Featuring WithYouWithMe and Koios
Welcome to episode five of Students vs. Startups. Moderator John Gilroy facilitates a discussion with local technology students and entrepreneurs from Eastern Foundry. This is a 25-minute podcast featuring some of the brightest minds in the D.C. area.
First up is an interview with new D.C. resident, Sam Baynes, who comes all the way from Australia. His startup, WithYouWithMe helps veterans enter the workforce effectively and efficiently.
Later, we chat with Trey Gordner who is looking to change the way we interact with libraries by “making free easier” using his platform, Koios.
If you would like to get weekly updates sent straight to your phone, you can subscribe below on iTunes!
Thanks to our sponsors:
John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy, and I’ll be your moderator today. The structure for this 26-minute podcast is quite simple. We put a lead of a tech startup in the hot seat. Then students ask questions. We find another innovator and then do it again. The founding sponsor for Students vs. Startups is The Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving complex problems and like to work with bright people, The Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al Di Leonardo or Abe Usher at TheRadiantGroup.com.
Well, here we are. Round one. All three of today’s students have a Master of Professional Studies in Technology Management from The School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. We have Tyler Gray, Maura Imparato, and Michael Abel. Tyler, you’re an old hand at this podcasting. Tell us a little about your background, please.
Tyler Gray: Sure. My name’s Tyler Gray. I founded a creative digital agency called Gray Street Solutions three years ago. We do digital marketing for defense and trade associations, and we’re happy to be here.
John Gilroy: Been involved in all kinds of aspects of marketing for over a decade here, so he’s very well experienced in that area. Maura, you’ve got a great background for the show.
Maura Imparato: That’s right. I have a little bit of everything. I work with Georgetown to teach students about technology management as well as consulting. I’ve been consulting for all kinds of organizations for several years, for the federal government, for private organizations, and I’m now getting a doctorate in neurotechnology to add a little bit of new information to what I bring to all of my consulting work. I’m very happy to be here, John.
John Gilroy: Well, we’ve got some brains in the room, huh? Yeah. Michael, tell us about your background.
Michael Abel: Good to be here. I work with Dell Services Federal Government recently acquired by NTT Data, so I work in IT service delivery. I’m all in making sure that all the fun technology that we put into place works on a day-to-day basis.
John Gilroy: We’ve got a wide range of students here, and our startup today is a company, kind of a tough name for me: WithYouWithMe. We have the co-founder here. His name is Sam Baynes. Sam, how are you today?
John Gilroy: Oh, we love this accent. Got to tell us about this accent and where you’re from.
Sam Baynes: I’m from Sydney, Australia. I moved to D.C. about 16 months ago. I work here for another company that is not my startup, but I contribute from America because the company operates mainly in Sydney, Australia.
John Gilroy: Great. How long has your startup been around?
Sam Baynes: The startup has been around about 18 months now.
Sam Baynes: It started off about three months before I moved to Washington, D.C., and I am one of four co-founders. The other three co-founders are the main driving force behind it back in Sydney.
John Gilroy: Great. I’ll ask you the question I ask all of our startups at the beginning here. What business problem does your company solve?
Sam Baynes: I would say a more accurate description was that we started out aiming to solve a cultural problem. It is a cultural problem that is prevalent in Australian society. I believe it’s probably prevalent in American society as well but not as extreme, which is where the Australian public don’t fully understand what military personnel experience and the responsibilities and skills they gain. As a result of that, they are unable to assign value to those skills, which means that when these people enter the workspace, the people who are reviewing their resume, reviewing their applications, and looking to hire them, they have no way of understanding and therefore valuing them.
Therefore, they consider them a risk to hire as opposed to an opportunity. Out of that, we started to do our research, and it basically molded it into a for-profit business, whereby we were going to link veterans with industry mentors who are going to basically develop them. Then once they’ve developed them, they’re going to help them get employed.
John Gilroy: You work on transitions and I’m going to transition to the students. Maura, would you like to ask the first question, please?
Maura Imparato: Yes, I have a burning question, and as a content writer, you need to really sell, sell, sell, so what are the top three skills that you would tell employers your military veterans have?
Sam Baynes: It ranges from person to person, and it’s not so much that we go out and we say, “These veterans have these skills” because it ranges from person to person. It’s not about telling industry this is what they have. It goes back to the old analogy of you can either fish for someone or you can teach a fisherman to fish. Our focus is about giving veterans the skills they need, which comes from the educational content that we provide, which helps them comprehend the industry.
