As with any online marketplace, the real challenge is to get parties to sign up and use your marketplace.

Finding hosts is hard but finding great hosts is extremely difficult. We found our first hosts in Ireland by contacting the local tourist agency. They put us in contact with our first 5 hosts. We visited these hosts and photographed their properties. Luckily, these hosts were great hosts who bought into what we were trying to achieve. We wrote a post in our blog about the characteristics that we believe make a great host.

Finding helpers is also tricky and can be expensive.

SEO (search engine optimization) was (and still is) very important when building our business online. From the outset, organic traffic is what we concentrated upon.

We purchased a site on for USD 5,000 in our genre - that had good organic traffic. With modifications and rejigging, we were able to drive a lot of the traffic from this site to our platform. This has been a good source of traffic.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We launched as soon as we had a minimal viable product (MVP). Our MVP included a billing system to handle subscription payments.

By the time it came to launch, we had generated some traction through social media using both organic and paid methods.

We concentrated all our efforts online. We contacted several big travel blogs who were active in the same market that we were trying to enter. We arranged some interviews/posts with these guys. We paid for most of these blog posts but we also managed to get some free mentions and features in both online and offline publications - all good for publicity and SEO.

I think one of the most important lessons that we’ve learned is always to be making sure that you can be found online organically.

Always be building your business online organically to ensure sustainability. This is one of the main points that we wrote about in a recent post we wrote about What 6 years of bootstrapping a startup has taught me

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Finding customers is a constant challenge. You hit upon a good source of traffic and everything is going well. Then all of a sudden Google changes their algorithms affecting your ranking, your traffic plummets and you’re on the back foot looking for another source of traffic.

That’s our biggest challenge - maintaining our traffic.

Traffic and paid subscriptions are directly related. If we get a surge in traffic from our core market, in turn, this generates a surge in paid subscriptions.

Our Facebook group

Our latest endeavor to help generate traffic has been the Volunteering Abroad Community Facebook group. Our group has currently 11K members. There’s a bit of work involved with the group as you have to ensure that it’s actively managed. We use a freelancer that spends about 15 hours a month working on the group.

The group came about from a conversation I had with our freelancer (Dorota). I asked her for suggestions on ways to grow traffic and she suggested starting a Facebook group where group members can ask questions about volunteering abroad. The purpose of the group is completely informational - group members ask questions and receive answers from both the moderators (that's us) and other group members. Through the group, users get to know our service as we use the group to tell them about our latest volunteering opportunities.

At first, the group was slow to take off. We promoted the group on our website and via our weekly newsletter. We updated the group every other day - to show activity. We could see that Facebook gives better placement to groups that are more active and updated regularly. We share all our blog posts on the group also.

We're always trying different content formats in the group to see what drives better engagement. Currently, the content format showing the best engagement is user polls about topics related to travel and volunteering.

The group is proving successful in delivering user engagement and signups. It’s something we’re continuing to develop and spend time on. It’s a great low-cost source of both traffic and paid signups.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Our MMR is now pretty consistent on a month to month basis. There’s an upswing in the summer months (May-August). Existing members tend to travel during these months. We get more new joiners in these months also.

Members pay a one-off yearly membership fee and most tend to renew their membership - staying with us as paying members for an average period of two years.

Reducing our monthly outgoings is a big focus for us this year. We're monitoring these costs very closely and shaving where possible. This year alone we’ve managed to reduce our Mailchimp costs by half. We’ve also reduced our monthly banking charges to zero. Our total outgoings costs year to date are tracking between $1500-2000/month.

Rather than focusing on just growth, we’re focused on improving our service. We like the idea of running a bootstrapped business efficiently with tight control over our outgoings.

Sustainability is important to us. Rather than show exponential growth, we’d be as happy to show consistent monthly revenue, where we know each month what revenue we’ll expect to make, along with what outgoings we’ll expect to occur.

The COVID-19 created a new set of circumstances for the travel-related businesses. Our business is affected - people are not traveling. Our philosophy is batten down the hatches and weather the storm. We believe that we have a lean enough business to survive - we’re currently cutting our cloth to measure. We’ll keep doing what we always do, publishing content as we always do, and be ready to emerge in a stronger position when the virus ends.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Along the route, we’ve learned a lot of useful lessons, made expensive mistakes, won and lost a few battles, and done a lot of flying by the seat of our pants.

We wrote a post where we share some pieces of wisdom that we’ve learned from developing a bootstrapped subscription-based marketplace.

Photo of coworking space

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our platform is built using Ruby on rails. We use the following services and products to manage our business on a day to day basis.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

We’re active on the Indie Hackers platform and we listen to Rolf Potts Podcasts.

Books that we read and found insightful:

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

If you have an entrepreneurial itch - scratch it. Those around will tell you that you’re crazy and stupid but never mind them.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!