Originally published October 27, 2016.

Thomas Noppen and his team noticed that there was a massive disconnect between people wanting to donate products and services and the refugees they were intended for. Their solution was HiMate!, a digital marketplace that connects people in a direct and non-bureaucratic way.

HiMate! is passionate about working WITH the people we want to help, not just FOR them. With the launch of their crowdfunding campaign, their goal is to develop solutions that work and not just solutions that make us feel better. How they plan to do that, you can read all about in this interview with HiMate! founder, Thomas Noppen.

What was the motivation for founding HiMate!? How did it all begin?

We started HiMate! after a rather frustrating experience we had when visiting refugee shelters to see how we could help. We realized the shelters were faced with a lot of issues; overstuffed clothing stores, no central responsible individual to facilitate questions, and, most importantly, no direct contact with refugees. We saw that many businesses faced the same problem. They wanted to help by donating their products or services, but didn’t have the time to figure out who’s in charge and call a dozen different people to find out. As a result, we had huge potential and readiness to help on the one side that wasn't being realized – and refugees isolated in shelters with no opportunity to connect on the other. So we decided to build a platform that brings the two sides together in a direct and non-bureaucratic way. That’s what HiMate! is: A marketplace for refugee help, where people meet.

Tell us more about how HiMate! works — who can use the app and to what extent? How does the voucher system work?

On HiMate! businesses and organizations can place their offer as vouchers. They tell us what their offer is (cinema tickets, hair-cut, language-course etc.), we translate the offer into different languages and put the offer on our platform –as free vouchers. Refugees download our app or visit our website, register via E-Mail or Facebook and reserve vouchers. With the voucher code they go directly to the companies to redeem them. That way we allocate help efficiently while bringing people together. So far the offer is exclusively for refugees who register on HiMate! We check their status. In the long run, we want to extend our offer to other groups to integrate them better. We want to become a tool that makes social layers more permeable in general.  

How have the vouchers been received by refugees? Has it had the desired impact? 

The system is now well received and we get more users by the week. The concept of a voucher needed some explanation at first, as it is not as common in other cultures as in ours. After 9 months of testing and running the app and collecting feedback from our users, we now know which offers are most attractive to our users – and how we have to communicate our offer. In July we decided to focus exclusively on tickets and then include other offers as we go along. This has helped us to attract considerably more users as tickets create immediate moments of integration without a lot of logistical effort. Especially since then we have seen clear impact of what we do. We get daily messages and feedback both from our users and corporate partners. Now we want to include more offers to increase our relevance beyond leisure time offers.

How is your organization set up and how are you funded? 

HiMate! is currently still a project under the roof of our partner Delodi, a software company, who, among others, helped us develop our app. We received our first funding through the entrepreneurs organization “Entrepreneur's Pledge” in February this year. This helped us hire a full-time CEO. All other members of our team are volunteers.

In order to grow out team, we recently started a crowdfunding campaign on startnext: www.startnext.com/himate.

What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced in establishing HiMate!? How did you overcome them? 

Trust is a big issue. We cannot just build an app, put it out there and tell people: “You take it from here.” Even if unsurprisingly our users always liked the fact that we had free offers, they wouldn’t just use it like that. Questions like “where’s the catch?,” “what if my German is too bad when I go there,” or simply the fear of being labelled as a person “in need” kept many people from approaching us at first. So we needed to work on our communication and increase personal contact to build trust.

Today we’re visiting shelters almost every day to show our users the faces behind the product. This is very time-consuming but key to building our user-base. Apart from that, we’re organizing events with refugees, have refugees working with us in our team and cooperating with as many other organizations in our field to increase our reach. 

"We want to find solutions that work, not solutions that make us feel better."

What advice would you give to social businesses who primarily use an online platform to invoke change? 

As I already mentioned, you cannot (and should not) go 100% online when working with human beings – especially when your target group is in a special situation like the one refugees find themselves in. You have to establish a personal connection with the people you want to win over as users.

Your technology is a tool that makes your life easier once your users trust you. But building trust happens offline.

In our case, this means that users have to make the HiMate! experience at least 1 or 2 times before using it via the app. Sometimes we met groups or people in front of the cinema ourselves to hand over printed tickets. Then came the experience, then the trust, and then the switch to our convenient technology. Another complicating factor when working with refugees is the different “technology-culture.” Sometimes, people only use Facebook and Whatsapp. So it takes a while to “establish” ourselves on our users’ smartphone. 

How can people get involved and support HiMate!?

We are always looking for creative people who think they can contribute something. Our core business involves contact with refugees and businesses, but I want to encourage anyone to join us. So if anyone out there is visiting our website after reading this and thinks that he/she can do certain things way better than we’re doing it so far, I’d be happy to meet!

What makes you a changer? 

We want to integrate people effectively and we want to find solutions that work, not solutions that make us feel better.

We have learned a lot about the people we want to help and we have adapted our concept accordingly. The central element of our DNA at HiMate! is that we work WITH the people we want to help, not just FOR them. This makes our offer better and more relevant and puts us on equal ground with our users.

We don’t want to be the patronizing helpers who have giveaways for the ones in need. We’re a friend you ask if you need something - a digital mate: HiMate!