Matt Pohlson, 41, is chief executive and co-founder of Omaze, a for-profit online fundraising company in Culver City that raffles off unique celebrity experiences and prizes to support charitable efforts and help fund nonprofits. Pohlson said Omaze has so far donated about $120 million of the proceeds for these campaigns to charity. Events have included Have the Ultimate Game of Thrones Finale Party With Emilia Clarke, and Ride Around in a Tank With Arnold and Crush Things, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Omaze, founded in 2012, has 100 employees. Omaze was a finalist in EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 Awards in Los Angeles.
How it works
One campaign underway is with football star J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans. The winner will be flown out to meet Watt, stay at a four-star Houston hotel, win $100,000 toward a home mortgage and receive a new Ford Raptor pickup truck. Some of the proceeds will go to the Justin J. Watt Foundation, which funds efforts to get children involved with sports. A $10 donation gives the participant 100 chances to win. Those who can afford to donate more get a commensurately higher chance of winning; $5,000, for example, will buy 50,000 chances to win. Pohlson said that 83% of the winners so far have donated $100 or less. “Everyone has a chance,” Pohlson said. “That’s the whole idea, that anyone can win. So it’s not just for wealthy people.”
Pohlson credits his parents, Gary and Teri, for instilling a sense of service while he was growing up in Laguna Niguel. “Dad was a criminal defense attorney who always tried to see the best in people,” Pohlson said. “A lot of times he was helping them through mistakes that they made. He was generous, loving. He was always giving back.... My mom, similarly, worked in a hospital, and she ran a program called No One Dies Alone where she would sit with people who didn’t have anyone else at the end of their life.”
After earning an economics degree at Stanford University, Pohlson pursued an acting career. Although he landed roles on “Everwood” on the WB network and on the network television show “Scrubs,” “I realized I wasn’t that good at acting. I got passionate about writing and producing. My passion was using storytelling to inspire action.”
At Stanford, he had befriended Ryan Cummins, who became a frequent collaborator culminating in Omaze. In 2007, he and Cummins “were the first directors on Live Earth to raise awareness for climate change, and it was on seven continents on one night. We did a documentary series called ‘Girl Rising’ about girls’ education in the developing world that was funded by Oprah [Winfrey] and Queen Rania of Jordan, and Meryl Streep was the narrator.”
To broaden his credentials, he added an MBA from the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. The idea for in 2011 Omaze came after a charity auction in Los Angeles to benefit the Boys and Girls Club that offered a chance to shoot hoops with former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and attend a Lakers game. The bidding quickly soared past affordability, but Pohlson and Cummins were intrigued.
“If we made it available to everyone we could have raised so much more money, so much more awareness, and open up a whole new donor base. And so that thought happened in my second year of business school, and then we went back to school and immediately started working on Omaze.”
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
Media entrepreneur and event producer Kevin Wall provided a big boost in terms of reputation and access to celebrities. “We had met him at Live Earth and worked with him on another project. He said, ‘If you work through me you’ll meet a lot of great people and I’ll be your first investor.’”
When the raffles involve celebrities, Pohlson said, “25% goes to marketing, we don’t take any of that. That’s just the hard costs of doing this. And 60% goes to the charity and 15% goes to Omaze.” A different formula is used when celebrities aren’t involved, he said. On a $1-million campaign, “Then it’s typically about $700,000 that goes into the prizing and the marketing. That leaves $300,000 and we split that with the charity 50-50. So they would net $150,000.”
Celebrities approach the company with ideas for what would bring in a lot of charitable donations. “Our first big campaign was the finale of ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” in 2013, when two winners got to ride to the series finale with Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and other cast members in the show’s original RV. Pohlson said that raised $1.7 million for an anti-bullying nonprofit called the Kind Campaign, founded by Paul’s wife, Lauren Parsekian.
Other campaigns require Omaze employees to be the driving force in arranging an event and prize drawing. “We look for people that are hungry to make a difference in the world. People who are just on fire to use their gifts and their capacity for good. We know we can have social impact and massive economic opportunity. We don’t think those two things should be trade-offs. We’re also looking for people who are great teammates, who are supportive but also willing to challenge each other to be better and have the courage to give uncomfortable feedback.”
Co-founder Cummins, who obtained his MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and still serves on the Omaze board, was crucial. “Ryan’s an incredibly bright, creative, charismatic person. And especially at the beginning when it was all about us going out and hustling and creating great content and going and persuading the most influential, famous, busiest people in the world to work with us, Ryan was just really good at helping, leveraging his network to help get Omaze off the ground. And then throughout the growth of Omaze, he was leveraging his creativity and his vision to help drive what we’ve become.”
“Part of our evolution is we’re doing really tangible projects that are having a big impact in Los Angeles,” Pohlson said. “We’re helping PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, build a community hub downtown, which is going to be the Omaze Community Hub. We’re going to raise $1 million for them for that. We’re providing meditation, training in optimism centers in LAUSD schools. We’re going to be working with UCLA around medical services that they can’t fund right now that we’re going to help fund. So I’m really excited that we’re able to give back to the local Los Angeles community.”
Fear is motivating
People tend to think entrepreneurs “took every step with courage and prescience, like they knew everything that was going to happen along the way, and that’s just not the case. I’ve been so scared so many times. I had no idea what I was doing so many times, and I think that can be freeing,” Pohlson said. “Everything you want is on the other side of fear. It’s scary but if you take the leap to the other side, you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
When he’s not working, Pohlson says he loves to cook and host friends. To wind down, Pohlson said, “I love meditation. I also read a lot of biographies, I love biographies. My favorite? I really liked Walter Isaacson’s ‘Ben Franklin: An American Life.’ I think he might have been the most impactful American ever.”