Sometime last April, I heard about the app “Claim” for the first time. The concept was simple: Sign up, connect your card, earn a reward for free food at a Harvard Square restaurant, buy said food, and get paid back. At the time, I remember thinking, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Still, free Tatte coffee piqued my interest. I tried the app and was instantly hooked, telling all my friends to download Claim, too. But I was met with skepticism — as the saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Years of hearing about tech scandals surrounding data selling and privacy breaches made the hesitation to trust this new app understandable.
I asked around about Claim’s business model, but no one could tell me how it worked. Why was someone willing to bankroll my PB Cup Life Alive Açai Bowl? Who were these people?
The answer was Harvard Business School alumni Samuel S. Obletz and Tap Stephenson — and, spoiler alert, the answer to “why” had nothing to do with stealing data.
I meet Obletz and Stephenson over Zoom. When I log on, the two are already in the meeting room, Stephenson with a blurred light-brown background, Obletz in a white room with colorful books, wearing a quarter-zip.
When I ask the two about how they started Claim, they don’t launch into an elevator pitch or a speech about audience engagement metrics. Instead, they rewind to 13 years ago, when an administrator assigned them as roommates in their freshman year at Yale.
“We will be forever grateful to that person,” Obletz says. “Tap and I really clicked because I think we share the same value set, we share the same curiosity about the world.”
The two reunited four years later at Harvard Business School, again as roommates — this time by choice. Stephenson was pursuing a joint data science degree with Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences while Obletz participated in a joint public policy program with the Kennedy School.
Toward the end of their time at Harvard, Obletz and Stephenson decided they wanted to build a “consumer internet scale business” together. They identified a problem they wanted to fix: internet advertising, a landscape that Obletz says is “more dire than I think people realize.”
According to Obletz, it has become more and more difficult for companies to acquire new customers through search engine and social media advertising. Google’s phase-out of third-party cookies and Apple’s options to turn off tracking have protected users’ data but made advertising less efficient.
Obletz and Stephenson also noticed the system wasn’t working for consumers. Obletz explains that advertising is “getting in the way of our individual and our collective experiences,” clogging up people’s news and Instagram feeds with “a bunch of advertisements that, frankly, people are very tired of seeing.”
After talking to brands, the pair realized that if companies could give, say, $10 to a completely new customer to try their product, they would actually spend a lot less in customer acquisition than if they were advertising on Instagram.
That’s why the two created Claim, which allows companies to ensure that customers are coming through the door when they try a new product. Restaurants and companies pay in full for a user’s “reward” (typically $5 to $15 off a given product), and Claim profits by charging a service fee to the restaurants to use Claim’s platform.
Obletz and Stephenson emphasize that user privacy is central to Claim’s operations. The product, Obletz mentions, was originally conceived as part of his public policy thesis, advised by privacy and technology expert Jim H. Waldo.
To detect when a customer has redeemed their reward, they use Plaid, which Obletz describes as “a multi-billion dollar company that’s trusted by pretty much everyone in the business.” Plaid, which powers companies like Venmo and Betterment, has faced accusations of scraping user data and selling it to third-party firms.
Obletz assures that user transactions are stored on a completely separate, isolated database from the rest of Claim’s app.
“A lot of this is us trying to make sure that we never take on more data than we need, because we’re not trying to target you with ads,” Stephenson says. “We’re just trying to make sure that you got the right reward and that we paid you out correctly.”
Obletz and Stephenson are still in the early stages of Claim, and are using Harvard and other Boston schools as guinea pigs for the product.
“Harvard users have given us really great feedback,” Obletz says. “I can tell you — and Tap can attest to this — that I was texting with 150 or so students this past weekend.”
“This is kind of my fault,” Stephenson breaks in, laughing. “There was a long time on the app where the Contact Us button just opened a text thread to Sam’s personal cell phone. So Sam is the helpline for a significant portion of the students at Harvard.”
There are still some features the two are trying to perfect, like the ability for users to trade rewards with friends.
“Obviously, there’s ways that we can make that more efficient,” says Stephenson. “But for now, though, the lack of our efficiency means that Harvard students are getting a lot of free food.”
So in some sense, I am the product in Claim: companies are paying for me as a potential new customer. But there’s no data stealing going on. So I’ll be enjoying my Pavement iced matcha latte with oat milk in peace.
— Magazine writer Sage S. Lattman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sagelattman.