Courtney Werner and KOYA

On the importance of failing fast and often so that you can eventually build something remarkable

August 17, 2022

Courtney Werner is the co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of KOYA. KOYA helps businesses create stronger connections to their customers by enabling businesses to send thank yous, kudos, and gifts to their customers or as KOYA puts it: “send kindness and kudos to your customers.” Initially, their primary customer wasn’t businesses, but instead, people who wanted to stay connected with friends and family. In my conversation with Courtney, she explained how and why they adjusted their target customer, as well as her biggest learning about being ok with failing fast.

Courtney co-founded KOYA in 2018 with her parents, Jon and Cherie, and her sister, Caryn. The idea for KOYA was sparked during a conversation at Jon’s birthday party. Courtney and Caryn had been traveling a lot for their careers and as a result felt out of touch with their family and friends. Coincidentally, Jon was considering starting his own business and was thinking through potential ideas. In the early 2000s Jon had founded a software company and wanted to get back to the creativity that comes with building a business. 

The idea for KOYA was sparked as they tossed around different ideas about how to stay more connected with friends and family.

I first encountered KOYA a year ago when Rebekah Bastian, the Seattle-based founder of OwnTrail, tweeted out KOYA’s Product Hunt launch. I was immediately grabbed by the landing page and story it told of the importance of connecting with your loved ones remotely. I signed up and sent a KOYA to my partner. The creation process was delightful and I made a note to myself to follow up with them in a year for One Year Wiser. 

It’s been more than a few years since the first version of KOYA launched, but the first version was pre-pandemic and geo-focused. Obviously that didn’t fare well when a pandemic hit and everyone sheltered in place. Since version one, they’ve pivoted the product to be focused on helping people connect remotely. It’s that version that was launched on Product Hunt in June of 2021. 

In our conversation, Courtney talks about:

  • The importance of focusing on a narrow customer profile so that you don’t get distracted by all of the potential use cases
  • How they identified the need to change how they positioned the product
  • How they leveraged in-person community building as a customer acquisition strategy
  • Focusing on creating a community that is actually helpful to people rather than just an upsell to their product
  • How it’s critical for new founders that have an idea to first throw together a quick landing page to validate customer interest before spending months to build the product

My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Thanks for joining me today, Courtney. I’m really excited to speak to you about KOYA. Let's start with the founding story. One Year Wiser is really about the last year since you launched, but could you kind of give me a quick overview of how you came together and where the idea for it came from?

Courtney Werner: Well, first of all, thanks for having me. I am so happy to be here. And the story behind KOYA is one that I love. KOYA was birthed at my dad's birthday party four years ago. He was in a transition with work and trying to figure out what he was going to do next. And he ended up asking everyone what problems they were facing. At the time, my older sister and I were traveling about 60-80% of the year internationally. So we'd missed birthdays, bad days, break ups, anything that helps build relational equity. We were out of touch because we just were not available. We shared this pain point and my dad, who has a specialty in geolocation, thought of a solution utilizing location-based messaging. So the first idea for KOYA was around that idea, making it possible to show up at unique locations for your friends and family even when you are away.

Interesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What did you mean by show up and unique? Was it kind of like a virtual video call kind of way to show up or was it something different?

CW: Picture this. You go to your favorite coffee shop and one of your best friends you haven't heard from in a while sends you a KOYA that is only unlocked at that location. The moment you arrive, you have this feeling of being known because your friend knew that this was your fave spot. You also get a personal message from them and find out that they paid for your coffee in advance. This example was the general idea of our first product.

Got it. Oh, that's great. That's super neat. Can you walk me through how the product has evolved? When I first came across KOYA on Product Hunt last year in June, you had launched a product very focused on connecting remotely. It was about sending, I think, mostly text message based interactions. It sounds like you went from geo specific to less geo focused. I also noticed more recently that you've shifted the positioning of the product to be more focused on businesses as your primary customer. So, that’s all to say, can you walk me through that evolution? 

