Jay Sebben, CEO and founder of Crowdfind, wants to help people find their lost stuff. Whether it’s a wallet dropped at Coachella or a child’s teddy bear left behind at the Salt Lake City International Airport, he’s streamlining the Lost & Found process to return valued items to their owners. This is made possible through Crowdfind’s enterprise software that uses images to keep tabs on belongings lost at large venues and events.
And it’s catching on—Crowdfind’s revenue more than quadrupled from Q1 2017 to Q1 2018. With a focus on efficiency, empathy, and smart entrepreneurship, Sebben strives to make the lives of both venue visitors and operators easier while simultaneously creating fulfilling work for his employees and a successful scalable business.
We talked to Sebben to learn more about why he started Crowdfind, how he tackles tough decisions and temporary setbacks, and why he chose to raise funds through Republic.
So tell us more about Crowdfind and the problem it’s solving.
Crowdfind was originally a project inside a venture studio that I founded called L Street Collaborative. The idea originally was to put all the things you saw on flyers that people lost, like a dog or a cat or something else left behind, on an app, and we tied that up in a kind of public network to connect people in neighborhoods with something they lost and something they found. There was no way to really do this at the time.
So we launched that, won a bunch of awards, and a lot of people started using it, but it was tricky to figure out what the business model was.
What we found was that there was a lot more stuff being left at these big venues and events. So, we switched after about a year and started working on enterprise software for large-scale venues and events.
The key to what we do is what we call “image-led workflow”—it’s all picture-first. This is a really big thing that we did that no one is doing. And it’s counterintuitive because we added an extra step—people already didn’t like managing the Lost & Found departments, but by adding an extra step we cut half or more of the time they spend on it because it eliminates phone calls, it takes anxiety down from the customers, and everybody wins. And if we didn’t make it simple, it wouldn’t have worked, but because we made it so simple, it was really effective.
Where we’re going next, is we’re taking that technology of image-led workflow and pushing it out into other areas of the facilities and the live events, like security and helping people check proprietary items. And then we’re going into facility management, like with things that are broken and need repair.
But it all starts with a picture. That’s really the secret sauce to what we do.
What is Crowdfind’s ultimate end-goal?
We want to be a big platform, an enterprise-level player in what we call the sensory level of enterprise software. When we talk about image-led workflow, it’s [not] typing something into a form.
Imagine people using images to respond to a work order, or something else that needs to happen. It’s going to be different than typing. It’s going to be more sensory, more intuitive—smarter workflow. So we want to be a big player in that category; that’s the ultimate goal, and with a lot of empathy.
What inspired you to start Crowdfind?
I was going into a Starbuck’s in the Ukrainian Village, which is in Chicago, where I lived at the time, and on the counter at the Starbuck’s was a taped flyer from a family whose son had been stabbed at a local bar.
It was basically just a call for “Do you know any information?” This family’s son had been stabbed, and they were looking for help and offered a reward. And I walked up to the counter, bought my coffee and was just sitting there, and I walked out and thought, “I don’t know anything, but I’d love to help their cause.” So from there, I thought, “What if there was something I could contribute to in order to help?”
Originally Crowdfind was called Bounty because the idea was that if you lost something maybe someone could help you find it; that was kind of the genesis that got us down this road. Because we started out with that storyline, which is about helping people, our core team has this really big empathy component, which is really powerful when you’re making user-focused software.
So that was the inspiration—it was really the flyer.
It’s great that empathy plays a big role in Crowdfind. Do you have any personal experiences that led you to value empathy as an entrepreneur?
My father worked for 42 years in a packing house, and he was well-liked there and had a nice career, but it wasn’t something where you come home and say you love every day. The company was pretty tough on their employees.
So I’ve always wanted to be involved in or start things where people are proud to be there and they really like what they’re doing. I think this stems from where I grew up and knowing that I wanted to be involved in companies where people didn’t come home and say, “Gosh, I don’t want to be there.”
Speaking of your employees, who makes up your core team, and why are they the right players?
Dan Sullivan is President and General Manager, so he’s the right-hand person, and he’s been there from day one and helped us get the project off the ground. He spent a lot of time at agencies, so he comes with a marketing and agency background. He’s very empathetic, a very customer-focused person, and he’s also very responsive. So he’s been great for our customers and also great for me.
Glenn Shimkus is on our board—he’s a workflow expert in software. And Doug Lambert, who’s also on our board, he’s been a sort of lifelong entrepreneurial startup operator. He was COO for a little bit at Hipstamatic, which is a photography app, so he has an imaging background.
There are a few other companies that offer software that can streamline the Lost & Found process. How does Crowdfind differentiate from those? What’s your edge?
