FoundIt: Altruistic Entrepreneurs

Last week, I was lucky enough to stop by FoundIt’s table at NY Tech Day. FoundIt solves the problem of returning misplaced stuff–hats, scarves, mp3 players, and in my case the occasional digital camera–to their owners.

The service provides anonymity for both the loser and the finder. FoundIt subscribers (starts at $9.99/year) receive FoundIt stickers on which is printed a unique code along with a FoundIt phone number and web address.

Finders can report a lost item by texting the phone number with the code or going directly to their web site. FoundIt then steps out of the transaction. As pointed out in the FAQ section, finders and owners don’t even necessarily have to meet–a drop off can be arranged at a hotel desk, restaurant lost-and-found, etc.

Depending on your point of view, this is brilliant or completely obvious: I can hear a ‘why not label your stuff with a Gmail or AOL email address’.

Started by Seattle University and now NYU economist and entrepreneur Peter Nickerson, FoundIt is based on the proposition that people will do the right thing. Their marketing copy also includes the counter-intuitive words that people are also pragmatic.

I recognize this as a dog whistle signaling what is called “reciprocal altruism” in the evolutionary biology textbooks. I conveniently have a stack of these books on my nightstand.

In short, evolution has shaped us to make mutual back-scratching calculations of the sort in which we tally up the benefits of returning favors versus not, and realize that in the long run it pays to be nice.

If you’re like me, you have, say, 10% chance of leaving your umbrella at a tech event. But if I know I’m with a group of mutually altruistic FindIt people, who also lose equivalent stuff and who can find things, say, 50% of the time, then together we exchange a 10% chance of never seeing our umbrellas to just 5%, by being altruistic. Which is a deal I would make.

So what’s the point of FoundIt? It centers around the stickers and logo which it asks you to append to stuff. It’s actually a signal that you’re providing a service–I will return lost stuff. Same principle works for cleaner fish and their hosts– with bright coloring as the signal of friendly, altruistic parasite-cleaning work.

I now have a FoundIt logo on the back of my MacBook and iPad. If enough of us are at meetups, hackathons, etc. displaying FindIt stickers, then we should crowd out the non-altruists.

At least that what’s the theory says. Don’t ask me about FindIt cheaters or freeloaders. That’s a post for another day.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia