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A tech startup is making millions helping charity go viral online

Omaze has brought a crowdfunding model to the world of charitable giving

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Chances are you've seen an Omaze video, although you may not have realized what company was behind it. The Santa Monica, California-based startup blew up tanks with Arnold Schwarzenegger, hung out with Iron Man, and handed out a cameo appearance for one lucky fan in the new Star Wars film. These experiences racked up millions of views, and along the way raised millions for non-profit causes. But while these might have seemed like run of the mill charitable campaigns, they were in fact part of a brand new for-profit business model.

Omaze was founded by Ryan Cummins and Matt Pohlson, best friends from college who reunited at the Clinton Foundation to work on the Decade of Difference concert series. While at the Clinton Foundation, they attended a charity auction put on by Magic Johnson. A room full of very wealthy people bid for the grand prize: a chance to sit courtside at a Lakers game with Johnson and then join him for dinner.

"We didn't win the prize, of course," says Pohlson. "It was frustrating because we knew that that experience was priceless. It was definitely worth more than the $15,000 some rich guy paid for it." That frustration became the seed of an idea that blossomed into Omaze. "What if we could give everyone the chance to win that prize," explains Cummins. "And win or lose, we made you part of an experience that provided value against what you gave."

Omaze has gone on to build dozens of charitable experiences that allow an unlimited number of fans from around the world to donate to a good cause for a chance to win a once in a lifetime experience. It's similar to the Kickstarter model, and in fact often gives small rewards to people who pledge even if they don't win the grand prize. The company's next step is to follow the lead of crowdfunding startups and create a platform that anyone can use without heavy hands on involvement from the Omaze team, allowing them to scale beyond one-off events with celebrities to power any charitable campaign, anywhere in the world, no matter how big or small.