CW: Yeah, happy to. So, like most startups, we made the mistake of building a product before having actual customers or people who were interested in paying for the idea. And so we created this idea that we were super psyched about and ran into a couple problems. Number one, it can be difficult to build and then scale a consumer based product without loads of capital. So there's that. Number two, it's especially difficult to build a consumer based product that is location based during a pandemic. Everybody was suddenly indoors, whereas pre-COVID people were out and about. Everyone was running errands and doing things that would allow them to discover the KOYAs. Suddenly it became more of a conscious effort or choice to go out only when you needed to go out. So this was the beginning of our pivot.

We started to realize, oh, in a post-COVID world, what does it look like to show up? It looks different than it once did. And then, of course, along that same time, we also started to realize that in order to do a consumer facing product, you have to have a lot of capital to make that happen. And suddenly we began reassessing how to help people show up. This thought also allowed us to reconsider our business model. So we pivoted last year right and then launched on Product Hunt as a way to test our new product. We were pleasantly surprised that our launch made it to the top 5 and learned so much from this experience. We've since built out KOYA to be focused primarily on just businesses and it is no longer location based at the moment.  

Wow, geo specific during a pandemic must have been tough. So you do want to get back to that initial seed of the idea of opening a KOYA when you show up at a restaurant or something.

CW: Yes, but right now we're very much building an MVP.  In some ways, it feels like we started a new company last year. As a result, we want to create a strong foundation, but we definitely  look forward to adding location in the future. 

You mentioned the consumer side is hard and it sounds like distribution, getting awareness of your product, you know, you need money for that. Is that kind of the main piece that you when you think of consumer side is hard that you that you think is the hard part?

CW: There are multiple reasons that building a consumer based product is tough, but capital is certainly one of the main reasons. Another reason is feedback. Let's just say you have 20 consumers that are all giving you feedback versus one business. It gets a bit murky to prioritize the feedback when you are a small team with limited resources. Eventually, we’d love to have a consumer-focused aspect to our product, but for now it is more strategic for us to focus on businesses. Props to consumer-facing startups, though. Honestly, I'm always amazed. 

Going back to your product launch, you mentioned you were testing out kind of the shift in product. What were you looking for in that? What were you gauging? Was it just the number of signups from people or if the message resonated with the product and community?

CW: At that time, it mostly was the messaging and the idea. Were people excited about it? Could a product that was so minimal do well on Product Hunt? Because for the most part, the products I see on there are usually polished. Most launches are a huge deal and, for some companies, it is a few months or even a year or so in the making. Our product was simple and we only planned the launch for a month. In general the idea was pretty basic and to see the support and excitement about our product early on was a huge signal for us that, wow, we're onto something which led us to further build out the product.

Yea, you're totally right with the product, with feeling like the products are very just like high fidelity, you know, venture backed, you know, they've been operating in a beta for multiple years and now they're finally ready to go public. Well, that's great.

I remember seeing KOYA for the first time and thinking it's a really cool concept. The design and how you were talking about it was really powerful and it clearly resonated with the Product Hunt community because lots of people upvoted it and left tons of comments, which is super exciting. How was that shift when you realized, oh, actually, let's focus on getting businesses in the door? In your original Product Hunt post, you do mention that it's a great product for real estate agents or for remote teams. So clearly you had that business piece, but sounds like you've shifted all of your messaging to be business focused. How did that happen? How did you realize, okay, we need to start shifting?

CW: For one, I think having been in this space for a while. Initially we tried to boil the ocean. So KOYA was for everyone when it was an app. The way we approached reimagining KOYA was different. We took note of the people or sectors that were especially excited about our offering. If we talked to real estate agents, for example, how did they respond versus others people? Who became the most excited about what we were building and who would followup or eagerly sign up for our waitlist? And so those early users were our initial ICPs (Ideal Customer Profiles).

