Entrepreneurship Rooted in Empathy with Courtney Werner of KOYA


 

Summary of Episode

#15: Courtney Werner joins Annaka and Ethan to share her story founding KOYA, a platform that works to spread kindness from afar by letting customers send gifts and messages that arrive at the right place or the right time. Courtney shares her journey running a business with her family, leveraging digital communities to grow a client base, changing business models, and growing up surrounded by entrepreneurs. 

About the Guest:

Courtney Werner is the CMO and founder of KOYA Innovations, which allows users to send gifts and messages to friends and family from anywhere. Growing up, Courtney’s dad owned his own business, so when he said he wanted to start a family business, Courtney, and the rest of the family, could not say no. Courtney has an extensive background in marketing and spent many years working abroad in the nonprofit sector. She has been involved in the startup sphere for quite some time and is an advocate for creating a more meaningfully connected world.

Podcast Episode Notes

The origin of KOYA [1:11]

KOYA hopes to help others connect via “a personal message with a gift” [3:18]

Organizing a family and friends funding round then bootstrapping to remain self sustained [6:30]

Transitioning from a B2C (business to consumer) model to a B2B (business to business) model in order to build steady revenue [9:10]

Funding is a partnership, and money is only once piece of the equation [11:20]

How Courtney leveraged an online community to grow the company’s base and garner support for KOYA [13:20]

Pivoting KOYA’s product during COVID has led to long-term changes [19:22]

Advice from Courtney — focus your time on things that customers demand [22:31]

Using customer interviews to generate high-level engagement and collect feedback from customers [24:14]

Growing KOYA by focusing efforts on the business’s ideal customer profiles [26:05]

The advantages and challenges that come with owning a family business [27:50]

Growing up with a family of entrepreneurs [30:02]

Overcoming imposter syndrome to enter the entrepreneurship space [36:02]

What is ASO? How to optimize your keywords to be found organically in the app store [40:12]

Why extensively marketing on social media may not be the best use of your time [41:38]

Courtney’s morning routine and learning to balance work life and personal life [47:50]

Scaling a business and what’s next for KOYA? [55:13]

Courtney’s biggest surprise about being an entrepreneur — learning how to work with a team [55:34]

Courtney’s advice: if you have an idea, throw up a webpage to see if you can build interest, and consider reading “The Mom Test”  [1:00:00]

Full Interview Transcript

Annaka:
Hello, everyone and welcome to Startup Savants. I’m Annaka.

Ethan: And I’m Ethan. 

Annaka: If you’re a returning listener, welcome back. And if you’re new, this podcast is about the stories behind startups, the founders who run them, and the problems they’re solving. This episode we’re joined by Courtney Werner, one of the co-founders of KOYA, a B2B gifting service on a mission to make the tech industry a better, happier place. What I loved about this episode was talking about the loneliness epidemic, imposter syndrome, and especially how KOYA is working to combat that. 

Ethan: Right, and we also talked about the evolution of social media marketing. Courtney in her past life has been very involved in social media and marketing which has changed a lot in the past five years and she has some opinions on how that is going to change in the future. We also discussed KOYA pivoting from B2C to a more B2B structure which was a huge move for their company. Let’s stop talking about it and let Courtney speak for herself. 

Courtney Werner: Happy too. So, I'll start with the origin story of KOYA, which happened at my dad's birthday party. I think it was four years ago in February. Essentially, we were at a restaurant altogether, and we were asking him our typical question, which is, "What do you want to see happen this year? What are you most excited about?" And without skipping a beat, he said, "I want to start a family business." At the time all of us had different things going on, so that was not top of our mind. But, it was his birthday, and so we decided, "Okay, we'll humor him." And he ended up asking us, "What's one of the biggest problems you're facing right now?" My sister and I at the time we were working for are different nonprofits and socially conscious companies. So, we were out of town. We were overseas about 60 to 80% of the year.

And one of the biggest things that we were experiencing is we were missing birthdays, bad days, breakups, anything that helps build relational equity we were absent for. So, that was definitely top of our mind and something that we were really wanting to find a solution for. And our dad has a background in geolocation, and so immediately that's kind of where his mind went was like, "What if we created something that utilized geolocation to allow you to connect in a more meaningful way?" So, 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, whether you are a consumer or a business. So, those are… hopefully that answers your questions.

Annaka: So, you identified the problem, there's a lack of building those relationships when you're separated by distance. So KOYA is the solution. Tell me more about that. How did you come up with that solution? And what actually is the solution that y’all came up with?

Courtney Werner: So, essentially KOYA is a personal message with a gift. And the personal message could be a variety of media. So, it could be a personal video, it could be a text message, it could be a photo that has some sort of meaning or memory attached, and then that's always attached, or tied, to a gift. Initially it also was tied to a location. 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, right now it is message and a gift.

Annaka: Perfect. And I know this was a question I had. What does KOYA stand for?

Courtney Werner: Yeah, it's a kind of funny sounding name. But, KOYA stands for "Kindness On Ya." So, that is what it means. And it makes me feel a little silly saying it just because of the "Ya" part, for some reason. We're not Australian, but it is like a fun little name. And considering the different names that we were thinking about, I feel really happy with where we landed.

Annaka: What were some of the trial names?

Courtney Werner: We had quite a few, the one that we did get a domain for, and were seriously considering for a while was Seren-Dipster. I still don't like it to this day. So, I think it's partly why I feel really good about KOYA, but that was probably one of the biggest competitors. Because, this was probably a few months long process before we landed on KOYA. So, there were a lot of contenders.

Ethan: It's amazing when you're trying to pick a name. You see so many different domains that are taken, and then you come onto one and you're like, "Yeah, I guess that could work." But, you're in that brain space of like, "I just need to find something."

Annaka: Yeah.

Ethan: And gosh, if everybody could just... If you're in the space right now, just back away from your computer, go have a walk, go take a drink of water and come back and start fresh because you're going to pick something up that tomorrow you're going to hate.

Annaka: Yeah.

Courtney Werner: It's true.

Annaka: It happens.

Ethan: So, I'm really glad that you found KOYA. It's a very rememberable, that's not a word, memorable name. Yeah. So, I've been in that struggle many times, and I wish it on no one. But, everyone is going to have to go through it. So

Annaka: Seren Dipster just reminds me of Napster.

Ethan: Ooh.

Courtney Werner: Ooh. I can see that.

Annaka: I'm showing my age a little bit there, but not even hipster, that's not even the first thing I go to, it's Napster, like "Oh, 1993 called."

Courtney Werner: Yep. Definitely feels a little more old school.

Ethan: Right. All right. I'm going to jump around a little bit to the fun questions. How is KOYA funded?

Courtney Werner: KOYA, we initially did a family and friends round, and that is all we've done so far. That took place, I would say, the beginning of our journey, maybe a few months in after we had a prototype and stuff. And so, it lasted us for quite some time, allowed us to get the initial early development done. And now we are bootstrapped.

Ethan: All right. Are you going to stay bootstrapped, or are you going to seek funding?

Courtney Werner: We are, at this point, I feel really good with where we are. So, just to be transparent since there are other entrepreneurs listening, we for a long time were in the awkward teenage phase of a startup where we had a product, but we didn't have revenue. 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. At this point we have now become B2B, we were B2C. And as a result, we do have revenue. And so, we want to remain bootstrapped for as long as possible in order to be either A: Self sustaining. Or B: At some point raise, but be in a spot to choose the people you want to partner with versus coming from a place of like, "We need help." So, we're in a good spot for that right now, which I'm really happy to say.

Ethan: Are you open to sharing how that revenue works, or where that revenue comes from?

Courtney Werner: Yeah. So, we are still in our, it's not a beta, we're just giving people early access. The revenue comes from... So, as I mentioned earlier, just to kind of bring it full circle, we allow people to do a message with a gift. And so, the gift currently right now is a gift card. And so, the revenue comes through the gift cards. That's one of our revenue streams. Another one that we are going to be turning on at some point is more of a SaaS model. But, right now the first one is already turned on and we're excited to see what's been happening with that.

Annaka: And everyone loves a gift card. I love a gift card. If anyone's listening that wants to give me a gift card, please do it. I love it.

Courtney Werner: Use KOYA.

Annaka: Yes. Do it. And you said some magic words for me, you said "B2C," and "B2B," you went from B2C to B2B, is that right?

Courtney Werner: Correct. Yes.

Annaka: Okay. And what was the driving force behind that? And how did that pivot impact your business?

Courtney Werner: Two things, firstly, being B2C, when you do not have funding or massive amounts of cash to back you up is extremely difficult.

Annaka: Okay.

Courtney Werner: It's because when you're B2C, so that means business to consumer, for people that don't know that I didn't know that before doing this so-

Annaka: Me either honestly.

Courtney Werner: Yeah. So, it is business to consumer, which means if you want to get consumers interested, you really have to figure out who's your target audience, who's going to be excited about your product. And honestly, a lot of B2C companies, they end up being in the hole for a really long time. They're cash negative, because they're spending so much on their marketing. And when you're bootstrapped and you don't have very much money, that's impossible. And the cost of acquisition, you just don't have money like that to burn.

Annaka: Yeah.

Courtney Werner: So, that is one of the things that got us to switch. The other one actually happens to do with funding. So, we had tried raising for a while. We had some interest, but when it came down to it, without the revenue piece, the options available were not ones that we felt comfortable with. And we didn't have as many options as we had wanted. So, it got us to think through how do we switch this and actually set ourselves up as a business that's able to fund the B2C side that we really are extremely passionate about. So, that's why we are now a business to business, is what B2B means.

Ethan: What was uncomfortable about those options that you had on the table that you didn't end up with?

Courtney Werner: I think when you're choosing someone that you... So, the way I see funding at this point, this is not how I initially saw funding, but in time, the way that we all ended up seeing funding was extremely different. So, we now view it as a partnership. And when you're in any partnership, both people bring things to the table that are of value. So, you don't just want to, or at least from where we stand, we didn't want to just say yes to people without feeling like we could actually partner with them. Money is just energy. It's just one piece of the equation. There's also other things that we find really valuable such as time and the ability for the investors to help us with connections, their past experience, and how they could better position us to succeed. So, those are some other things that, if we were fundraised today, let's just say, we're now taking a look at all of that. It's more holistic versus just getting cash. You can get cash anywhere, but what comes with that? Money really matters to us.

Ethan: Gotcha. So, I want to go back to something that you said when you were on your B2C journey, and that's customer acquisition. And we saw that KOYA was listed on Product Hunt. And for listeners who aren't familiar, Product Hunt is a platform, and there are several other platforms like it, where creators can submit their projects and creations, and users can vote for their favorites. Can you tell us what you were hoping to get from this? And if the strategy performed the way that you would've imagined that it would?

