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2020 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Lost&Found, University of Minnesota (Carlson)

Lost&Found

MBA Program: University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management

Industry: Social Impact – Mental Health

Founding Student Name(s): Erik Muckey

Brief Description of Solution: Lost&Found connects young adults (ages 14-35) with the skills and community for lifelong resilience. We facilitate proactive, data-driven, public health approaches to suicide prevention.

Today, suicide rates for ages 14-35 are reaching 20-to-30-year highs around the country and counseling services providing support to this population—particularly college students—are being overrun with demand. Lost&Found actively defragments an ecosystem that can be extremely time-consuming to navigate. Our solution involves applying a Resilience Framework that strengthens individual coping skills (Resilience for Self), makes peer support training accessible and applicable to multiple career paths (Resilience for Others), and increases collective understanding of mental health needs, language, and trends (Resilience for Community).

Put together: there is a real opportunity to identify and address the real changes plaguing the current mental health ecosystem in the United States for the long haul.

Funding Dollars: $431,000 ($300K gift commitment received from T. Denny Sanford in November 2019)

What led you to launch this venture? 10 years ago, I joined my friend Dennis “DJ” Smith, along with five of our friends, to a launch a nonprofit that provided financial support to families and students impacted by attempted or completed suicide. Being a group of high school students starting college at the University of South Dakota, we knew how much of an impact suicide was having on our peers and our communities. However, we never dreamed of how systemic the issue actually was—or why we needed to “do more” to address rising suicide rates across the country.

After four years of launching campus movements focused on building better systems to address suicide, our team began to splinter as we finished undergraduate studies and went our separate ways. I decided it was the right moment to take the lead. Three years later, I made the decision to focus on Lost&Found as a part of my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Once I had the chance to rethink our operating model in coursework at both schools, I realized quickly that this had potential and decided to focus my energy on making this my full-time work.

Upon testing my assumptions at the Carlson School more thoroughly, I was able to attract more funding, more partnerships, and more momentum. I’ve moved from being a Treasurer for the Board of Directors almost a decade ago to the organization’s first full-time CEO and Executive Director.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? The easy one is to say that I was able to take a venture that earned just over $3K per year in donations in 2017 to a burgeoning nonprofit receiving over $200K in donation commitments plus earned revenue in 2020—even during COVID!

In reality, the biggest accomplishment I can speak to is seeing the team that has been built to support our redefined operating model. While earning my Master of Public Policy and MBA, I was pushed to redefine our focus as an organization, turning our programs toward a model focused on ‘resilience’—a strength-based approach to suicide prevention—and think more holistically about who our target audience is. Once those pieces were in place, I was able to build on an already great Board of Directors and use new-found funding to attract even more talented folks to our staff and board. It’s made all the difference, and I can say with absolutely certainty that the people I work with daily make this venture so fun to be a part of.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? I was able to really take the next step with my startup for three reasons: outstanding advisers, opportunities to discover funding, and consistent attention to understanding customer needs.

Through professors and the vast network of entrepreneurs who have come from the Carlson School, I was able to hear necessary questions and the right dose of criticism for my ideas to turn them in an effective direction. I can’t speak enough for the ecosystem that supported me in my entrepreneurial journey and pushed me to think through the natural barriers that presented themselves.

In December 2018, I received $10,000 in startup funding from the Carlson School’s Sands Social Venturing Fellowship, which supports entrepreneurs in social impact ventures serving greater Minnesota. Through that experience, I built a friendship and partnership with the namesake funders—Bill and Susan Sands—that will forever change the trajectory of our organization, resulting in $30,000 in additional funding and a pair of advisers that I trust deeply.

I drew “double-duty” through the Carlson Ventures Enterprise, one of the school’s four experiential learning labs, and the STARTUP course. I learned how to better understand customer needs by asking the right questions, applying ethnographic interviewing techniques to get the most out of information relevant to building a product. That intense attention to customer needs helped me break through what our student leaders and target audiences needed from Lost&Found to redesign our programs. I will always credit my mentors from the Carlson School who instilled that emphasis on customer needs in me from day one. It’s made all the difference.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? To be blunt, I never found much attraction to the typified “Silicon Valley” entrepreneur who is out to disrupt anything and everything. Certainly, I think you have to have a certain disregard for the status quo to be an entrepreneur of any kind, but I’ve always found my way as the person who used the rules to break them. That’s incredibly true of Lost&Found. I want to fundamentally change the way mental health systems operate, but I know that to disrupt services means that lives are quite literally on the line – and that’s not acceptable.

