In a new episode of our ‘Startup Stories’ interviews, UpsilonIT talks to Courtney Werner, a co-founder of KOYA Innovations Inc, a US-based startup delivering an innovative mobile social experience that brings together the advantages of both time and place in giving and messaging. From Сourtney’s story, you will learn about how KOYA disrupted the $127B gift card market by making it frictionless to send gifts to friends and family that are meaningful and get discovered at the time and place of use.
Today, I’m speaking to Courtney Werner, co-founder of KOYA Innovations, and KOYA Application. Can you tell me a bit more about the company and the application?
Sure. I think it is always fun to share a little bit of a story. I grew up with my dad who’s always been passionate about entrepreneurship. Because of him, I used to think that being an entrepreneur was a very normal job description and title. On his birthday, two years ago, we asked our dad: “What do you want to see happen this year? What are you excited about?” Without skipping a beat, he said: “I want to start a family business.”
And so right then and there, he wanted to know which problems we were facing. The biggest problem for me and my sister was that we were travelling a large percentage of the year, doing global communications and marketing for different NGOs throughout South-East Asia. So as you can imagine, with the time difference and the constant on-the-go, we were missing out on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and bad days. And it was getting to the point where our relationships were suffering. So, we shared with our dad how complicated it is to show up for your friends when you don’t live in the same city as them. Our dad has a specialty in geo-concept technology so he right away was like: “Oh, I think I have a fix for that”.
That was the beginning of KOYA. KOYA stands for Kindness On YA and it's an app that allows you to show up for your friends and family in meaningful ways. Let me describe how it works. If I knew that my friend was going through a hard time or maybe she just got a promotion, I could send her a KOYA to a specified location. The moment she enters that geofence, she’ll receive a message from me. I can pay for her coffee or buy her a massage through PayPal. It’s that simple.
Yes, that’s a great idea. From personal experience, trying to organize a surprise event for somebody in a specific location is really time-consuming and tiresome.
It makes you tired, yes. And sometimes, it doesn’t work out. You can also set up a bunch of different KOYAs with no money attached. Instead, you can attach a YouTube video, Spotify song, or any URL. Throughout the day, wherever someone goes, they’ll know that you are thinking of them and that you care about them, which is important.
You said your dad was passionate about entrepreneurship. What are the most valuable things you learned from him to run your company?
My older sister, who is also part of the company, and I saw his tenacity and drive to work through any issue. He’s a very positive person too, so he would just push through and always believe that it would work out. My mum was also extremely supportive. I don’t know how many wives would deal with their husbands perpetually going for their dreams. Growing up wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine. It was hard at times but I saw that when you push through, good things can happen.. So I think I just witnessed a lot of that through his first start-up that was actually later sold to adidas. Through that experience, I saw the value of resilience.
Ok, I see. And what is your personal background? What did you do before you co-founded the company? What brought you to that?
Well, I have a degree in Psychology. But I ended up doing marketing. I started with content marketing, with ghostwriting, to be more precise. And then, I dealt with ad campaigns and building websites. My skills kept snowballing with time. And then, I’m really fortunate to have been asked – I guess four years ago – to help run the communication department of a Global Non-Profit. My sister and I did that together. Essentially, I was doing the writing, and she was doing the photography part. Then, we were doing the marketing part together as well. That was a huge learning experience. I learned much about global marketing and communications, which propelled me into believing that I actually could start my own company. So my sister and I were actually in the process of creating our own company when the KOYA was first envisioned and we ended up putting the other company aside to pursue KOYA full-time.
Yes. Previous marketing experience is of great help in starting your own company. You have an idea already of what people need and how you can sell the service to them. I believe the KOYA is free to use, right?
By the way, what kind of monetization model do you follow or plan to follow?
We are creating a free web version that will become a funnel to download the premium app experience with a subscription. Our B2B model is still being refined.
Ok. What was the main challenge in terms of fighting and deciding on the exact idea?
We’re all dreamers. As such, we created a Cadillac when really, we should have started more simply. That’s a common entrepreneur’s challenge. When we first introduced KOYA, we had trouble finding market fit. Whenever I talk to fellow entrepreneurs, I always tell them to create a website and drum up interest before developing an app.
Yes, to test the idea out.
Yes, always. So, we did it backward. So far, it has still worked for us. We’ve learned a lot from our users and we continue to go in that direction.
I see. I know it’s not a pleasant situation, but how has COVID-19 affected your business?
I live in Austin and we were going to have a booth at South by South-West. We planned an official launch there. We did a soft launch last July and figured: that we should launch this thing. As a result of what happened, South by South-West was canceled, which I do feel was the right choice. I think I’m really grateful because KOYA is a very forward-thinking company. All of us decided that we wanted to create a platform for people to thank others on the frontline and essential workers. So we pivoted and created something called Essentially Kind, which is a free and easy way for people to express their gratitude to frontline workers all around the world. At the same time, nobody was going out anymore, right? So we had to quickly figure out: “How do we still add sunshine to the people’s lives without having to discover the KOYA? How can we surprise people?”. The easiest way to make that happen was to let users schedule lots of KOYAs for different days and times.
I think people that hadn’t understood KOYA’s value proposition suddenly realized its importance amidst the lockdown. We are so sad about what’s happening but grateful to have created something that can bring people together in a small way.
Yes. So, you’ve adapted to the situation with the Covid, making some changes to the initial idea. Do you experiment with something else in some different areas? For example, with surprise gifting?
