The Report

Lost-and-found service reunites items with owners

Lost-and-found service reunites items with owners

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FinderCodes uses QR codes, smart tags and a private messaging service to help recover lost pets, electronics, luggage and other items.

It all started with a lost dog. Amid the chaos of moving between houses, Emma, one of Blake Sohn’s two beloved canine housemates escaped. The English Setter’s tags hadn’t yet been updated with his new address, and she was returned to the wrong house.

That was two-and-a-half years ago, but Emma’s story may live in virtual infamy. A veteran marketer, Sohn reflected that losing things, whether it be your dog or your iPhone or your briefcase, is a universal problem. Could he use his experience as a marketer to help others retrieve their valuables?

“It got me thinking, is there a way that I could use QR codes as a dynamic service?” Sohn says.

The result of his introspection is FinderCodes, a lost-and-found service that relies on the QR code scanner available to the masses via smartphones to help you get your stuff back. Sohn developed a prototype, and talked to a client, John Valiton (now FinderCodes CEO) to get the venture off the ground. The rest is history.

Sohn had his own agency for 12 years, after working in marketing for General Mills. That experience made him familiar with the many uses of QR codes. In large part, they exist to manage inventory, but they became a natural tool for marketers once it was discovered they could also be used to gather data about and geolocate potential customers. The FinderCodes application offers a twist on how they are used -- instead of giving people information about things they might want to buy, it tracks stuff they already own.

“We’re human, things get lost all the time,” Sohn says. “With our economic issues, when things are more expensive and we have less money to replace them, it’s the perfect time for us.”

Significant partners

FinderCodes launched officially in late 2012, but it already has some big players on board. AT&T handles software testing and quality control, FedEx helps out-of-town customers get stuff back, and OfficeDepot is its first retail sales outlet. (The technology soon will be available at Target, Walmart Canada, The Source and Radioshack, among others.)

For his personal item loss recovery system, Sohn decided to employ QR codes to identify the owner of a lost item without disclosing their personal information -- who wants the person who found their house keys to now have their home address? FinderCodes uses a QR Web service to connect the two people on opposite ends of the lost item once it’s found.

A smart tag is attached to the item you want to protect: a sticker for phones and electronics, collar tags for pets, a small tag for a key fob, a luggage tag, or anything you can put a tag on, for $24.95. Just to make it even more obvious what you’re supposed to do if you find something with a tag attached, the QR codes dutifully (although depending on the size of the tag you might need bifocals) instruct someone to scan it if found. No scanner? No problem. Each tag has a unique code that can be entered manually at the FinderCodes Web site.

As for the poor soul who left their iPhone on the seat of a cab (something the author of this post would never do), when the finder scans the code, you’ll be alerted via text and email that the phone has been recovered. For many of us, this alert will be the first indication that we’ve even lost something. But now instead of just panicking, you can bring up a map of where it is, and then communicate with the finder via the FinderCodes software online or through text message. The anonymous messaging system is similar to the one used by Craigslist.

FinderCodes, of course, relies on basic human good nature to work. Just because someone finds something with a scannable code designed to help return said item with relative ease doesn’t mean he or she will act on that. Sohn concedes this point, but cites a recent study suggesting that 85 percent of the time an item is found, it will be returned, provided the process is easy enough.

The FedEx partnership is particularly helpful for those of us who, say, leave our new camera at a baseball game while on a trip. Its deal with FinderCodes means that a finder can ship the item back to the owner via a proprietary piece of software called Return In, cobranded with FedEx Office. Anyone who finds a lost item can communicate with the FinderCodes customer and then drop it off at any FedEx store. The site will even direct the finder to the nearest store, so it can safely be returned.

“You just drop it off, and the owner pays for shipping,” Sohn says. “If I lost my iPad, I would definitely pay for shipping.”

Business-to-business applications

FinderCodes is making new products, like a sports kit, due later this year, and adding individual tags to its line. However, the fastest growing part of its business isn't the consumer-to-consumer side, it's the business-to-business one. Sohn’s team has been in talks with the folks at Staples, for example, about potentially using FinderCodes technology for, say, rental equipment.

The company also is looking into making FinderCodes a customizable business-to-business service, although Sohn is keeping those details under wraps for now.

“Our team developed the product, we’re interested in money, but really we’re here to help people,” Sohn says.

Sadly, Emma, a great hunter and loyal friend to Sohn, passed away shortly after inspiring the foundation of the company in 2010, but her legacy lives on in FinderCodes.

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure