Benelab: Saving the world, one search at a time

The whole idea of making something out of nothing and doing good with it may sound like a crazy idea, yet the internet and modern technology have actually made it possible. Advertising isn't a new idea, of course, but what is new is the ability to change something intangible, like a banner ad, into real money, and into real action. It's the whole idea behind sites like Bing and Google, and it's also the idea behind a new start-up called Benelab. The twist? Benelab gives all of its profits to charity.

Neowin recently got a chance to chat with Benelab founder Jack Kim about his innovative search engine and how it's helping to change lives around the world. The concept is a little bit similar to sites like Free Rice and Care2; users see ads, which generate money, which ends up going to charities who do good things with it. But rather than playing games or having visitors click on banners, Benelab generates funds while we do something we all do each and every day: search.

"Benelab is a nonprofit web startup dedicated to using the power of the internet to make philanthropy more common and accessible. Many people think of charity as something limited to the rich or "good", but in reality it's something that can and should be incorporated into anyone's daily life - you just have to know how," Jack explained to us. He started Benelab last year with help from some classmates (did we mention that Jack was a 16 year old high schooler? No?), but it wasn't his first venture into the search engine market.

Shrewd businessman that he is, Jack took advantage of the early Twilight craze to create Twiloogle, which was really just a chance to test out some of the skills he had learned in a high school web development class. Even though it was just a Twilight themed skin on top of the Google Custom Search Engine (CSE) platform, Jack discovered that he could actually generate a decent amount of cash through the project.

I was sort of amazed by the revenue I was able to generate with my minimalist website. I was seeing upwards of 10% on my click-through rates, which is extremely high compared to traditional content-based sites.

After attending a business camp at Stanford last summer, he decided to take advantage of what he already knew about search to build a philanthropic platform. Benelab was born.

...I really admired the start-up culture and wanted to be a part of it. So as soon as I came back from Cali I decided to form a start-up with the charitable search engine idea and made a list of my friends who I wanted to join my team. The reason for the nonprofit was that I really didn't care much about making money - I mean, I didn't have to feed myself, and experience was the only thing to gain.

This time things were a little different, though, and not just the charity part. Despite his good results with Google's CSE, the folks at Mountain View weren't exactly comfortable with participating in a charitable endeavor, concerned about false ad clicks, leaving Jack and company without a way to monetize their searches. After trying out a few smaller ad agencies, they ended up settling with Bing/Yahoo, and things have been going pretty smoothly since then.

By now there are 10 people people working with Jack on Benelab (at one point they even had an intern), all high schoolers, like Jack. “[I] got almost all of the people to join with one phrase: 'you know it really wouldn't hurt to say in your college apps that you helped found a nonprofit web startup in high school.'”

The Team:

L to R: Jack Kim, Devin Caplow, Caleb Thompson, Zoe Anderson, Dalton Caughell, Jake Delaney, Ben Seavello, Josh Pearson, Tavis Duncan, McKayla Matthews

We wondered if the team's young age would be a disadvantage, and whether they had ever had a hard time getting people to take them seriously. It turns out that it's been the other way around from day one. “From the first day I started Benelab I knew age was going to be an advantage for us. And we have used the age card a fairly large amount so far in our venture... Boom, press coverage.”

Sometimes it can be a little bit difficult to balance working on a project like Benelab with school, but Jack says it's worth it. "When that happened I just had to do the work myself - yes, it sucks, having to do the tasks assigned to 5 people by myself. I'm not complaining when I'm getting first hand experience on graphic design, PR, web dev, marketing."

Benelab's successes make it worthwhile, too. So far they've donated to projects ranging from providing mosquito nets to people in Uganda to providing hearing aids to children in developing countries. This month all of the generated funds are going towards providing hand-powered LED lanterns to students in Peru, so they can study even after sunset. "My personal favorite," Jack says, "has been the hearing aids, but it may be replaced by this month's cause."

So, what does the future hold for Benelab? The web has plenty of potential to be harnessed to do good, and that's where the 'lab' in Benelab comes in - Jack is more than happy to experiment with new forms of philanthropy. He'll be taking part in a startup incubator this summer, which will mean working over 40 hours a week (hopefully with a little help from his colleagues), and Benelab's goals are only getting more ambitious. Jack's biggest hope is to see donations reach the $10,000 mark by December. He's shooting for the $100,000 mark before he graduates high school, which isn't exactly pocket change.

In the meantime, there are plenty of ways that you, dear reader, can help out. There's the obvious, like searching, and spreading the word about Benelab and its mission, but Jack says they're always on the lookout for talented folks willing to lend a hand. "If you know someone that can help us, please contact us - PR firm, graphic designer, anything! It is support like this that can really boost our exposure and impact." We know we've got a lot of really talented readers, so if you've got some time on your hands, Benelab sounds like a really worthwhile endeavor.

With the whole charitable search engine thing out of the way, what other ambitions does Jack have on his plate? “We're redesigning Benelab Search, as well as launching a new product. [And] I'd love to meet Bill Gates. I guess we live pretty close, in the Seattle area,” he laughs.

Image via Benelab

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