Many people are unaware of how much their local libraries have to offer, but a Midlands entrepreneur wants to change that.
Trey Gordner is the founder and CEO of KOIOS, a company which offers software designed to keep patrons and their local libraries connected, and allows them to, as he put it, “never miss an opportunity to borrow instead of buy.” Users install KOIOS’ browser app, and are alerted when they search for an item online that is available at their public library.
“Most of the content you are trying to consume is available at your library,” said Gordner, but as government entities, libraries don’t have the resources to pour money into advertising to make the public aware of this. KOIOS wants to turn the library into a resource that is available at the moment a consumer needs it, rather than one the public needs to knowingly seek out.
Gordner came up with the idea for KOIOS while doing pro bono consulting for his local library, which was looking for ways to reach the demographic of people “between children, and people who have children.”
Gordner decided to go forward with his idea at Columbia’s first Startup Weekend in 2014, an event at which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and network with like-minded professionals. KOIOS took home top prize at the event for the progress Gordner made on his idea.
The most affirming moment for Gordner came when he spoke at his first national conference last October in Monterey, California. He spoke about marketing and advertising for libraries, and those in attendance took notice of his work. He had a lunch meeting with a potential partner the very next day.
He offered advice for others looking to start on the entrepreneurial path.
Gordner believes that selling an idea is perhaps the most important part of a successful business. If one does not convince people that they have something worth pursuing, a business will fail quickly.
“Sales is persuasion, and you could be persuading for a long, long time,” said Gordner. “You think sales and you think, ‘well that’s just when I go and try to convince someone to give me money to build,’ but sales is everywhere in this business.”
Gordner also encourages potential entrepreneurs to stay flexible in their ideas, and not to be discouraged when someone does not see their vision.
“When you do your business for a while, your mentality about it crystalizes,” said Gordner. “And you have to be careful about that. Things change, it’s never perfect, you have to be looking for ways to improve and new things to do. You have to be careful because when people don’t see it [the way you do], you’re going to take it personally. Just like you feel the high when someone gets it, you feel crushed when somebody doesn’t.”
Being in the library sector, something Gordner feels he understands very well is the idea of not understanding.
“The whole purpose of the library is the idea that you don’t know everything, and there are certain things that will make you a better person, and those should be available to everyone,” he said. “That ties to community as well. I don’t know everything there is to know about running this business, and I don’t know who is going to be able to make a connection that really matters.”
Gordner also suggested new entrepreneurs take advantage of the resources available in the Midlands which he has utilized in growing KOIOS.
“USC has been great. I will say right off the bat that USC has been incredibly helpful,” Gordner said. He has received not only help from professors, but also from students. “The leaders of tomorrow are sitting bored in class,” he added. “They don’t know what’s impossible. They don’t know what they shouldn’t be able to do.”
“We had a group write an RFP [Request for Proposal] template, so that the government would know what to ask for if they were asking for community engagement like KOIOS can provide,” he said. “Six kids effectively did paralegal work for me all semester. They researched contracts, contacted library leaders to get examples. They really did some great work.”
Gordner also recognizes the benefits of participating in startup competitions. “You should sort of think of them as scholarships for your startup,” he said. The competitions are generally grant-based, so a business owner does not have to give up equity to participate. Pitch competitions are usually put on by economic development groups, universities, or organizations that are interested in a certain vision for the future.
Gordner believes local competitions can often be more beneficial than large-scale ones, because there are resources available to a smaller group of entrepreneurs. Winning local competitions also helps to establish credibility before a startup takes on those larger regional and national competitions.
KOIOS is funded half by an investment made by the “FiredUp” Accelerator program, and half by pitch competition winnings. Because of this, Gordner has not been forced to take out loans or use any of his own money for the endeavor.
Gordner advises fellow entrepreneurs to know their audience, and to pick competitions based on their strengths. “I focus on pitch competitions because I’m a talker,” he said. “I’m pretty good about public speaking.”
Gordner acknowledges that cost and opportunity cost are important concepts for a business owner to understand. When he knows he should make a cold call to a library which could use his software, but is hesitant to do it, he reminds himself that the cost of such a call will only be the length of time of a few voicemails, or a short conversation at most. With opportunity cost, he recognizes that it is often much more beneficial to hire someone to perform a task for his business than to spend months or years learning that skill himself.
Gordner stresses that one of the first steps to putting an idea into motion for a business must be customer development.
“Before you make any prototypes, before you put down any code, before you even say ‘we’re doing this,’ you need to go and talk to 50 people who you think could be potential buyers of your product,” he said. “And you can’t lead them to say they need your product. For us, we talked to librarians. We asked them ‘What keeps you up at night? Where are your biggest concerns? Where do you think the library has to go?’ And we came away with results that let us know we were set up for success.”
The founder and CEO of KOIOS describes what he thinks it takes internally for an entrepreneur to be successful.
“Something more than optimism is required,” he said. “The big word in the literature right now is ‘grit.’ The way I interpret ‘grit’ is, in a lot of biographies, people have these catastrophic defeats. And they could have said, ‘I’m done, it was fun, I’m going to go open a general store in the middle of nowhere and call it a day.’ But they didn’t. The idea is that you don’t know when your big break is going to happen. You don’t know what’s around the corner. And if you give up now, you never will.”
Finally, Gordner presents his mantra for aspiring startup owners. He calls it “Default to Open,” as Google describes it. Unless there is a glaring reason not to try something, go for it.
“There are people out there who want to help you,” he said. “And most of the barrier to that is internal.”
Watch complete interview with Gordner and Midlands Anchor CEO Tia Williams here: