What is Karma?
Steven van Wel’s last company made entire apartment complexes. His new company sells a device that fits in the palm of your hand. But don’t think his ambitions have gotten any smaller. The goal of his new company, Karma, is to open access to the internet to anyone, anywhere.
Karma sells mobile hot-spots, like several other companies, but Karma’s offer a social twist. The wifi from Karma devices is not password protected and when other people use the wifi from your Karma device, you get a free 100mb of data. First time users don’t have to pay up front, they can simply make an account and be online within seconds.
Steven and the Karma team now work out of the Fueled Collective in Soho, where he met Teghvir (.Bk’s own founder) when Teg was scouting locations for the .Bk lookbook shoot. Teg thought that Stephen’s history of innovative thinking embodied the ethos of his Founders collection, so Teg decided that instead of using a model for the shoot, he’d use the real thing – Steven.
Van Wel, originally from the Netherlands, came up with the idea for Karma while on a trip with several other entrepreneurs to San Francisco. “You come to a city like San Francisco,” van Wel says, “and you think there’s wifi everywhere, but not where you need it most.”
Exploring the city, van Wel wanted to get online in places like Golden Gate Park and his favorite coffee shop, Sightglass, but was unable to use any of the wifi signals he found.
“You end up going to Starbucks, not because you want to, but because they have free wifi, and there’s all these other people who have the same idea.” And in places with open wifi signals, the competition leads to “the only thing more frustrating than no wifi, which is slow wifi,” said van Wel.
These frustrations led to the conception of Karma. Van Wel notes that “there’s enough wifi for everyone, but everyone is trying to secure their own wifi.”
Karma promotes a more cooperative model for the mobile wifi market; instead of zealously guarding your private wifi, or competing for the same weak signal in a Starbucks, Karma’s operating principle is paying it forward. Even when you’re not using it, it makes sense to carry your device around, because anybody else who uses it earns you free data.
Van Wel is no stranger to the startup world. Back in his native Netherlands, he was working at a design agency while still living with his parents and knew he needed to find his own apartment.
But as someone accustomed to designing things himself, he wasn’t content to simply find an apartment. He wanted to design it from the ground up. Van Wel and a friend found a collective of people who thought similarly, pooled money, and gave them the ability to customize their future living space before it was even built.
He parlayed his work on the apartment collective into work on a real estate magazine. Van Wel found the work laborious and decided the workflow could be improved.
With the help of a new website, he and the team cut the necessary work from 40 hours a week, to 5 hours, and eventually down to less than an hour a week, without sacrificing the quality of the product.
We were drawn to Steven because of that part of his character which, instead of taking a safer and more conventional career path, would rather gamble on a new, untested idea and build a company around it.
Steven has spent his life following his own vision, which has now taken him across the ocean into the heart of New York City as he tries to expand Karma. Time will tell the story of Karma, but if it doesn’t work out, or even if it does, don’t be surprised to see Steven found another company. It’s in his blood.