How would you like to spend time with Serena Williams, hang out with Jennifer Lawrence, spend a day with Cristiano Ronaldo, ride in a tank and crush a car with Arnold Schwarzenegger or have John Legend sing at your wedding? These amazing experiences and more could all be possible through an incredible organization called Omaze, which not only provides you the opportunity to have a once in a lifetime dream experience, but more importantly raises money for incredible charities.
So far Omaze has provided, 160,000 underserved children with after-school programs and 11,700 people with safe drinking water. Their “Star Wars Force For Change” campaign raised $4.2M for UNICEF Innovation Labs and in the last few months, the campaign to attend the taping of Jon Stewart‘s last Daily Show raised over $2M for New York Collaborates Against Autism“.
In awe of what they have accomplished and eager to get a chance to win a dream experience myself, I arranged an interview with the two founders, Ryan Cummins and Matt Pohlson, to see how Omaze came to be.
Q. How did Omaze come to be?
A. Ryan Cummins: Matt and I have been friends and big Lakers fans for a longtime. We were able to attend a charity gala hosted by Magic Johnson benefitting the Boys and Girls Club of America, where he auctioned off the chance to sit with him courtside at a Lakers game. The experience raised $15,000 – something there was no way we would have been able to afford.
In the car ride on the way home we started to talk about how a prize which was so priceless in our minds could only generate $15,000 for such a great cause and how much more could have been raised if any Magic fan had the chance to enter for just $10. We were convinced numerous smaller dollar entries would ultimately raise significantly more funds and more awareness for the cause. That anyone could have a chance of winning his or her dream experience was so exciting to us.
From that moment the idea really started to grow into what Omaze is today, which is a cause marketplace that has made giving fun and that brings together charities, celebrities and influencers, consumers and super fans –to make a difference in the lives of others.
Q. How does Omaze work?
A. Matt Pohlson: Omaze partners with celebrities, film studios, sports franchises, brands, influencers and charities to create the kind of dream experiences fans and consumers never thought possible. In the past few years we’ve given people the chance to win everything from riding in a tank with Arnold Schwarzenegger, winning a walk on role in the new Star Wars movie, to having John Legend sing at your wedding. For a donation of $10 you receive 100 chances to win the experience.
The more you donate, the more chances you have to win. We also offer exclusive campaign perks for larger donations. We’ve found that we’re able to raise 20x the amount of funds for the charities we support than if these experiences had been auctioned.
We’re incredibly proud of the impact the Omaze community has made. Some of the things we’ve accomplished so far include providing 160,000 underserved children with after-school programs and 11,700 people with safe drinking water. Our Star Wars Force For Change campaign raised $4.2M for UNICEF Innovation Labs and in the last few months, our campaign to attend the taping of Jon Stewart‘s last Daily Show raised over $2M for New York Collaborates Against Autism.
Q. What was the hardest part about starting Omaze?
A. Initially, the biggest challenge we faced was convincing people that Omaze would work. And that included investors, charities and celebrities, pretty much in that order. From what we observed, celebrities had been partnering with charities to offer experiences through traditional auction models (much like that experience we had with Magic) but there wasn’t much evidence of celebrities offering unique experiences to everyone online via a raffle-like model. To build that opportunity we knew we’d need a platform, which would require talent and capital. After spending a few months doing our legal due diligence and putting together an initial business plan, we set out to raise our seed round.
We took endless meetings, sharing our vision for Omaze and aspirations to democratize experiences with everyone from Magic Johnson and Lady Gaga to Modern Family. It took six months but ultimately we raised our first million dollars from an assortment of angels, which included everyone from seasoned investors to previous employers to concert producers (and even a few college friends). Most of them were pen about the fact that they were taking a bet on our passion and conviction, because it was still largely unclear if any celebrities would sign on to do this. Once we had the capital, we were able to patch together what in retrospect was a very rudimentary site, but it got the job done.
Our first experience was the chance to visit the set of Cupcake Wars, which raised $700. But in the months to come we continued to convince charities and celebrities that this would be the future of fundraising, while constantly making improvements to the site. And just one year later, we found ourselves launching experiences with Magic Johnson, Lady Gaga, and Modern Family, and we knew we were finally going to be able to prove our model worked.
Q. How do you choose the causes that you support?
A. Matt Pohlson: Our charity partners often come to us because they’ve seen or heard about the work we’ve done for other charities. A number of partners already have a relationship with a celebrity who is passionate about the cause and are looking to find the best way to maximize the time they have with that celebrity and the impact they can make. Recently we’ve started to partner with studios, such as Paramount who want to use the iconic franchises in their stable to drive more of their philanthropic efforts. In the case of Star Trek, Paramount and Bad Robot, JJ Abrams’ production company, reached out to each of the principle cast members from the Star Trek movie franchise and asked them to choose a charity they would like to see funds from an Omaze campaign benefit. This was the first time a single Omaze campaign supported nine global causes equally.