Yes, we definitely have that on our roadmap. Some of the early KOYA users expressed willingness to send a surprise gift to a stranger or give some money to charity. On the other hand, we are also considering the possibility to facilitate brands and users in this respect. We wonder what it can look like for brands to be able to give gifts to people as well. That is something we have been discussing that could also be a way to generate revenue.
Is the app available worldwide or you’re concentrating on the United States?
It’s available in North America including Mexico. It’s also available in Australia and India. That’s how we rolled it out initially. Of course, we have plans to make it available to everyone. We just have to do our GDPR compliance, which takes a little bit more time than we’d expected.
Is GDPR compliance the only challenge? Apart from user data, do you need to have some agreements to operate in different countries?
No. Honestly, we would want to be present in other parts of the world. As we are using geo-open technology, GDPR compliance is extra complicated. We actually had plans to close that issue a few months back. Then we realized that we should not get ahead of ourselves just because we are so excited. We need to make sure that we do it right.
I see. Do you think new technologies make it easy or open up opportunities for a startup? What can they enable in a few years?
That’s definitely a good question. We have our eyes on implementing voice capabilities in our platform. But I think there are many unknowns in this regard. Especially with Covid, we have to rush out of the gates even faster than we’d planned with some things. I honestly don’t know what opportunities will open up as a result. I think we are just in the same boat as everyone else and just as curious to see what makes it even easier for people to stay connected. That has become the number one priority for pretty much everyone worldwide.
Thank you. Could you name other people that had influenced you as an entrepreneur? If it’s not a person, maybe it can be a book or an event in your life.
I actually have someone on the top of my mind. While I was engaged in marketing, I was living in Jolla, a very expensive city. I had to take a lot of different side-jobs to pull through. I used to work for a Brazilian family to help them overcome the language barrier. Eventually, I ended up becoming rather close to them, especially to the head of the family who was an entrepreneur. He really reminded me of my dad as he was extremely excited about life. Whenever you were around him, you felt that everything was possible. I definitely learned very much from that experience. I think we started together five or six different companies in a year and a half. He’d say: «Alright, that doesn’t work, no worries, let’s keep going, let’s find another one». He passed away unexpectedly a year ago. Part of me feels like I have that spark or that desire to carry his dreams further and to pursue KOYA.
Yes. That’s nice. You’ve already said that you should test your ideas first and do some marketing first. Do you have some other advice for somebody who is starting a company or even planning to start a company? So what should you be afraid of, what should you focus on? Maybe how do you find your investors or your first buyers? Any advice from your experience?
I’d say the biggest one as a female founder is to not be afraid to fully show up and believe in yourself. It’s a field with predominantly male investors. You as a female entrepreneur should be confident that you belong to that field. But if you don’t believe in that, no one else will. So that is something that I think I can say to other female founders: you can do this! Do what it takes to do the work internally so that you can show up fully with confidence. You might not get that from somebody else and that’s ok. But it’s really important to believe in yourself.
Thank you, Courtney, for giving such great advice. And thank you for an exciting conversation.
Qualities to Look for when Choosing a Trustworthy Outsourcing Partner
For companies and startups like KOYA that are driven by a humanistic component of the business idea, the selection of a software development partner rests on such words as ‘trust’, ‘transparency, and ‘support’. So what are the qualities you need to look for when choosing an outsourcing partner?
1. Proven Track Record and Experience
The reliability and stability of the company should be on top of your priorities when choosing a partner for your business. Look for an outsourcing company that has a good record of accomplishment and boasts of highly qualified experts. Get to know the company better by doing comprehensive research. You may check reviews and testimonials online. However, the best way to assess your potential outsourcing partner is to set a meeting with them and discuss your business culture, vision and requirements to see if things will work well between both parties should you decide to collaborate with them.
2. Staff Expertise and Good Credentials
It is necessary to ensure that your outsourcing partner is a good fit for your business needs. You must look into the expertise of the company to make sure that they have the specific set of skills that will answer to your requirements. Their employees should have the right talents to deliver your products and services without any hassle. Choose a company that has good credentials, has access to a great talent pool and employs qualified professionals.
3. Advanced Technology and Complete Resources
In order to provide quality service delivery, technology works for qualified manpower. Technology improves quality and builds trust. It is important to check the resources of your outsourcing provider and make sure that they have the capacity to carry out your products and services effectively. Learn about their office, resources and technology by checking their website or inquiring directly from them.
4. Open and Consistent Communication
Proper communication plays a big part in the success of every partnership. It is essential to communicate effectively in order to grow your business. A reliable outsourcing company provides and maintains a transparent and easy way of communication. In making decisions and setting goals for your business, your outsourcing partner must be able to keep a consistent interaction with you all throughout the project. Outsourcing presents huge potential communication challenges if the partnership lacks transparency. This is why it is vital to establish a medium of communication to facilitate progress, monitor productivity, and avoid miscommunication. Ask for daily reports and make sure that they disclose everything you need to discuss to avoid conflicts.
5. Commitment To Quality
Choosing the ideal outsourcing provider for your business means that you are looking for a team that must be able to stay committed to your vision. Your partner should be capable of maintaining quality work and providing them on time. Establish what level of service fulfillment does your business need and document it properly through the Service Level Agreement (SLA). Make sure to be clear about the scope of work and include a provision on quality assurance. Choose an outsourcing partner that understands and values the importance of quality assurance and further support.