Meal. Replacement. Muffin.

It’s School of Information Studies (iSchool) graduate student Zach Schleien’s hope that those three words become a well-worn phrase for many thousands of consumers all over the Northeast, and eventually, all over the United States.  

That’s because Schleien, together with his mom, are the founders of a gluten-free, all-paleo, healthy-ingredients muffin business, LIFT Protein Muffins. The startup just completed a successful round of Kickstarter funding, reaching the initial $2,500 goal in just four days, and soon after more than doubling the amount (to $5,367 so far).

The muffins aren’t just “fluff” stuff – they’re marketed as meal-replacement products that “save you time, keep you full,” and provide a “regret-free meal,” said Schleien. There are three flavors: apple cinnamon and chocolate zucchini both have 19 grams of protein each; banana chocolate has 16 grams of protein.

The business is one that came naturally to Zach and his mother, Debbie. “My whole life I’ve been really into food,” the young entrepreneur noted. “Since age three, I was the kid who ordered a whole trout at a dinner instead of burger and french fries. It started with my mom; we bonded in the kitchen; she taught me how to cook since I was little. She’s into healthy cooking and eating. And I wanted to start a startup, and it was a cool opportunity to work together.” Mom Debbie, who also is a Kripalu yoga instructor, has developed the muffin recipes, while Zach focuses on the traceability aspects of production, as well as marketing and sales.

Certified Health Coach

Zach may have learned great recipes and cooking skills at home, but he dove into his passion for healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle by earning his certification as a health coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Accordingly, Zach envisions LIFT muffins and a paleo diet as something that can contribute not just to improved nutrition, but to a lifestyle decision that is all about efficiency and optimization of all areas of life, he adds. “Virtually everyone enjoys flavorful muffins, but few of us are apt to regard them as a healthy meal replacements for busy students, or a protein boosting snack after a workout or a game,” Zach contends.

That lifestyle view was essential to the company name. “Whether it represents athletes, or if you’re into sports, physically lifting [weights]; you can also look at it as more of an emotional term in the sense of lifting your mind and body, in terms of eating more than a regular muffin. So it is really about putting yourself ahead, so you can be successful and do things you want to do, including replacing cooking a meal with a muffin,” Schleien said.

Data Future First

Zach completed his undergraduate degree at Syracuse University as a history major in the College of Arts & Sciences with a minor at the Whitman School of Management. He chose the iSchool for his graduate degree to purposefully gain technical skills and focus. He’s set to earn his master’s in information management along with a certificate of advanced studies in data science in December.

Zach anticipates entering the data science field after graduation, at least for a time, he said. “Ventures can take time, and you may not be able to support yourself on a startup,” he surmised. “If the muffin company works out—that’s the goal—I’d love to go full time on it, when the time is right.”

In The Sandbox

That realistic outlook is something Zach developed through his first Syracuse Student Sandbox experience with a different startup. “Going through the process a second time, I understand that you may have huge dreams, but success doesn’t come overnight, and you may have to have the money to finance yourself.” Nevertheless, LIFT has had some early success, including winning a campus entrepreneurship competition. That win brought a $2,400 prize Schleien used to help bootstrap the company.

The next step for LIFT is using the Kickstarter monies to fund more production-kitchen space, Zach said. He and his mother currently use a commercial kitchen in Massachusetts, and they soon plan to sell the product in Whole Foods stores in that state. They want to add more stores in additional New England states, then move into the New York City market, and eventually take sales nationally.

Realism, Business Sense

The business sense and sophistication Zach displays is no surprise to a faculty member who has observed Zach’s abilities and acumen. Associate Professor of Practice and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Arthur Thomas noticed how Zach was “always thinking at an advanced professional level” and was “very inquisitive about how things worked, how you made decisions, and how you learn to predict and control business factors. He was sensitive about multiple factors that play together and he had an intense love for startups. He was always thinking about things in an entrepreneurial sense. I’m not at all surprised he was able to find something and develop it the way that he has,” Thomas added.