Courtney Werner: First of all, I love Product Hunt. I think it's... If you've not spent any time on there, I definitely recommend it. It's a good time. I think it's extremely inspiring to see what types of products people choose to put out into the world, and how people rally behind them. So, Product Hunt is just one of those different avenues for that. I decided to go on there after not being obsessed with Product Hunt, but just being intrigued, like, "How do people get on here? How are they able to be voted number one?" I'd gone through this process of just trying to figure out how it all worked. And I was very curious about it. I ended up meeting some amazing friends that walked me through Product Hunt as a potential way to acquire early customers. And it kind of fueled my fire of, "I want to do this for KOYA."

Most of the products that are on there, they already have revenue. And so, when I posted our product last summer, we were basically just testing a prototype. And I was so surprised that we made it. I think we made it to number four of the day, which for the type of product we had, and this isn't knocking our product, I was really proud of what we worked for.

But, for the type of product we had, it honestly should not have made it to the top five. And the reason I say that is because most things that were on the top five, they're all like very techy, and like I said, they already have revenue for the most part. And the reason I'm going into all of this detail is because if you're able to leverage the Product Hunt community, which honestly mostly happens through Twitter, you're able to get people to rally behind you that believe in you, and believe in your product, even if it's not at its best. And so, Product Hunt became an extremely helpful early days playing ground for us, where we were able to get those early users to really help us inform the future of the product.

Ethan: That's fantastic. Searching around on a Product Hunt, there are a lot of cool things out there. And it sounds like you're really strong on Product Hunt, or that you like it quite a bit. Can you tell us what types of products or what types of companies that Product Hunt might be best for?

Courtney Werner: I would say anything that... A SaaS company would do really well on Product Hunt. So SaaS is software as a service. So if that's what you do, great place for you. Anything that's consumer heavy tends to do pretty well on Product Hunt. I wouldn't say that a physical product does as well, but products that are online do a lot better. And so, it's definitely worth checking it out, worth getting involved in the community. One more thing I will add to that, I was doing Product Hunt in tandem with Indie Hackers, which is another great community spot for early founders to participate in.

Annaka: Gotcha. So, two fun resources to spend a little time on and get to know. All right. SaaS platformers get out there. And speaking of products, you've developed other apps before, specifically "Essentially Kind" was an app for frontline workers. It seems a lot like your entrepreneurial energies dedicated to encouraging humanity within the tech space. Did your nonprofit background make an impact into what you're doing today?

Courtney Werner: Yes. In many ways, I think, seeing the different things that my sister and I saw, in large part, that's actually why we decided to come back to the states and start KOYA, or choose to participate in KOYA, was we didn't want to just see what we saw. And I was at the time I was a journalist, so I was basically reporting different stories. Over time I was thinking, "On a non-profit salary you can't help very much financially." And there was just something in me that both my sister and I were like, "We want to fund these projects." Like, "I want to fund this hospital. I don't want to just tell these stories. I also want to be able to help in a really meaningful way." And so, I definitely think that has impacted us. It for sure keeps us up at night in terms of why we do what we do and like where we're headed. Not only with KOYA, but with any endeavor.

Annaka: Yeah. This might be just a theory, but I think your success on Product Hunt may have been due to just the tech industry in general being a little closed off and distance from each other and KOYA's over here like. "No make connections, make meaningful things happen." And I think there's a lot of people in tech that do realize that there's some lack there. So, you identified that niche in that problem. And I think it's so widespread and well known that people are really latching on. So, hopefully my theory bodes well.

Courtney Werner: Thank you for that. I like that theory. That's a good one. I'm going to be mulling that over today.

Annaka: Yeah. Please do.

Ethan: And there's some really good timing here as well. During, especially the early days of the pandemic... It's not just long distance, you could have been long distance from somebody just being across town from them.

Annaka: Yeah.

Ethan: Because, you're shut up in your house and you can't go anywhere and you're not seeing anybody anymore. Do you think that the pandemic, do you think that timing here was like a major impact on how well KOYA has done?

Courtney Werner: Yes. When everything first happened, we were geolocation based. So, initially it put a damper on that aspect. But, as a result of that, it did cause us to, I'm going to use a zinger of a word for startups, but it did cause us to pivot, because we realized nobody's going out anymore, so nobody's going to go and collect, if you will, or find the KOYAs because that are hidden for them, we need to find a way for them to receive these messages right now, where they are, which is at home for the most part. And so it caused us to reconsider some things and start thinking a little bit differently about our product and how we could make sure that we had a true MVP. Our initial MVP had a lot of bells of whistles attached. And I think it was hard for people to fully know how to engage with. So, it caused us to just reconsider the whole thing.

Ethan: Gotcha. So, KOYA's stated mission is to "Bridge the Difference." And just like I mentioned, it's been extremely more difficult to do that in recent years. So moving onto your product today, what do you feel like KOYA is doing to combat the increase in isolation and loneliness that we're seeing so pervasive in our society?

Courtney Werner: That's a great question. I think it's a little hard for us at the moment if I'm to be completely transparent, we are very much so focused on the business side. And so, we are more so focused on businesses being able to, for instance, a manager being able to communicate, "Well done. You did a stellar job on that," to their employee or to their colleagues. 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."