“Then we link them with a mentor who could be an ex-serviceman themselves who wants to give back or it could be to someone who wants to give back to veterans because they’re proud of the service they did.” Sam Baynes, Cofounder WithYouWithMe
They basically guide them through the process to the point that they get to a stage where they are willing to vouch for this individual and therefore refer them for a job or put them in contact with their own organic network. That way they can get employed. That process has to be almost organic and is about letting the veteran find what they want to do, what their purpose is in life now, and then having someone guide them on that process, from everything from this is how you should dress for a job interview through to this is how this industry actually operates versus what your perception of this industry is, and this is the tertiary qualifications you need.
You might need tertiary qualifications because it’s the only way you’re going to get hired or you might need tertiary qualifications because the company for its insurance purposes and its liability purposes needs to ensure that that person has those qualifications. If you spend an entire career in the military whereby you live in a controlled environment, you’re going to have no perception of how insurance comes into play because that’s all handled by a part of the Army that those guys on the front line or those guys in their slither of the military aren’t exposed to.
They step out into a world but have no understanding of how it operates and they need to be given that perspective through both educational material and guidance.
Tyler Gray: This sounds like very fantastic and absolutely needed work, but it also sounds very labor intensive on your end from both recruiting veterans as well as mentors and companies, so what kind of challenges do you see in order to be able to scale up this business and to serve more veterans and attract more mentors?
Sam Baynes: You are right in the sense of one of the major challenges is getting enough mentors because it does require a certain amount of work on their behalf, especially if they are industry leaders still, or maybe not even industry leaders, maybe middle management personnel. They have a day-to-day job. They’ve got young families. They’ve got dogs they’ve got to be home for to let the dog out, and they’ve got to be home by 5:30 to do that. As a result, getting the mentors is one of the more difficult parts.
Having said that, in terms of labor intensive from our perspective from the company, it isn’t so much because we are basically building a social media platform that provides them the network. What it does is they sign up. Once they sign up, they go through a personality and character assessment. That personality and character assessment says these are the type of skills that you have, these are the type of opportunities which would best be suited to your personality. That is all done through basically what we call a “mentrix,” so it’s a mentor and a matrix.
Then they are linked with mentors who are on the platform who have a similar background because in my experience in the military, military people are very skeptical of people who haven’t been through a similar experience. They want to be mentored by someone who understands where they’ve come from, has a similar skill set, has an industry that aligns with their mentrix, and then puts them in contact. Once we put them in contact, that relationship’s organic. The platform will give them the messaging application through which they can speak, and then the mentor might meet with them once a month.
Then they go out. They might meet up once a month, at which point, they give them some objectives or some things to look into. Then they go out and do that, and they come back a few months later and they basically guide them along the way.
Michael Abel: What was the biggest challenge that you faced transitioning from the military and active and then coming into the private sector?
Sam Baynes: This is actually a funny story. I remember I went out of the military, and then about six months after I separated, I went back to university to do my master’s degree. I remember one day sitting down with a guy. We got our first paper, and I said, “The problem I have with this is a can’t tell if I’m right. How do I know if what I’m writing is correct?” He turned to me and he said, “You know, I’ve only ever met one other person from the military and they asked me the exact same question.”
The biggest challenge for me transitioning back to the civilian world was that the military’s an environment that is very structured. It’s a unique world whereby everything has a military learning outcome. You go through a course. There’s a way of doing it. There’s a right way of doing it, and if you do it the wrong way, you find out about it very, very quickly and publicly. Then once you achieve it, you know you’ve achieved it. Coming into the civilian world where there is no roadmap on how to succeed, there is no way that everything is done, everything just basically you find your way. People fall into things.
Whether you’re right or not is up for discussion. You might think you’re right, but the person next to you is telling you you’re wrong, but he’s being told that I’m right by someone else. It’s very, very complicated, and as a result of that, I found when I first got out that was something difficult to change that mindset from there isn’t a definitive way of doing things. At first, that’s daunting because you’re used to living in a system where if you want to get a new shirt, you fill out this piece of paper, and this piece of paper gets signed, and you take it to the shirt shop and they give you a new shirt, to all of a sudden being lost.
You quickly find out that when there’s no clear structure, then you can manipulate the situation to best suit you in a way that actually empowers you as opposed to holding you back.
Tyler Gray: What would you say would be some of the primary differences between how Australian industry and individuals help veterans enter the workforce and what you see here in the U.S.? Is there certain best practices on either continent or anywhere that you think could be merged together and to make something even better?
Sam Baynes: I would say that both in Australia and the U.S. the intent behind every veteran transition organization is pure. They want to help veterans. One of the major things that we say at WithYouWithMe that we want to fix is that if you look at the majority of veteran organizations at the moment, they’re negatively geared. They come from a position of weakness. It has this connotation of help a veteran out. They are hurting. They’re damaged goods. They need our support. They need our help. Well, the reality is that a lot of them are very strong-minded, very experienced, extremely capable people, but the message that the organizations trying to help them is putting out is incorrect.