Q. What are some of the amazing dream experiences you offer and have offered?
A. Ryan Cummins: This is tough question, and we always struggle with a short answer because each experience we put on is remarkable so it’s hard to narrow to just a few. Some of our favorite experiences have been:
– Enjoy the best night of your live with Robert Downey Jr. Our winner not only won the chance to fly in helicopter over the Hollywood sign, go indoor sky-diving, and get fitted for a tux, he and his wife also had a caviar tasting with Robert Downey Jr. before joining him in his motorcade to the Premiere of Avengers: Age of Ultron. And Julia’s House, the benefitting charity that is a hospice center for children, will now be building a brand new center from the $2.1M raised through this campaign.
– Have John Legend sing at your wedding. Our two winners, Allen and Cindy, had to wait eleven years to get married for a very touching reason. Now, this October, that will have all paid off and John Legend will be there to add an additional memory for all in attendance.
– Ride in a tank and crush a car with Arnold Schwarzenegger. When we found out Arnold actually owns his own tank, it was pretty much a no-brainer that this would be the ideal experience. And it didn’t disappoint, for the winner, or for After-School All Stars which raised $1.12M through this campaign.
– Win a role in the new Star Trek Beyond movie, which was the first time we had eight principal cast members of an iconic franchise film unite to support nine remarkable causes that have an impact around the world.
– Ride in an RV with Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston to the Breaking Bad premiere, where the winners actually got to put on hazmat suits with the cast.
– Have a date with George Clooney. Clearly this one took place pre-Amal, and the winner, who is a single mother, elected to bring her lovely eleven year old daughter and they had a ball. After walking the red-carpet, they even sat with George and his parents for the premiere of his film, Monument’s Men;
And the list goes on and on, from Being interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, to Warming upwith Serena Williams at Indian Wells, to Hanging with Jennifer Lawrence at the Premiere of Mockingjay, and so many more…
Q. What have you accomplished with Omaze?
A. Matt Pohlson: Omaze’s mission is to use the power of story and technology to transform lives – and in doing so revolutionize the way people give. Today only 6% of funds are donated online. We believe we can change that and in the process generate more awareness of critical issues and raise more funds for great causes. This is a big mission and we’re just at the start of the journey, but we are so proud of the accomplishments we’ve made to date. From a business perspective we have a built a phenomenal team who are all dedicated to our mission and higher purpose to serve world changers.
We’ve created unique technology solutions and developed a legal infrastructure that allows us to raise funds via sweepstakes in almost every country around the world. But for our team, the real accomplishments are the impact that raising those funds has had on people around the world. Thanks to the Omaze community – our charities, celebrity and influencer partners and our customers – we have been able to raise money for more than 100 charities and we’ve received donations from 160 countries.
We have helped UK charity Julia’s House build a new children’s hospice center in the UK, supported (RED) campaign’s goal to see 10,000 babies enter the world free of HIV, 100 athletes being able to participate in the 2015 Special Olympic World Games, 20,000 hours of community service fellowships awarded to military veterans and 79,000 disaster survivors have been empowered with recovery resources. And so much more. We are incredibly thankful and honored to be a part of this remarkable community effort.
Q. What is your best advice for new entrepreneurs?
A. Ryan Cummins: There have been a few key lessons that have really stood out for me during this past three years of building Omaze. The first is that none of this would have been possible had we not been able to apply our passion towards a higher purpose of serving world changers.
That may seem simple, but establishing a higher purpose early on in the process is one of the most challenging things for many of the other entrepreneurs I’ve met. But with the thousands of decisions that need to be made at each stage of our company’s growth, across all of the different functions of the team, and in response to all of the market opportunities, a single well-defined and collectively agreed upon higher purpose suddenly becomes a clarifying guiding light. The next lesson we had to learn was how to manage.
When we started building the team, Matt and I were new managers – we’d only really ever worked for ourselves and we didn’t have much experience in terms of guiding others, so we made a lot of mistakes. But over time we began to adopt a philosophy of servant-leadership, which entails really placing an emphasis on serving all other members of the team to be in a position to do their best work and thrive.
A lot of good things started happening at Omazewhen we made that transition. And finally, and this may sound a bit simple, but don’t over think things. A lot of time gets wasted on small decisions that may seem bigger than they are. But the real learning takes place in repeated observation, so the goal for us to make as many clear decisions with an expected outcome as quickly as possible, so that over time the pattern recognition emerges and more and more time can be applied to doing.