So, that's kind of where we are right now, with the idea that at some point this will be able to also fund more of the other side, which is friend to friend, family member to family member. We still have a free version that will always allow that. But, the focus right now is more so on those other types of relationships, which you would think maybe 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. And so, being able to hear from your manager, like, "Oh my gosh, I'm doing a good job." Actually matters even more than it once did.

Ethan: It's huge. It's such a big deal.

Annaka: Yeah.

Ethan: If my manager's listening, please just tell me that I'm doing a good job. All right. Back to reality. Where maybe I'm not doing a great job, but that's neither here nor there. When you come up with a new idea, or a new side to your product, how do you go about testing your theories on what's going to work?

Courtney Werner: We've had to become very disciplined on this. True to most startups, you kind of feel like you're in a bubble or a vacuum, and you just think that your ideas are great, and if you like them, everybody will. When you find yourself in a position where you are no longer able to develop those ideas, you start thinking a little bit differently about that, because if the customer is not asking for it, it is not something worth pursuing. And so, we've had to come up with some systems, and we're still getting to them, to kind of put things in the backlog, and to still dream, and ideate, and get excited about their future and what we could add to the product, but putting them in the backlog, and unless we hear from multiple customers that they're wanting that thing, we'll resurface it.

But if not, then it's not something that we're focused on. Because, we only have so many hours in the day to get things done. So, that's one way that we figure out what we want to start focusing on. We did do a lot of early user interviews to answer that question. And so, we conducted a lot with our hypothesis of, "Who might be our ICP, our ideal customer persona, before we started doing some of the development early on?" And that's proved really helpful. And we've still been doing interviews with every single new person that comes onto our product. Yeah.

Ethan: What do those interviews look like? Are they a video call, or is it just an email, or do you have a form? What do those look like?

Courtney Werner: We view ourselves, even though we've been around for a while, because we have a new product, we view ourselves as a new startup, like we're young. Which means we want to do things that don't scale. And that means that we do not do forms yet. Reason being is we want to have that initial high level engagement with our customers. So, for the most part, that is either a phone call if they feel uncomfortable with video, or it's a video, if they feel comfortable with video, and we record those and then transcribe them.

Ethan: That's really great. I love that. Just like what you said, while you are not at scale, you should do what you could not do when you're at scale.

Annaka: Yeah. And I think a lot of... On my side, in the design and user experience side, it's all about user testing. And if you get 20,000 eyes on it, that's your ideal. But, it's not always informative at that point. I think your route of having engaged users give you feedback at this point is probably going to be the most helpful, rather than getting 20,000 people just clicking through it to just get through some user testing. So, can you tell me more about your user persona, or your consumer persona?

Courtney Werner: Yes. We have a couple that we're focused on. So, one of them I mentioned earlier was real estate agents. Mostly that's because our product happens to be something where you want to have multiple touch points. It's a product that makes that easy, and real estate agents have that problem, where they need to have a minimum of around six touch points with each client. Which in the Austin real estate market, they have a lot of clients. And they want and they crave that personal connection. So, that's one of our initial ICPs.

And I say initial, because of course, until you get product market fit, you're kind of trying to figure out which one will actually stick. So, another one that we're with is managers of remote teams. And that's a big one because for the most part, managers are given a monthly budget to give to their employees. And so, we just so happen to nicely fit into that space as well, because we allow that extra added personal layer on top of something that managers are already meant to be doing each month. So, those are the two that we're working on. Of course, we have other people that... Sales or marketing that say that they want to use the product, so we're curious to see how they might use the product. But, those are our initial two focus, focus points.

Ethan: All right. I want to talk about your founding team. This founding team consists of you, your mother, your father, and your sister. I think it's safe to say this is a family business. What are the benefits and challenges of operating a startup with your family?

Courtney Werner: I think that if you can do it with your family, you can do it with anybody. And I say that because within families, there's a lot of different dynamics that come from childhood. So, when you say something to someone and your family, there's always a background, there's always history attached. Which when you're in business with your family requires extra communication, and proactive communication, to be able to make sure that, "Hey, I'm talking to you as my dad right now. I'm talking to you as the CEO right now." It requires a lot of communication. And it was initially a little bit challenging because of that, because 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.

Ethan: Do you feel like it's... Obviously it's working on a business level. Do you feel like it's strengthened your family on a more personal level?

Courtney Werner: Oh, for sure. For one, I lived in California then I was in Asia for most of the time. I never imagined moving back to Austin. Did not imagine doing anything that was day to day with my family. That I was not on my radar. The fact that's happening right now already is amazing. And something that's been really cool that's come out of that is, it's really rare to see someone in your family add something other than the name that you've attributed to them. So my mom for instance, she used to always just be mom, which came with certain expectations. At this point, she's my mom, but she's also one of the most kick ass community builders I've ever seen. My mom knows how to rally people together like nobody's business. She is an extrovert to the max, which I am not. And so, getting to see her energy and how she's able to connect people is actually something that I feel so fortunate to now see. She's not just my mom, she's this other multifaceted human that had we not been in business together, I probably would've never seen.

Ethan: Go, mom go.

Courtney Werner: Yeah. She's awesome.

Ethan: So, your family, there's been quite a bit of entrepreneurship in your family in the history. Can you tell us about some of those entrepreneurial pasts?