As a result, if you are a human resources employee and you have no affiliation with the military ever, and you don’t understand their skills, and you can’t value their skills, and every single piece of Hollywood popular culture is focusing on post-traumatic stress disorder, is presenting them in a way that they cannot cope in public areas, as a result of that, there’s a negative connotation out there about veterans. As a result, I think all organizations are performing to the best of their intent, but the message they’re putting across is incorrect.
John Gilroy: Great job students and great job Sam. Sam, how can listeners find out more about your company?
Sam Baynes: You can go to our website at WithYouWithMe.com.au. We are launching our new website on the 6th of December 2016. Along with it, we’ll be launching our educational document, which will basically provide all veterans with an understanding of how to enter the civilian workplace so that it isn’t overwhelming and therefore will help deal with anxiety.
John Gilroy: Well, thank you. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to Eastern-Foundry.com. Our monthly sponsor is F5 Networks, the global leader in application delivery networking. Contact F5 to learn how they can help your agency strengthen performance and security.
Welcome back to Students vs. Startups: Showdown in the Potomac. Round two. Well, we already know our students.
We have Tyler Gray, Maura Imparato, and Michael Abel. We have a new startup in the hot seat, and the name of the startup is Koios, and our leader here from Koios is Trey Gordner. Tell us about your background, Trey, and tell us about your company, please.
Trey Gordner: Sure. My background is in libraries and also in advertising technology. When I was getting my business degree on campus at the University of South Carolina, my part-time job was at the library for three years, and that was my introduction to the library world and to library issues in technology and marketing. After that, I went and worked for an advertising technology startup, did that for a couple of years, became their product manager, and at some point met someone from the local public library and got roped into a consulting gig.
While I was doing that, they asked me not only to come in and review blueprints and advise on new facilities that would be interesting to entrepreneurs and technologists, but they also challenged me to come up with some software ideas that would help bring the next generation into the library. That’s where this got started.
John Gilroy: We can call it a community engagement platform? Is that right?
Trey Gordner: Yes.
John Gilroy: Okay, great, great. Well, I’m going to ask you a question I ask all our startups, a pretty basic, simple question. What business problem do you solve?
Trey Gordner: Yeah, so Koios makes free easy. If you’re going to look up information, right, if you’re going to learn about anything 20 years ago, you would have gone to the library. The library would have been your first stop. Today, your first step is presumably reaching into your pocket and either asking Siri or going straight to Google. Libraries have had a hard time adapting to that new reality. They had a monopoly on the information space for oh a few centuries, so what we’re looking at doing is helping them to connect with users online.
Michael Abel: I love the idea here because I’m a big fan of free libraries and free books and everything associated with it, but that brings me to my question. Who’s your target market for this and who’s going to pay for this?
Trey Gordner: Yeah, great question. Libraries themselves are in a position where they see most physical circulation is about static at least since the recession and digital circulation is going up 12 to 14% a year. Libraries are seeing this changing dynamic and they’re looking for a way to really be more than a book warehouse. That’s the new goal, so when it comes to what we’re trying to do, the libraries themselves are willing to pay for new channels to get connected to new patrons and help inform them about not only that the library has all these books still around, but also about the e-books, the audio books, and the other services.
Maura Imparato: I’m certainly a book lover myself, and I can tell you are as well, and I know that there’s so many people passionate about books. I’m really going to second that question with … We were talking about it before. Who’s this great philanthropist or government organization who can pay for this? I know you said libraries can pay, but the funding is pretty tight. Have you been able to check around with some libraries and see how the funding is?
“Yeah, so most people might not realize that there’s about a billion dollars spent in the U.S. on library technology every year. The library market as a whole is about $11 billion.”- Trey Gordner, CEO of Koios
Half of that goes to staff and to capital projects, but it’s a much bigger industry than people realize. While it’s true that library budgets have seen some contraction at least in the wake of the recession in 2008 and 2009, most of them are recovering and they still have potentially a million to $2 million sitting around that they’re using to make digital investments. We see ourselves right alongside the e-books and the audio books and the other investments.
Tyler Gray: Do you see this eventually having an input on the type of e-books that libraries order? I’ve just noticed myself that a lot of times if it’s a new biography or if it’s something really popular, there’ll be one or two digital copies, but there tends to be a lot of romantic fiction, if you will, especially in the D.C. Public Library, which baffles me.
Trey Gordner: Well, romance is actually a very popular genre nationwide. Romance, thrillers, and science fiction are the three genres that really fly off the shelves anywhere, so they’re safe bets. It’s a very perceptive question of you. We actually already provide a good bit of analysis to libraries on the back end, so with our add-on and now with our new SEO platform for libraries, we’re keeping track of not only what people are successfully finding at the library, but what is not at the library that’s being searched for in the community.
