Metro, Business

New Startup Retriever Helps Users Recover Lost Objects

Every week, countless people lose some item important to them, whether it’s their keys, phone, wallet, or jacket. Getting that item back can involve retracing steps to where the item might have been lost, numerous phone calls, and a lot of frustration. But Retriever, a Boston startup created by seven Harvard Business School students, seeks to make the return of lost items as painless as possible, using unique Retriever tags.

“You can think of Retriever as a success-based insurance policy that only has a cost to someone if it actually delivers them value,” said Cliff Longley, one of the founders of Retriever.

Retriever involves a simple process and is completely free until an item is to be returned. Tags and stickers can be ordered and delivered for free, and attached to almost any item. The owner then registers each item online and sets a monetary reward to be paid upon the return of a lost item. When someone finds a lost item, they log it online, are shipped a prepaid box, and they then mail the item back to the owner, receiving the reward in return.

Retriever is actually modeled after other companies trying to facilitate the return of lost items, but the difference is in the business model. While other companies make consumers pay directly for the tags, Retriever is completely free until one loses something and it is found. The Retriever team reasoned that people would be much less willing to pay for insurance if they had a high degree of confidence that they would not lose the item they were tagging, offering a “finders fee” rather than an up-front insurance cost.

“Our insight was, once you actually lose your cellphone, lost your keys, your willingness to pay to get that thing back goes up a lot,” Longley said. “So we thought about reversing the business model and handing out stickers and tags for free.”

In the short term, Longley says the most important next step for Retriever is to gain a larger consumer base. Right now, with 145 registered users, Retriever is about 15 percent of the way towards its goal of 1,000 users by mid-May. “Right now, we’ve just been focusing on the consumers, getting stickers on phones, tags on key chains,” Longley said. “The way we’ve been doing it is just going up to people on the street, but you can probably tell that that is a pretty slow way of growth.”

In the long term, however, the group has slightly different goals. Once Retriever hits what Longley calls a “critical mass,” the group hopes to expand to several other cities in the Northeast. Additionally, Longley predicts that the startup will need to begin appealing to the corporate sector at some point in the future. “You go to, say, a law firm,” he said. “Law firms have very high data security needs and if they lose a corporate asset, they can usually wipe it remotely, but their preference would still be to get that Blackberry or get that laptop back.”

Longley said that a change to the revenue model would probably be necessary in the case of expanding to the corporate model, something more along the lines of traditional insurance. “We might charge an ongoing subscription fee, and we would build up some sort of insurance reserve, and we might actually pay the rewards ourselves as stuff is returned,” he said.

At this stage in the process, there have not been any returns, simply because Retriever has only been public for a week and a half. Since it was necessary to test the finding process, the team went out and lost some of their own belongings. The group wants to see somewhere around a 50 percent return rate on lost items, and during the tests, that mark was met. Longley is even more optimistic, though, and believes that percentage could in fact be higher. “Some of the stuff we lost was of extremely low value, like a coffee mug or an old track jacket, and things that were actually returned to us were of a higher value, like a cracked iPod or a $100 finance textbook,” he said.

While it seems too early to start predicting the most likely item to be tagged by consumers, the Retriever team believes that the two frontrunners will be keys and cellphones. While there have been more cellphones tagged in the one-week period thus far, it is thought that keys will be the most tagged item, simply for aesthetic reasons. “Of the people who don’t accept the cellphone sticker, most of them say they like the way their phone looks,” Longley said. “And with keys, you have less of that reaction, because your keys just aren’t an aesthetic device.”

Retriever will work no matter where one is in the country. This is especially useful for college students who would worry about going home every summer. “If someone finds your phone, goes to our website, and attempts to return it, we will send them a box wherever they are in the U.S. or Canada and will send it to whatever address we have on file,” Longley said.

May 1, 2014
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