Omaze founders Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins are saving the world by creating memorable experiences.
For just five dollars, you could fly with a friend to Los Angeles, hang out backstage at a filming of “The Big Bang Theory,” and spend time—”geek out”—with the star of the show afterward. Or are you more of a “Gleek”? For the same five bucks, you could be in the front row when they tape the biggest show of the season, and attend a VIP reception with the stars of “Glee.” Maybe you dream of singing on Broadway, or of meeting Lady Gaga. Or perhaps the experience of a lifetime for you would be to get close to another kind of power, and talk with the hosts of “Meet the Press,” nine days before the U.S. presidential election. Are any of those worth $5 to you?
If any of these experiences sound like a priceless dream come true, then the story Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins have spun has hooked you. Next, the storytellers of Omaze want to reel you in, and educate you on what your five dollars goes to support.
“In entertainment, in storytelling, you introduce people to an ordinary world that they can get accustomed to, then 15 minutes in you have a surprising incident,’ Ryan explains. “Slowly, you lock the character into a journey they can’t escape from.”
Young entertainment industry hopefuls from northern California’s Stanford University will band together with as many as they can stand to live with, subsisting on peanut butter and ramen, in order to save money while making industry connections over summer breaks from college. In 2000, a mutual friend at Stanford introduced undergraduates Ryan and Matt because they were both LA-bound for a summer of making contacts, and thought they might get along. They became friends, and both men spent the next decade achieving successes in entertainment.
Yet, “Hollywood mainstream entertainment channels weren’t as fulfilling as we expected them to be,” Ryan says. “There were projects we kept being drawn to. Stories that carried deeper connections, and engagement with the audiences and with the people involved in those stories.” He traced the plot arc of The Lord of the Rings: an inciting event—finding the ring—leading the Hobbits and their friends on their heroic journey. “They can no longer live in their ordinary world any more. They have to change.”
Whether it was educating girls in the developing world or saving the environment, the projects Ryan and Matt worked on in Hollywood were innovative, even historic, but they weren’t saving the world fast enough. So they each went back to school to earn an MBA—Ryan at UCLA-Anderson, and Matt at Wharton—in order to find the solution to a problem endemic to fundraising: sustaining energy and raising enough money to truly make a difference.
“To take the original passion for storytelling that drew us to Hollywood, and apply it to stories that had a much more tangible effect on the world around us. This was the transition that took a bit of time,” says Ryan.
The spark for the creation of Omaze came during grad school, when the friends attended an auction for a cause they both found worthy: The Boys & Girls Club of America. The prize was one either man would have loved to have won: to have dinner and watch a Lakers game with Magic Johnson. As the bids rose beyond their reach, they thought of how many fans like themselves would have been willing to buy tickets in a drawing to win such a prize. The final bid for Magic was a disappointing $15K. Matt and Ryan knew they could do better.
While a celebrity auction only allowed celebrities to raise funds from their richest fans, Omaze gives celebrities an opportunity to speak to all of their fans and get their support of a good cause. The most devoted fans spread the word, flock to the Omaze site, and bid on experiences for just five dollars, again and again if they want and can afford to, or just once, and hope, as with any lottery, that they might make the winning bid.
Describing the effect of a “Glee” fan winning an appearance on her favorite show, Ryan says “this big fan who entered so many times, just to watch her shriek and almost begin to cry at the pure excitement of it is really tremendous.”
Both of the Omaze founders are passionate about veterans issues, both having military vets in their families. A recent experience offered by Omaze was a paintball training with real former Navy SEALs to benefit Team Rubicon, an organization that was born when veterans banded together to provide disaster relief in Haiti after earthquakes devastated the island nation in 2010. Team Rubicon offers job training to veterans, to apply what they’ve learned through their military experiences to providing disaster relief. “We have an obligation and a duty to empower veterans,” Ryan says. “We look at vets as assets.” As a result of a day on Malibu Beach, simulating intense combat, an office administrator, a real estate agent, a UFC fighter, and others who won the day-long paintball training experience now have a memory they will not forget, a connection to people they would otherwise never have met, and “a small glimpse into the lives of the people who serve our country.”
Matt explained how their study of neuroplasticity and memory has been instrumental in the experiences Omaze creates. Events that are ordinary and expected go into short term memory and eventually fade away. “Habituation is what we’re accustomed to—like background noise—and your brain ignores them.” In contrast are the extraordinary events, from being slapped across the face to winning courtside seats with Magic Johnson. “What goes into long term and becomes who we are, are memories of sensitized events.”
The winners of the Navy SEAL experience “simulated what it’s like for those guys to go through training to go into battle. Being challenged—playing Risk against a four-star general—you have to go outside your comfort zone. That makes an experience memorable. Then there’s uniqueness of it, something you would have no other way of getting makes an experience very memorable. For the people who won ‘Always Sunny in Philadelphia,’ they claim they’ve watched each episode ten times, and now they go to the set and play trivia against them: that’s unique. They’ll remember that for rest of their lives.”
All of the storytelling and documentation of winners’ excitement is not incidental to raising money for nonprofits. Education is integral to the Omaze experience, from learning about the causes that the prizes benefit, to what past winners have gained from having the experiences of their dreams. Fans who buy tickets to a raffle for a “Glee” experience on the Omaze site can read about The Young Storytellers Foundation, which benefits from proceeds of the raffle. Stories and photos of past events and the winners are another feature of the Omaze site. “The final part is to learn how the celebrities got to where they are, their habits that we can emulate,” Matt says.
Through Omaze, Matt and Ryan are achieving their dreams, and helping celebrities and fans support the causes that are doing good and doing it well. Organizations that Omaze has benefitted provide arts education in public schools, teach writing to incarcerated youth, and support other visionary causes. “There are a lot of great organizations out there. We look for small, nimble organizations that quantify their impact and raise money for them,” says Matt. The other half of the equation, that of finding celebrities willing to work with Omaze, has been “easier than we expected,” says Ryan. “Our model offers something to offer their fan bases: a unique point of engagement.”
Synergy is important not only in allowing Omaze to maximize the good it can do, but is also important to its founders in their personal lives. Ryan says of the men he most admires that “each has cultivated a lifestyle that enables them both to pursue their business interests to keep the engine running, but simultaneously share an equal focus on their family.”
Matt expressed the difficulty of being a good man in the 21st century this way: “In my grandfather’s generation, men expressed love through working hard. Now we have a responsibility to be more open, emotionally available individuals both to the people we’re with and our family. That kind of communication and understanding can be very powerful—it’s hard to quantify—but it leads to more open and accepting family, and then society, and when we’re more accepting, we collaborate, and we solve problems.”
Ryan described the story arc of “the good life,” as it was expressed to him by his aunt. “My aunt told me this just after her husband passed in his early forties. She was raising three kids when I was in my twenties, and she said ‘Your twenties are just a time to think about yourself and make as many mistakes as you can and fill your head with as much knowledge as you can. But by your thirties you have to begin shifting your focus to your loved one who you’ll spend your life with, and then your kids, and then in your forties its about your family and the community around you.’ That really resonated with me. it offered as clear a path as any for pursuit of a good life.”
Learn more about the experiences of a lifetime you can win for a five dollar donation at Omaze.com.
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