That’s why I gravitated toward some of the social entrepreneurs I worked with at Carlson. In particular, the entrepreneur who inspired me to take the leap was friend, mentor, and Carlson MBA grad (’17) Adam Rao. I joined his team at Sunrise Banks for a summer MBA Associate role in their Fintech Partnerships division. Here, I used my previous experience as a prepaid project/product manager in Sioux Falls, South Dakota prior to starting to grad school. He readily encouraged me to think about new business models, how I would lead and value employees who joined my team, and what it meant to me to really take the leap into leading my own venture and not look back. If not for his encouragement and our conversations about what it means to “do the thing” (rather than pretend to be an entrepreneur), I’m not sure I would have taken the leap. Because of him and our Carlson networks, I did, and I’m thankful for it.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Carlson’s STARTUP class took a redesign I had made of Lost&Found’s business model in a Social Entrepreneurship course and forced me to share with my customers: college students. It was extremely painful to see after almost eight years of operating how much our student-focused mental health model was not remotely close to student-focused. It gave Lost&Found a chance to redesign how we delivered programs and apply those same principles year after year to become the premier mental health nonprofit in the United States.

The biggest lesson? We had to listen, and to not listen meant death to your organization. Certainly, there’s plenty of arguments that can be made about whether or not the customer is “right.” However, does it matter when they’re telling you you’re completely wrong? Absolutely not. You listen, you adapt, and you do the things that are able to make your organization responsive and effective. It’s really that simple. Yes, Lost&Found faces restrictions as does any nonprofit. Because we’ve become more customer-centric, we are able to be more impactful, financially-savvy, and engaging as a result.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? I can only be fair and say that Carlson really impacted me through a team of four professors I worked with closely: Terri Barreiro, Toby Nord, John Stavig, and Steve Spruth. All four of them influenced me in a variety of ways. That includes helping me redefine the entire impact model from scratch (Terri Barreiro); providing me with new opportunities to consult other social ventures and applying the learnings (Toby Nord); giving me the chance to network with other entrepreneurs and sponsoring me for further research (John Stavig); or applying Carlson-developed innovation models to see how effectively I was navigating the innovation cycle (Steve Spruth).

There are others I can name, but the strength of the Carlson School is in the team that they surround you with. I had many professors I could turn to, trust, and build trust with. You might hear jokes about “Minnesota Nice,” but “nice” isn’t what I needed. My advisers were kind, certainly, but they were also extremely effective, seasoned, and knew how to motivate entrepreneurs. I was very fortunate to land at Carlson for that reason.

How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? Ironically, I think the pandemic actually sped up our development. For the longest time, Lost&Found mental health awareness and education programs had been delivered face-to-face on college campuses, intended to get students to engage with one another and build community with their peers. This is still valuable (and perhaps, more so) today. Obviously, in the midst of a global pandemic when students are all sent home, it’s not exactly the most effective thing in the world.

The pandemic hit shortly after Lost&Found received a major gift commitment ($300K from South Dakota businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford) and had begun expanding staffing positions, so we asked “how can we be effective right now with these new resources?” In response, we shifted all previous Lost&Found programs online, offering a series of over 20 skill sessions on Facebook Live designed to increase personal resilience. In addition, we finally began to put our Instagram and LinkedIn company accounts to good use. We used a series of ads to drive traffic to a newly-created COVID-19 mental health resource site on our website and delivering original content focused on staying resilient during the outbreak.

In just over a month’s time, we reached over 350K unique social media users, well over 5,000% above our typical social media traffic, and we gained newfound attention from our primary target audience—ages 14-35. While we still have a long way to go to consider ourselves anything close to “influencers,” that effort reminded us that we have the ability to rapidly shift our programs in a way that meets the needs of our primary target audience. Most importantly, that time also reminded us that we have an increased demand for our resources and new-found confidence in our digital offerings. I don’t like the fact that we actually are needed as an organization—that mental health has become such a problem during COVID—but it is extremely rewarding to begin reaching wider audiences and consider how to scale impact in ways not previously possible. We’re doing really powerful work, and the pandemic has reminded us of that fact.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? When you think of resilience, I want you to think of Lost&Found. More importantly, I want Lost&Found to be the organization that changes the way we think about and build systems to support the mental health of young adults around the United States. Certainly, there are many goals to consider—whether it is the number of students involved, how much many is raised, how many states we reach, etc.—but I say with absolute certainty that if those are our only goals, we’ve failed spectacularly.

Changing the mental health ecosystem in the United States means greater access to help, fewer lives lost to suicide, less burnout experienced in behavioral health professions, greater understanding of mental health in families and the workplace, and (above all) a country that embraces mental health as a necessary aspect of well-being. I think of the students we work with daily, and if we reach our goals, I can see them changing the world in the fields they choose and in the communities they live in. My long-term goal with Lost&Found is to make that a reality that sticks—beyond the first year or two of students we serve. This is a startup with legs, not because of a few factors but because it is the change we need.

If we do this right—Lost&Found will actually change the way we address mental health. No matter how long I’m with Lost&Found as its CEO, that’s the long-term goal—sustainable change for the space.

DON’T MISS: MEET THE MOST DISRUPTIVE MBA STARTUPS OF 2020