In the past when we’d tell people about KOYA, they'd be like, that's awesome, but then they wouldn't download the app. Something was clearly missing. So when people were actually using the product and willing to pay for it, we definitely noticed who they were and as a result, we shaped our messaging to encourage more of those clients. We knew that we needed to niche down, because making it available for everyone in the early days made it harder to gain traction. For us it felt exciting to really focus and hone in on a couple ICPs to see what would happen. 

That's great. If they're showing you that they like it and it's like the perfect use case for them, that's always encouraging and helps generate that excitement to be like, yes, we're headed in the right direction, it gives you that confidence.

Now that you've identified some customer groups that are ideal fits for KOYA, what's been your customer acquisition strategy? Have you found things that work well or things that haven't worked well in the past year?

CW: We started with a waitlist and a lot of people signed up. I would personally email every single person with what we were up to and see if they had questions. People would reply and then I'd give them access to our beta. So that's how we started it this time. We already had over a few thousand people that had used our other products so that did help us. We also started a community around the same time called FIESTA, which the people that attend are small, medium businesses or startup founders. So this community has also been great in terms of testing and giving us feedback about the initial MVP. We're also slowly tapping into different things that we had in the peripheral, which has been fun.

Tell me more about that community aspect. I work at Reddit and so I talked with a lot of founders who ask me, "how to get a community started" and I tell them it takes a lot of work. How has the community building experience been for you?

CW: So we had done a lot of community building online initially, which made a lot of sense for consumer based products. And we had a lot of connections that were fired up, ready to share about our product when it was ready, and then we had to pivot. So that was a good experience, I had a lot of learnings. What I did not anticipate post-COVID was the excitement of people to meet again in person. We just stumbled upon it, to be honest.

My mom, Cherie, who is a core part of the team, is an amazing connector. Super connector. I don't even know how she has this much energy. It's amazing. She was using Lunch Club and made hundreds of connections on Lunch Club during the pandemic. So once we were able to meet again in person, those were actually the first people that came to our meetup. And our meetup was probably around like 30 plus people. The next month it was 100+. And at this point we are consistently having 250 to 300 people each month that show up. We're definitely starting to expand.

So how to start it? Honestly, it's not rocket science. I think a lot of times as a founder, it feels intimidating to do something new or different, but I would suggest creating something that's actually helpful for somebody that you're really good at. So instead of creating a community that's for your company, creating a community that's actually helping people makes a huge difference. So nobody really, even at FIESTA, knew about KOYA until recently when we created a new check-in product for the community members that was “powered by KOYA” and that's when they first started putting together, oh, KOYA started FIESTA. But we really wanted to keep it agnostic and just be a space where startup founders could come meet people, learn, get connections and learn, like I said, learn from the mistakes that we had made as well. So it was kind of a fun experience the past year to have started a community that has done so well.

That's impressive. I'm not familiar with Lunch Club, what is that? 

CW: Lunch Club is a phenomenal company. They essentially pair you with people for a virtual lunch chat. When you sign up, it'll pair you with somebody, I think for 30 minutes. You can take as many of those meetings as you'd like, but it helps kind of open up your world and introduce you to other people you wouldn't have met otherwise. And so that's what my mom spent a lot of time doing, and she would of course be telling people about KOYA, but she would just be learning from all these people. We live in Austin and this is becoming a pretty big tech hub. A lot of the people on Lunch Club were actually in Austin. They just moved here and they still hadn't met anyone. They didn't know where to go, like where the good food was or dry cleaning or things like that. So that's how that started, is that my mom would just give them resources, which she's really good at doing.

Got it. And then at FIESTA, it sounds like it's all about bringing founders, entrepreneurs, small business owners in the Austin area together to network and help each other out.

CW: Yes, exactly. I’m really happy about this stat that my mom showed me the other day. Essentially, I think 70% of the people that come each month are new, which to me is exciting because that that shows that we're doing exactly what we wanted to do, which is anybody that's new, they come in and then we're able to show them, Hey, here are some communities that actually might be a great fit. So they're getting plugged into other communities, which is ultimately our desire. I feel happy that it happened naturally.

