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Columbia Business Monthly

Clickable Stacks: Entrepreneur Helps Readers Shop Libraries

Mar 01, 2017 07:08PM ● By Makayla Gay

By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley

As a kid, Trey Gordner wanted to be a biochemist—that is, when he wasn’t walking neighbors’ dogs, mowing lawns, selling candy bars, or drafting ideas for other businesses.

More than 10 years later, Gordner, 26, is an entrepreneur and CEO of his own company, Koios, a Columbia startup that specializes in library marketing software. He says that looking back on his childhood hobbies, he’s not too surprised that this is where he’s ended up.

“I probably should have seen the signs earlier,” Gordner said.

Koios, named after the Greek titan of intelligence, instantaneously connects Internet book searches with databases at your local library. The company was co-founded in 2015 by Gordner and his colleague Ralph Kuepper, 25. Its main mission: Make it as easy to borrow books as it is to buy them.

“The original idea for the Koios add-on was quite selfish,” said Gordner, a self-described fanatical reader. “I had something like $10,000 in books in my Amazon wish list, and I thought, ‘Most of these are probably available at my library, but that takes so long to check.”

While he was completing his undergraduate international business degree at the University of South Carolina, Gordner worked in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections library and discovered a real disconnect between the services that libraries offer and the ability of libraries to draw attention to those services.

“Librarians are very, very good at collecting valuable content, but they struggle to explain that they have that content to the greater world,” Gordner said. “You can think of us as online marketing for libraries. We’re helping to reach people where they already are, on Amazon or Google, and soon we’ll be expanding to sites like Wikipedia as well.”

Koios took off in 2014, under the name Bibliotech, when Gordner and partner Kuepper first partnered up at Columbia Start Up Weekend.

“I thought that [Gordner’s] idea had the most potential, so I joined his team at the competition,” said Kuepper, Koios COO. “It turns out that he and I were the only ones who stuck around after the competition, and from there we went,” he said.

The duo’s library marketing idea ended up winning the competition and receiving an invitation to the Fired Up Startup Accelerator program out of the USC Columbia Technology Incubator shortly after.

“They were a great help in getting us started and getting us on our feet,” Gordner said. “One of the benefits of starting a business in Columbia is its smallness. It was a good place for us because we were able to network with the decision makers in South Carolina and really think about how to make our pitches at local county and state levels.”

Since its inception, Koios has partnered with a few independent library systems across the country and will be incorporating more in the new fiscal year. The company’s next big release: Libre, a system that helps librarians get their catalogs online in an attractive way that is also searchable.

“Our next goal in the close future would be to have enough paying libraries in our system to have the company up and running and to get it out of the start-up phase,” Kuepper said.

“I would say that one of the keys to success of our business has been to share our vision with as many people as we can and to ask for help at every turn. What makes us the right people for this project is ultimately our commitment to the project and our ability to see it through,” Gordner said.

Part of that commitment includes Gordner’s latest move to Washington, D.C., where the American Library Association has a strong presence and where his wife recently accepted a job.

“We saw a lot of opportunity for Koios and libraries here,” Gordner said. “All federal sources of funding are here, so it made a lot of sense for Koios to have a big presence.”

Kuepper, however, is based in Columbia, and says that Koios is still a Midlands company. This January, the company was admitted to South Carolina’s Research Authority’s S.C. Launch, making it eligible for grants and mentoring services.

“Our whole idea is to connect people with the library and provide people with free knowledge and free education. There are a lot of companies that do similar things, but no other company has really tried to connect people with the library the way we do,” Kuepper said. “It’s a new territory—it’s the fun journey of being an entrepreneur.”