Courtney Werner: Yes. So, that means I get to brag on my dad and my sister a little bit. My dad is an entrepreneur. So, I grew up with that being a very normal job title. I thought, "Yeah, I could do anything. I could start my own business one day. I could..." Whatever, the sky was the limit. So, he started a company... It's funny, the older I get, the more it's like I can't quite remember dates of when things happened, but I know I was pretty young, and it took a while for it to take off. And eventually that first company that he started that we watched him build, ended up being acquired by Adidas. And then he within Adidas became... I think they developed a job title for him and a couple other people that was like... It was either... I think it ended up becoming "Futurist," or it was something that had to do with just coming up with new things, "Innovation Explorer," I think. "Innovative Explorer."

Annaka: Oh. I want that on my resume.

Ethan: Yeah.

Courtney Werner: Isn't that my cool title?

Annaka: Yeah.

Courtney Werner: So, then, of course, we're seeing more cool things that he's creating, and he's just very much so a dreamer and an inventor. That's just who my dad is. He's the happiest when he has free reign to kind of tinker with things. And that's been also pretty fun to see him in the wild. Not just stories of past things, but within our company, seeing that side of him come out has been really cool. And then my older sister is an amazing humanitarian photographer. And so, she started her own company when she was much younger. And just to see where she brought herself to, where she came from and then where she ended up. She had so many different clients and people wanting her to come internationally for her work. That definitely left an impression on me as well, because we both grew up seeing what was possible, but she tapped into it. And so, it's cool now to all be in this space together.

Ethan: So, seeing them as successful entrepreneurs and having that be such a main theme in your life, do you think that has made it easier to run this company, or has it made it harder? Like there's something to live up to that you have to hit? Or how has that experience affected the way that you run KOYA?

Courtney Werner: Hmm. I've never actually thought of that before. Yeah. . I like that. I think before starting KOYA, I definitely had that on my mind. My sister was getting her work in magazines, my dad was doing what he was doing. There was this piece of me prior to KOYA that I would say was more so wondering, "Will I be able to come up with something that matters?" It's funny because when you're looking at other people comparing yourself, you have an obstructed view of reality. And at the time I was an artist, I was published, I had things going for me. I don't know. But, it wasn't what they had going for them, and so it didn't feel like I was hitting the mark that I had set for myself based on comparison.

Ethan: Sounds like a lot of pressure.

Courtney Werner: Yeah. It did feel like quite a lot of pressure at that time. And then I would say traveling, that started slowly removing some of that pressure because you just feel grateful to wake up every day and to arrive safely to wherever you're going. So, some of the more primitive things are more top of mind than comparing yourself to somebody. You're just happy to be alive and to have a meal or whatever that day, because it was a crazy journey. So, that started some of that deconstructing of the pressure, if you will. And then being in KOYA, honestly, removed pretty much all that pressure. And I'll say that because it was a... I don't know how to fully describe this, but because my dad is the CEO and he was the one that decided, "Yeah, let's all do this together."

Having your dad just believe in you and be like, "I see the skillsets you have. And I know that you'd be a valuable member of this team." We've gone through various iterations of that same thing throughout the past almost four years, to the point where I now feel extremely like, "Yeah, of course, here's what I offer." But, it did take time, because I did feel like an intruder initially, like, "Do I belong? Do I offer anything?" And all of us did in various ways, because there were also the nuances of us being a family too.

Annaka: It sounds, I'm going to throw another buzzword out there in the world of startups and millennials in general, and that would be imposter syndrome. Sounds like maybe that might have been something going on in the beginning. So, having some and really back you up, and validate you, and believe in what you have, because you're clearly talented, and educated, and good at what you do. But, having someone say, "Hey, Courtney, you are actually good at this. And we want you as part of that team." That's what changed your perspective?

Courtney Werner: Yeah, that definitely changed my perspective. Having the time and the space to be able to expand and figure out what I brought... Honestly, I feel like at this point I could do anything, which if you would've asked me that question prior to KOYA, or prior to these past four years, I would've just been like, "Ah, I don't know." Kind of at a loss as to, I think I would've stayed in just nonprofit world for a really long time, just writing stories most likely. I wouldn't have probably tried to expand beyond that. And I think that's a wonderful job. That was one of my favorite jobs of all time.

Annaka: Yeah.

Courtney Werner: But, to see that there was more within that got me excited and that amps me up. That's been really cool.

Annaka: And your background pre KOYA is pretty marketing heavy, right?

Courtney Werner: Yes.

Annaka: I'm a marketing junkie. How did your background either help you with KOYA, or help guide your decision making?

Courtney Werner: Decision making in what way?

Annaka: As far as strategies to take, how to even market the company, or how to approach it from a marketing perspective?

Courtney Werner: So, early days KOYA, I don't think it helped me very much, because I still was trying to figure out... My marketing for about a decade was really content heavy, organic reach, that was my niche. That's kind of where I focused, that's where I helped different clients build up their brand. That's where I thrived for those years, content writing, stuff like that. With KOYA it was just a very different ball game. Marketing an app is very different than marketing a person or a physical product. So, that took some getting used to. Now that we're actually in the B2B space, I actually feel a lot more comfortable with strategy and trying to figure out next best steps.

But, the first year, I felt more like a fish out of water. Like, "Whoa, this is a very different..." There's SEO, which I felt familiar with, but then when you have an app there's ASO. And so, there's just so many different things that when you're the sole marketing person for a company, it felt a little overwhelming, because you're juggling so much. And I think there's this misconception around marketing that, "Oh, you're a marketer, you know what to do." And it's like you could be just an SEO and be a [redacted] marketer that produces amazing content. And that would be a full-time job. You could be... Yeah. And it just goes on and on and on. So, I felt really comfortable with the content piece initially, but the actual marketing of the product and trying to get product market fit for an app specifically was quite a daunting task. I learned a lot, I bought so many books and... Yeah.

