Hamish Joins an Incubator and Working On His Passion To Disrupt Social Research Recruitment

Editor’s Note: I daresay Hamish MacDonald is a new breed of hustler. It’s well-understood that any investment deal comes at a small price, but this guy decided self-reliance was the way to go.

Mistake or no, it’s an admirable move, and sounds a whole lot more like true hustling than the majority of stories out there.


Like many entrepreneurship stories, ours started as a joke.

I was working for the University of Queensland as a social research grunt – cold calling people all around Australia and begging them to complete surveys, growing a very thick skin in the process. Before long, the horrible inefficiency of collecting opinions from people with no opinions to give and no motivation to give them became apparent. Frustrated, I joked to a friend that it would be easy to set up a better system of recruitment ourselves.

(Spoiler: It wasn’t easy).

My name is Hamish MacDonald. I’m a student of law and science (majoring in chemistry) at the University of Queensland. In 2012 I applied to iLab (Brisbane-based, university-owned startup incubator) with the vague idea of an online platform containing a comprehensive listing of paid research opportunities – a one-stop shop for people looking to make a social contribution, or just to earn some extra cash.

I brought on an old friend, a business and law student from QUT, as my partner – and somehow we were accepted into the germinate program, a three-day intensive startup workshop with a potential $20,000 at the end of the road. Without any real idea of what we were doing, we showed up at the workshop, feeling very much like sleepy-eyed lost children playing at grown-ups.

iLab was an amazing experience. We listened to lectures from an array of incredibly talented and successful people, including an original financer of PayPal, several local owners of small tech startups, and an established patent attorney. We met lots of aspiring entrepreneurs, several of whom have now successfully launched in Australia and internationally.

Most importantly, I realised that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Made To cut a long story short, we somehow got offered the $20,000. Don’t ask, because I have no idea. The deal was that they would provide this initial capital and mentoring, and in return would receive 10% of any profits we made. It was here that we made our first huge mistake: we decided to decline the $20,000 and take a shot at creating our platform ourselves.

It turns out web development is expensive – much more expensive than we thought. Even with our fairly basic requirements, most of the quotes we received were upwards of $16,000 (which may have well been millions for the broke university students we were).

We decided to start by better gauging how much of a market was actually present for research participants, and to this end managed to secure meetings with the University of Queensland and with Q-Pharm, the biggest clinical trial organisation in Queensland. These meeting were hugely encouraging, and we decide to pivot from our original focus on social research and instead focus on recruiting participants for clinical research (where they are badly needed). We knew that university students would be interested in participating – we just needed to reach them.

It was obvious that we couldn’t afford to pay for development, so we reapplied for iLab in 2013. We were accepted and eventually offered a place in their Incubate program. This is basically a program which includes support, office space and mentoring- but without that crucial startup capital.

At the advice of some great people at iLab, we decided to use WordPress to create a cheap site, which could act as a minimum viable product and allow us to at least begin recruiting participants. We hired a friend to create the databases and more advanced coding that we would require, and I began teaching myself HTML and basic PHP to fill out the rest. About four months later, at the dawn of 2014, we had a useable site: Participays.

A few months later and we finally had our first signed contracts (having written the contracts ourselves). The website isn’t finished, especially the content itself, but it’s getting close – we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to launch within the next few months.

Which leaves us in the present – planning our launch strategy, printing out posters, and writing a last-minute application for the Pocketbook-Zookal Scholarship in the hopes of raising some much needed advertising funds. Thanks for running this scholarship – I think it’s a really worthwhile idea.

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