I can’t say enough about the image side. There are a few other competitors, but nobody’s cracked that code, and, frankly, it’s really tricky what we did, to have it image-led. The difference between it being image-led is like the difference between having Instagram and attaching pictures to an email. It’s totally different.
You could have gone the traditional VC route to fund Crowdfind. What led you to seek crowdfunding with Republic?
Sometimes what happens with VC funding is you get on this instant hamster wheel, and it’s either win or lose. And we wanted to perfect the model, we wanted to figure some things out—we didn’t want to be on a hamster wheel right away. I think too many people have been convinced that that’s the only way to go to start a company, and we’re not.
I’m also heavily supportive of democratizing investing and changing the rules. I’ve been following the changes in the laws and the rules and everything that’s going on, and I’m a big supporter of what Republic’s doing.
So for marketing purposes, for the democratization of investing, as well as for capital, we thought it was a great funding opportunity for us.
As a leader, you have to make big decisions and solve critical problems. What’s your decision-making strategy?
My approach is usually to try to get buy-in from folks at some point, and then to know at the end of the day that the buck stops with me. I’m very comfortable making hard decisions, and a lot of things have to come down to the person in charge. I’ve learned that 50-50 partnerships are tricky—somebody has to be where the buck stops. So if you’re a leader, you have to know that’s you. And if you don’t know that that’s you, you’re in the wrong position.
Starting a business presents many hurdles, and it’s easy to sometimes doubt yourself. How do you persist through various setbacks that arise?
I tell people all the time that success isn’t a straight line. All these things that we hear all the time that are sort of cliché—they’re absolutely true. One of the things that I do specifically is I’ve just gotten to the point where I understand rhythms.
If things are going really well, I know that I just need to wait a couple of days until somebody kicks me in the shins. If things are going really bad, I just basically wait until Wednesday, because I know at some point something good is going to come and it’ll change direction.
So you have to be prepared to understand those rhythms. And then I go back and I ask, “Have you moved the ball over six months?” And usually I have, and if you have moved the ball and can be real with the notion that things will move up and down, then you just keep trying to go forward and make the best decisions that you can.
When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur, and what experiences led to that?
Probably in high school. I had a friend who had a crazy business idea to buy old mats from schools’ track programs and resell them to schools that didn’t have pole vault mats, and I thought “That’s kind of weird, you can make money doing that?” This was the first time I got kind of turned on to business. I didn’t really know what business was, and then I started getting really interested in businesses and startups and things like that.
When I went to Iowa, I started a painting company, and I had a company during the summer. Then I was in the first cohort of their entrepreneurial program at the dawn of the internet, in the mid-’90s, so that kind of got me going down that path.
Do you have any role models or mentors who taught you how to lead a successful business?
My grandfather owned auctioneering houses and livestock, and I wouldn’t have known this as a kid, but in hindsight, he was a real entrepreneur. I got to see what it was like if you were in charge of your own day. And he had a pretty interesting day.
One time he stuck me on the back of a pickup truck, then stuck me on a street corner, and I sold ears of sweet corn in my hometown as a ten-year-old. He and my uncle would do a little of this during the day, and then a little of that during the day, and in hindsight, I really liked that variety.
Why is investing in Crowdfind a smart move?
Lost & Found is really fun because it’s solving a problem, and it’s really big. So there’s a lot of green space. If you can look at what we’re doing, and if you can understand what we’re doing as a sensory enterprise workflow layer, that’s massive. Some folks are going to have some big wins in that area, and if you can believe that we’ve conquered a segment of it, it’s a very exciting opportunity for investing on any level.
What’s the latest product or service that gave you the wow factor?
I don’t get wowed very easily, but one thing that did it was the stuff that’s going on at ARKit. It shows you the power of what people are doing with augmented reality.
Someone there created an AR tape measure, so you could hold a button, and a tape measure shows up on your phone. Imagine being out with someone and looking at furniture and you say, “Okay, let’s see how long this is,” and then you drag your phone across a table and measure it. That really wowed me because of how simple it is and how much power it’s putting into the hands of people.
If you could have coffee with any one person, who would it be with and why?
To be honest with you, and this is going to sound cliché, I would love to sit down with Elon Musk, mainly because I’ve been fascinated for the last 30 years with space privatization. I’m not a rocket scientist like him, and I don’t want to pretend to be, but when he gets there, I’d love to be the guy to put the first hot dog stand on Mars.
I’d sit down with him, and I’d say “Tell me where I can play. Can I do something? Something that’s not so technical?” Because I’d love to play with space privatization. I agree with him that it’s humanity’s best hope of longevity, that we escape the planet on some level. I think it’s going to be really fascinating to watch, so I really applaud him for how much he’s done in that area.
If it wasn’t him, it would probably be Jimmy Fallon, because I think Jimmy Fallon is great.
Empathy in entrepreneurship