Ethan: I'm a little bit embarrassed to ask this.

Annaka: Me too. I Googled it.

Ethan: Yeah. I see your screen over there. I'm pretty versed in SEO. What is ASO?

Courtney Werner: So, it's for the app store. Yeah, it's kind of the same principle that you would with SEO, except for app stores. And so, you basically have to optimize your keywords and also your description within the app store, and then you're able to be found or organically if you're able to do it really well. Some people have that even as just a job. It's a fairly new title, so not embarrassing at all. We met someone, I guess, four years ago, who initially first told us about that, because that was something that they offered. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, it's another thing." And if you have an app and you're watching this, it's important to kind of take a look at it, because every time you resubmit your app, you have the opportunity to refresh your ASO, and hopefully have a chance of getting higher up there.

Ethan: Any sweet tips? 

Courtney Werner: I was about to say, I didn't learn enough to be able to help anybody.

Ethan: Oh no.

Courtney Werner: Yeah. Thankfully we're not on the app store anymore. So, yeah.

Ethan: Then let's run to something that you are familiar with and that's social media. Would you say that it's important for every company to have a strong social media presence, or brand, before launching? Or is that only important for some types of companies?

Courtney Werner: Yeah. No, I don't think it's important for every company to have a strong, because I think it can become a distraction. If you were to ask me this question about five years ago, I would've said emphatically, "Yes." Reason being is at that time, it actually made a huge difference. If you were to focus as a new startup on social media right now, and your consumer facing, I would say TikTok is one of your very small bullets of a chance to make a dent for 15 minutes a day of your time. And then another one would be Twitter. So, if you're SaaS, I don't know if necessarily consumer forward matters as much for Twitter. But, if you're building something that is for businesses, then I would say Twitter, spending 10 minutes a day on that. But, no, don't spend any more time than that. It's more important right now to really suss out your early customers. Be speaking with them, ask them questions, treat them like they're the most amazing thing that's ever happened to you because they are, because they're giving your product time.

Ethan: You said that your answer would've been different five years ago. So, what's changed? Is it you that's changed or is it the world-

Annaka: Platform.

Ethan: ... The platforms, the markets that's changed?

Courtney Werner: Definitely the platforms have changed. And so, the algorithms have changed. I think most people that are in startups actually don't know very much about marketing from... So, we actually run a community here in Austin for startup founders, and a majority of them, what they're looking for is either engineering help or marketing. That's a problem because then they run across companies that want to just post stuff on socials. And it's just vanity metrics, it doesn't mean anything. Yes, have a social presence somewhere, because it is like your online business card. People are going to look to validate whether or not they actually want to use your product. But, there's no need to just push stuff out there, because five years ago, if you push stuff out there, people would've seen it. Now, the likelihood of that happening is much lower. And so, the time that you devote to something like that, I think, should be paralleled to the impact, and the impact is not as great right now, unless TikTok.

Ethan: Unless TikTok.

Courtney Werner: Yeah. Which what we're still trying to figure out how to use that for our brand. But, I have seen a few brands within our community use it really well. And they've garnered quite a bit of free PR interests, like some investment and other things through just utilizing TikTok.

Ethan: So, let's talk about your brand. How do you all use social media and branding to forward the progress of your company? And let's talk about those things that aren't vanity metrics. Let's talk about what's real, and what matters, and what you all do.

Courtney Werner: So, we did start four years ago, which meant that there still was some chance for things to be seen at that time. We ended up creating a pretty incredible community that was people in the kindness community. I don't know how to put that. We were more into psychographics at that time versus demographics for our app. And so, we were looking for kindness centric people, people that were empathetic, and we ended up encountering a huge group of them. So, that was how we initially utilized and harnessed social media for our brand. And that has served us really well, because people in that community are really gentle when it comes to offering feedback with our current product. So, that's been helpful. Now that we're kind of where we are with the product being for businesses though, we are not focusing as much on social media at all. And the reason being is, I want those early customers to be the ones that shape how we talk about our product.

Now that we have access to customers, that's honestly the real value. And I want to be able to use their quotes within our platforms. I want to use their stories within our socials. I want to make sure that everywhere that someone looks that our customers are really the heroes of that, and that either our content is customer focused in terms of sharing their stories, or customer focused in terms of actually providing value. So, if we don't have anything of value that will actually, if someone reads it really quick, it'll benefit them in some way, then I don't want to just put stuff out there.

Annaka: Yeah and social media really has changed. And anyone that's keeping up kind of in the social media world, hats off, because I feel like I deleted the apps for a while and I got back on and I was like, "This is a whole new world. I don't even know what I'm doing anymore." But yeah. Only putting things out that have value in them, that's just your whole business and an outlook, I think at this point I'm like, "Yep. Things that I value, things that are kind, things that are compassionate." It's like, "Okay, I love this." And switching lanes just a bit more back to you personally, I'm a routine driven person. What does your morning routine look like? You mentioned it a couple times, I think, in other interviews. So, I want to know.

