Bringing Humanity to the Tech Industry

The Origin Story of Ecommerce Startup KOYA

KOYA website.

When you’re in the midst of running a startup, sometimes it’s easy to forget that your employees and customers are people too. They have feelings, and they like to be encouraged with timely notes and even an occasional thoughtful gift.

But putting this into practice can be challenging. That’s where KOYA comes in. This startup aims to help other companies focus on the human side of their business by letting them create and send thoughtful, timely messages and micro-gifts to the people they work with. This is KOYA’s origin story.

Marking Key Life Events

KOYA co-founder Courtney Werner says the idea for the company arose about four years ago at her father’s birthday party. “We were asking him typical questions [like] ‘What do you want to see happen this year? What do you get most excited about?’” she explains. “And without skipping a beat, he said, ‘I want to start a family business.’”

Courtney says one frustration she and other members of her family had at the time was missing key events in the lives of people they cared about. “Birthdays, bad days, breakups, anything that helps build relational equity, we were absent for,” she says. “So, that was definitely something that we were really wanting to find a solution for.” 

Given their father’s background in geolocation, they first thought about starting a business that “utilized geolocation to allow you to connect in a more meaningful way," Courtney says. “That is the story behind KOYA and also kind of a taste of the mission because we definitely are aiming to make it possible for people to connect in a meaningful way.”

Securing Funding

So what exactly is KOYA? “KOYA (which stands for Kindness On Ya) is a personal message with a gift,” Courtney explains. The personal message could be a video, text message, photo, or some other form of media. The gift comes in the form of a gift card from companies that partner with KOYA. “Initially the message and gift were also tied to a location,” she says. “That's something that was part of our earlier prototype. It's definitely something we want to bring back, but we're still trying to figure out what our consumers think about that.” So, at the moment the message and gift don’t contain location data.

Examples of a KOYA could be: 

  • An encouraging message and small gift for a company’s employees
  • A thank you note from a real estate agent to his or her client for a referral
  • A gift from a life coach after an initial consultation with a client

In addition, there’s a free version of KOYA that allows people to send messages and gifts to each other to mark important occasions. This service isn’t meant for business use per se. 

When it comes to funding, “We initially did a family and friends round, and that is all we've done so far,” Courtney says. “That took place at the beginning of our journey, maybe a few months after we had a prototype. It lasted us for quite some time and allowed us to get the initial early development done. And now we are bootstrapped.”

At present, most of KOYA’s revenue comes through gift cards. Although Courtney “feels really good” about where the company is financially at this point, KOYA did experience growing pains like most other startups. “For a long time, we were in the awkward teenage phase of a startup where we had a product, but we didn't have revenue,” she says. “And so we had tried raising funding, but when you're in that space, you feel like you're just in a dark hole. It's kind of almost impossible.”

Working With Family

Starting the business with family members has been challenging at times, Courtney says, but ultimately, it has worked out well. “I think that if you can do it with your family, you can do it with anybody,” she says. “And I say that because within families, there's a lot of different dynamics that come from childhood. There's always a background, there's always a history attached. Which when you're in business with your family, requires extra communication and proactive communication.”

At first, she says, “We had preconceived ideas about each other that we had to start stripping away in order to not only rebuild something that was healthier as a founding team, but also as a family. Within our family dynamics, we had to change some things in order to be able to have the kind of communication we needed to have to be in business together.”

But through this process, she’s developed a whole new level of respect for her family and the skills they have developed. For example, her mom is “one of the most kick-ass community builders I've ever seen,” Courtney says. “She knows how to rally people together like nobody's business. She is an extrovert to the max, which I am not. Getting to see her energy and how she's able to connect people is something that I feel so fortunate to [witness]. She's not just my mom; she's this other multifaceted human. Had we not been in business together, I probably would never have seen” that side of her.

A Focus on Personal Relationships

Courtney says right now KOYA primarily serves other businesses with a B2B model. “We are more focused on businesses being able to communicate, ‘Well done. You did a stellar job on that,’ to their employees or to their colleagues,” she says. “Or a real estate agent, for instance, being able to communicate to their client, ‘Hey, it's tough right now, but you're doing great. We're going to find a place.’"

However, KOYA’s ultimate goal is to further develop its service that helps consumers encourage each other directly — “friend to friend, family member to family member,” she says. But that’s in the future. “The priority right now is more on [business] relationships. You would think maybe they don't matter as much in terms of the loneliness epidemic, but actually, they matter even more because everybody is remote still for the most part. Being able to hear from your manager, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm doing a good job,’ actually matters even more than it once did.”

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