That's great. To your point of making sure your community isn't just a support community for your product or a subsidiary of your product, but it actually has its own purpose. It sounds like that was really powerful in driving growth.

Changing gears slightly. What's been the most challenging part of the past year?

CW: Pivoting when you've been on course in one direction for quite a while is very tough. I think getting the whole team to kind of backup and create a more sustainable foundation was tough for all of us because we had this idea that, at the time, was very much so connected to location. To change course was hard, and it took a few months to get everybody on the same page. It took a lot to make sure everyone knew and understood that we weren't changing our vision or mission, we were simply making it so that way we could have the resources available to pour into our vision. You need capital to express your point of view. And so we needed to change gears. And for us, it kind of felt like a really hard turn. So that was more challenging than I had thought it would have been.

Any advice for founders who maybe are going to have to navigate that conversation with their team of changing direction or having to kind of change their focus on their vision? What made it work well for you because it does seem like you've transitioned well.

CW: What worked well for us was remembering the core essence of what we were trying to build. We are still focused on the same thing at the core. How people choose to use the product is their choice, which is the same for every product that's out there. But what we choose to put into it and the vision behind it is the same. So I suggest peeling back those layers and asking yourself, what are we ultimately trying to build? And how can we harness our unique skillsets to actually see this dream come to fruition? The answers to these questions, the core principles of your vision, will help you transition. 

New for 2022, I'm doing quick fire rounds. What do you know now that you wish you'd known a year ago?

CW: I wish I knew… and this is going to sound so cliche, but I wish I knew that nobody knew what they were doing.

Just do your best. Just do your absolute best. Because ultimately, when it comes to your product, you're the only one that knows what you're trying to build. A year ago I was so focused on ‘this person knows this or this person knows that and they probably know better than me.’ And this thinking caused a lot of stress and made it hard to make decisions at times.

Hmm. Yeah decision paralysis is something so many people have and just because something worked for someone else’s business doesn’t mean it’s going to work for yours. 

What book do you recommend the most and why?

CW: Play Bigger. There's several authors to it, but it's called Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets. The reason I suggest it is because it talks about being a category king. So going back to what I just said earlier, perhaps your idea hasn't come out yet. Maybe other people don't have the same idea, but if you understand that you're able to create your own category, that's really powerful. So I highly suggest that any founder read this along their journey because you can dominate a market when you are the category king in that market.

I love that title. What are you most proud of from the past year?

CW: How far we have all come. It's challenging to be in a business with several people for a long period of time, four years. But also, they're my family and so that also came with its own challenges. So I'm really proud of not only how far the company has come, but how far personally each of us have come in the past year.

My last question for you. What advice do you have to an entrepreneur who's thinking about starting a company?

CW: If you have an idea, throw up a landing page and see if there's interest before shipping a line of code. This is my biggest piece of advice.

Did you do that at KOYA or did you not?

CW: We did not do that in the beginning, and we have learned the most valuable, expensive lesson of all time as a result.

I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, Courtney. Is there anything I didn't ask you about that you really think entrepreneurs and founders should know?

CW: I think that last one was honestly the biggest. So I think that's an important one for people to realize that if you have an idea you can even just go on Squarespace and create a landing page like you don't even have to know how to code. There's so many no code tools for you to use in order to see if there's interest in your idea. And once there is interest, build your first prototype and see how it works and how people respond to it.

Do a lot of user testing, your customers will let you know whether or not this is something they're going to use. So I would be ready to fail fast and fail often, especially in the very beginning. So you can build something that will be remarkable and be a solution instead of just another product.

That's great advice and very inspiring. Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Courtney. I really appreciate it.

CW: Likewise. This was really fun. Thank you.

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I hope you enjoyed my interview with Courtney and learned a few things. If you did, give it some love on Twitter with a RT or Like. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊   -Tyler

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