Courtney Werner: Ooh, I'm glad you asked this, because it's something that I've been thinking about again. I used to have a morning routine, fairly recently, that involved waking up around 6:30, and I have an art studio in the backyard, and so I'd go paint every morning. And I loved that routine. That was honestly the most grounding thing. At this point, life got a bit in the way. So, because we're bootstrapped, I actually have multiple jobs that pay the bills. And I have not learned yet how to balance that, KOYA, and then my personal life. And so, I've just now actually been rethinking, "How do I make sure that I'm taking care of myself personally?" I got sick a few weeks ago and I very much know that it was because I was stressed and I burnt myself out.

And that's honestly a very real part of the entrepreneur journey is if you don't have things that ground you, and quality relationships that ground you, then it's really easy to get off and flip about. So, to answer your question, I am currently in the process of figuring out how to reinstate my morning routine, because I can see the value that had and how spending my time like that first thing is actually what really allowed me to bring my best self to work every day. So, it's a kind of a vulnerable space I'm in because I have not been doing that. And so, I've been feeling pretty tired lately, and like I said, got sick.

Annaka: Yeah. I think there might be a few of us in that boat. Like, "Ooh, I lost it. I lost that equilibrium and that balance, especially with going remote." I used to do something similar, get up well before I had to be anywhere, drink a cup of coffee, sit down with a puzzle or whatever, and just ease into the day. And now my alarm goes off and five minutes later I'm logged into the computer. It's like the routine is gone, at least in the morning. But, do you think a routine in general is something that's important for entrepreneurs, or they just need to find something personally that grounds them and reconnects them to life in general?

Courtney Werner: Everybody's so different. So, what works for me won't work for somebody else. I think having something that grounds you, something that's a North Star, something that is a principal you live by is important. I was listening to this... I did get the call map. So, my boyfriend got me that for my birthday. And I asked for it because I was like, "Oh, I really need to find some Zen in my life." And anyways, one of the morning podcasts was by Jay Shetty, and he was talking about, instead of having a to-do list, having a to-be list. And I've been thinking about that nonstop since, because he was recommending basically having your to-do list, writing it down, but then next to it, writing down who you wanted to be when you were doing those things. And the reason I say, "Having a North Star," or "Having something that grounds you," for me that's kind of what that means, is it's not, you can get everything done in the world.

What if you could go get all the funding, you could have the best company ever in terms of optics, but if you are personally not being the kind of person you want to be, how you're going to feel at the end of the day is empty, essentially. And that won't change no matter what happens with your company or anything. So, yeah, that's something I've been thinking about, because I love the idea of a morning routine, and it's worked really well for me, but I think the reason it works well for me isn't really the routine of it. It's actually just the fact that me slowing down brings me back home to myself long enough for me to then when I start my day, remember I am and bring that with me to work, which really is what does make the difference.

Annaka: I want to go home and throw away all of my to-do lists, and whiteboards, and sticky notes everywhere.

Ethan: I'm not sure that's exactly what she said to do. 

Annaka: No, my whole life would then fall apart at that point. But, speaking of productivity tips and things like that, the Pomodoro Technique, talk to me about that one.

Courtney Werner: I discovered this through a friend that came and stayed with me for a while. I think her company was doing it. And so, I ended up buying, I guess, it's like a timer, but for food. But anyways, I bought it because I have it now on my desk. And so, I'll turn it over and I'll work solidly for 30 minutes, and then I'll take a five minute break. So, I'll either stretch, walk around the block, drink a huge glass of water, anything that allows me to just move a bit, and that's proved extremely helpful. Reason being is like I mentioned, I do have multiple jobs. And when you're an entrepreneur innately, you actually wear many hats. So, it's kind of the same idea. And to ground yourself for 30 minutes and focus on accomplishing one task.

So, for every 30 minute increment, you have a goal in mind, you're trying to accomplish something reasonable within that 30 minutes. I actually get a lot more done, because I usually overestimate how long it's going to take me, because I'm actually including usually some margin for distraction. And when I have the 30 minute timer on, I'm like zoned in, I have my phone on silent, do not disturb, my computers on do not disturb, so I am just focusing on that tab until it's done. And then I usually have time for more tasks, because it turns out that when you're not looking and responding to text, and emails, and talking to someone you're able to get a lot more done.

Annaka: Yeah. I know you're an iPhone person. I'm an iPhone person. The focus thing, the features on iPhones now, I'm like, "Where has this been all my life?" It'll automatically tell people to go away. It's like, "What is this? This is great."

Courtney Werner: Yeah. I love it. As an introvert before bed too, I love it. I'm like, "Sleep mode."

Annaka: Yes.

Courtney Werner: Like, "Bye."

Annaka: And I love turning it off before I'm actually asleep. I'm like, "Don't talk to me. Talk to the hand. I'm not here." All right. All right, Courtney. So, how does a company like KOYA scale from here? What's what's next for you all?

Courtney Werner: How do we scale? That is the question. I think for us, we definitely have a few metrics in mind that matter. So, we're more so focused on those at the moment, because the idea of scaling feels both equally overwhelming and exciting. So, instead of scaling, or thinking about scaling in the forward sense, we are kind of scaling back in the present moment to just focus on the metrics that matter to us. One of which is customer retention. That's something that's very top of mind. For us it's also active users. So, we don't want to measure it by, as tempting as it would be, customers, because we want to make sure that we have active customers. So, we're focused on those metrics right now. And for us that’s what equates to scaling, because if we get 7% week over week of those things, or more, which would be amazing, we will be scaling as a result.

Ethan: Absolutely. Jumping back to something that you mentioned earlier. You grew up around entrepreneurship, around entrepreneurs, but when you jumped into it yourself, was there something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?

Courtney Werner: At the time I was a freelancer, which I think feels pretty similar to entrepreneurship. You are having to problem solve quite often, but instead of for yourself, you're doing it for your clients. So, I kind of already felt like I was in that mental space. What surprised me about entrepreneurship, and being part of a team, is actually it was that, it was the team aspect of finding out what made everyone tick, figuring out everybody's skill sets, and finding ways to highlight those. That was something new to me, because I'd been a lone wolf for a while doing what I did, and the idea of it not just being about me growing quickly and doing the best I could, it was also about making sure that everybody else was doing okay, and that they were thriving, that was to be quite frank, that took me some time.

I did not initially know how to play well as a team. I really liked doing things by myself. It felt easier and quicker just to get it done myself versus communicating and asking for help. And so, that aspect of entrepreneurship, and I do realize that probably some people watching don't have a team. There are a lot of solopreneurs. And so, I definitely feel like I resonate more with that aspect of entrepreneurship, which has its own difficulties for sure. But, coming into a team that and making sure everybody feels good, and they're excited about the vision, and they feel comfortable with it, that has been my biggest challenge.

Ethan: Yeah. We have a lot of entrepreneurs come on here and tell us to go get a co-founder, "If you're not technical, go get a co-founder." And there was something that came up for me about a week ago. I was cleaning out... Oh, I logged into my Evernote for the first time since 2016.

Annaka: Oh God.

Ethan: Yeah. Usually that could be a really cringey thing, but I saw something in there that was a note to my myself. And it said, "There's a reason that Tony Robbins needs three pages of acknowledgements and thank yous before he starts his book, go build your team." And I was like, "Wow. I was freaking smart in 2016. What happened?"

Annaka: Love when that happened.

Ethan: Yeah.

Annaka: I had this rare moment of insight. Wow. I think you're probably right on that one.

Courtney Werner: No, I love that. I think that's so true. That's true for... Yeah. So many different authors, they have that page or pages. We need each other, which feels contradictory at times. When you're just trying to move fast, It feels like, "Oh, I could just figure it out myself. I could watch a YouTube, I could..." And, Yeah. Do that, of course. But, also there's something to be said about learning from people that have gone before and they know different things that you don't know, and that makes a huge difference.

Annaka: Yeah. It's me as a homeowner, watching YouTube how to fix anything. Do not recommend. 

Courtney Werner: How to fix.

Annaka: Oh my God do not do it. But, any just general advice for entrepreneurs that may be sitting in your seat, or maybe wanting to start just general advice that you have for them?

Courtney Werner: General advice would be, if you have an idea, and you haven't gotten started yet, before building a product, I definitely recommend just throwing up a landing page and seeing if you can get signups first. It'll save you time, and it'll save you a lot of money. So, I highly recommend, if you have a good idea, just getting that page up there, circulating it with people, not just your friends and family, strangers who will actually give you unbiased feedback. And along with that, maybe reading "The Mom Test," if you haven't. It's a book that helps you figure out how to talk to customers. And that is something I wish that we would've done early on and done differently. So, it's something I'm pretty passionate about now whenever I talk to entrepreneurs. You don't need to spend a lot of money. You don't need to get investment right away. And you certainly don't need to build out a product before you have a customer.

Ethan: Awesome. We will put a link to "The Mom Test" and all the links to KOYA, and all of the socials there, and our show notes. And we want to thank you. Thanks for being on the show today. This has been really great.

Courtney Werner: Oh my gosh. Thank you all. This has been one of my favorite interviews of all time. Truly, it has felt like chatting with friends. So, thank you for this opportunity.

Ethan: Awesome. I'm going to put that on a piece of paper and stick it right on the fridge.

Courtney Werner: Great. Love it.

Ethan: All right, everybody. That's going to be all for today's episode of the Startup Sevans podcast. Hey, thanks for stopping in today. And everyone, besides the obvious method of supporting us, which is leaving a rating on Apple Podcasts, one of the best ways to help us out is to share your favorite Startup Sevans episode with a friend. We want to share founder stories like these with as many people as possible, and your friends seem pretty cool, so we want to hang out with them too. We promise not to supplant your relationship. For tools, guides, videos, startup stories, and so much more head over to truic.com. That's truic.com. T-R-U-I-C.com. See you folks

Annaka: By you all.

Expand to view full transcript

Tell Us Your Startup Story

Are you a startup founder and want to share your entrepreneurial journey with our readers? Click below to contact us today!

Request an Interview

More on KOYA

Screenshot of KOYA website.

Bringing Humanity to the Tech Industry

KOYA is an ecommerce startup on a mission to bring empathy to the tech world. This is their origin story.

Read More

KOYA co-founder.

Founder of Ecommerce Startup KOYA Shares Their Top Insights

Courtney Werner, founder of tech startup KOYA, shared valuable insights during our interview that will inspire and motivate aspiring entrepreneurs.

Read More

The KOYA team.

Here’s How You Can Support Ecommerce Startup KOYA

We asked Courtney Werner, founder of KOYA, to share the most impactful ways to support their startup, and this is what they had to say.

Read More

KOYA logo.

KOYA Company Profile

KOYA is a family-run startup that operates as a B2B gifting service on a mission to make the tech industry a better, happier place. 

Read More