What we want to do is empower librarians to develop their collections in a way that’s not just on intuition, even though that’s quite good among collection development librarians but that they have this data to reinforce those decisions.
Michael Abel: Is this a Google plug-in that you had in or is this an SEO thing that pops up when you look to find the price of a book and it says, “Hey, why don’t you go get it for free down the street?” Or how would this work?
Trey Gordner: We actually have two products now. The first one is the browser add-on that checks the library for you, and so in that case, you do go, you find out about us through the Chrome extension store or through our website or through your library that works with us. You download it, and from then on, you get these messages that will appear on Amazon and in some cases, on Google too, that will tell you, “Stop. This is available at your local library for free. Click here to get it there, to borrow instead of buy.” That’s the way that the add-on works. Then we found that libraries were very excited about that for their power users.
They said, “Can you give us something that is not just for our existing users but that will attract new users potentially to the library as well?” We went back to the drawing board and came up with our new product, which is Libre, which is more of an Open-Web SEO approach. Our goal as we work to build our SEO over time is that local library result would come up in Google for you. If you were to search “Lean Startup,” you would see “Lean Startup” is available in your local library and from there be able to borrow an e-book or audio book or the physical book as easily as you would buying it.
Maura Imparato: I have two questions for you. I really like this idea of the app or plug-in that allows the user to work around Amazon or all those big for-profit companies. I like the idea of pitting the government against the commercial interests. Have you looked into any kind of legal issues that might arise? Maybe Amazon might not like the competition.
Trey Gordner: Yeah, that’s a great question. We did very closely look into the legal environment, and as far as we can tell, as long as we abide by things like Amazon’s affiliate agreement, then we’re just fine, as long as we keep somebody like Google Chrome or Safari happy. There’s really nothing that Amazon has any claim over in our software, and so we’re not the only ones to do this or something similar. There have been other companies who do things like comparative buying, where while you’re on Amazon looking at something, a little message pops up if it’s $2 cheaper at Target or at Walmart.com.
That really was part of the inspiration for our product. We said well if they can do it for Walmart or Target, why can’t we do it for the library? To date, we haven’t seen any legal action whatsoever against anyone doing this, and it’s been years.
Maura Imparato: I foresee complete success. I’m really happy with your answer.
Trey Gordner: Thank you.
Tyler Gray: Sounds like a wonderful service. How do you plan on marketing it and attracting more users, because obviously, Amazon seems to make it easier and easier with Prime memberships and things of that nature, so how do you I guess attempt to establish a beachhead in your market?
Trey Gordner: Sure, sure. Well, Amazon is certainly a formidable player and continues to grow more. We’re really looking at, on the library’s side, finding librarians who are interested in pushing the envelope, and the best place for us to do that is at conferences. I’ve been a conference speaker at library technology and now library marketing conferences for the past year and will continue to do that. Every time I meet quite a few librarians who are very eager to take the fight to Amazon. Then as far as users go, we’re really trying to be thoughtful about this SEO launch and the way that we market through PR. PR is going to be a major channel for us. We’ve identified dozens of channels, Digital Reader, Book Riot, all of these very reader-focused sites as our starting point. Then we’ll branch out from there.
Michael Abel: You’re obviously a book fan, but you’re also a businessman having started this company. What is your predicted end game for this, and I’m curious how you would approach a buyout offer in a couple years if someone came to you, if Amazon decides that you’re getting a little too big for your britches?
Trey Gordner: Sure, well, I think to some extent, it would depend on who came to us and what they were interested in doing with the product. If a current player in the library software market came and presented an offer to us, I’m not sure that we would take it. Mainly because the general practice in the library software market is a walled garden right, to acquire something and then make it very, very difficult for anyone else in the ecosystem to use, and that’s a big reason why libraries are in the situation they’re in today.
Conversely, if someone like Amazon was willing to integrate public libraries into their e-commerce, which I find hard to believe, but it’s possible. They’ve certainly done some seemingly contradictory things before in the interest of the best user experience. Or if someone like Google came to us and was interested in folding library results into their knowledge graph, I think that that would be much more interesting to us.
John Gilroy: Great job, students and great job, Trey. Trey, where can listeners find more information on your company?
Trey Gordner: If you’re interested in finding more about the company itself, you can go to Koios.co. That’s our company website. If you’d like to start playing around with our prototype of the SEO platform, head to readlibre.com, R-E-A-D-L-I-B-R-E.com.
John Gilroy: Let’s have a big round of applause for our audio engineer, the world-famous Claude Jennings Jr. Right there, yeah! I’d like to thank our founding sponsor the Radiant Group, our host Eastern Foundry, and our monthly sponsor F5 Networks. If you’d like to see a transcript of this episode, please visit the blog at Eastern-Foundry.com. Signing off from high atop a nondescript building in Rosslyn, Virginia, I am John Gilroy, and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac.