Start-up stars: The ones to watch at Web Summit

Omaze gives people the chance to partake in great experiences – and for a good cause

When 2014 comes to a close, college friends Ryan Cummins and Matt Pohlson will have raised almost $20 million for charities in two years.

Their start-up Omaze gives members of the public the chance to win experiences such as a night out with George Clooney, riding a tank with Arnold Schwarzenegger and cooking a meal with Aaron Paul and the other cast members of Breaking Bad before sitting down to watch the season finale together. It takes a donation of $5 to enter and 80 per cent goes to charity.

After meeting at Stanford University, the two became friends and moved to LA. They went on to become directors of the environment concert Live Earth in 2007 and were executive producers for the Clinton Foundation's 10-year anniversary concert, Decade of Difference. "We saw we were creating awareness but not the level of impact we wanted," Cummins says. "We were getting lots of big splashes in the media but we wanted to have a long- lasting sustainable impact."

Auction vs raffle

Cummins and Pohlson decided to go back to business school and pursue MBAs. It was during this time they came up with the idea for Omaze after attending a benefit hosted by LA Lakers basketball player Magic Johnson, where he auctioned off the chance to sit with him courtside at a Lakers game and join him for dinner.

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While both are firm Laker fans, as broke students they could only watch as the bids escalated to $15,000. But it led them to question why experiences like this were only available to the select few who could bid thousands to charity.

“We had really wanted to participate in the auction but we were grad students with no money. That’s how we came up with Omaze,” Cummins says.

They decided to make the same types of experiences available online – for a small donation everyone could have a chance at winning. That way they could help generate significantly more money and awareness for deserving causes, and everyone could share the chance to live out dream experiences.

The start-up was launched in September 2012, but it didn’t have much luck in the initial months. “We weren’t lining up the perfect experiences and didn’t know how to leverage the celebrities on social media,” Cummins says.

Then they had a hit with a Star Wars experience which offered people the chance to be in Star Wars: Episode VII.

"It got 1.2 billion media impressions and raised $4.26 million for Unicef. The experience had donors from 125 countries around the world," says Cummins.

"The winner shot the scene with himself and his best friend. Disney and JJ Abrams pulled out all the stops. It was a closed set and they were out on it for five days. They did two days of filming during that."

The company initially raised $1 million in seed funding and has recently closed another funding round. It has grown from five employees at the beginning of the year to 32 staff.

“We have done over 250 experiences so we know what works and what doesn’t. We will never take on an experience that would do better at auction,” Cummins says.

These days, he adds, it is mostly inbound interest with celebrities and charities approaching Omaze with ideas. The start-up doesn’t charge the charities anything upfront but takes 20 per cent of what is raised.

Video marketing

“We design the campaign and do all the marketing and design behind the social promotion. We also design original video content. The videos garner a lot of traffic and attention. We did one with Arnold Schwarzenegger which garnered 20 million views.”

As for the future, Cummins hopes to roll out a platform worldwide, on which organisations can dream up and promote their own experiences. “We want to build a platform that will allow schools and small non-profit organisations to offer experiences themselves.”