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Unlock a Global Community to Create a Travel Movement

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On this episode of Establishing Your Empire I host Joah Spearman. Joah is the CEO and Founder of Localeur who has helped more than 5 million people experience traveling like a local from insiders who share authentic recommendations on their favorite local places to eat, drink and play. Joah started Localeur in 2013 by asking a dozen friends in Austin to recommend their favorite local spots before the South by Southwest Festival. Joah’s path has been anything but straight. His career started by working for the Texas Longhorns while in college, then a speechwriter in D.C. His first business was a social media consulting company helping to turn Austin’s Rainey Street into a nightlife district. After that, he opened a sneaker boutique in Downtown Austin, underneath the mayor’s office at City Hall. Then he convinced the founders of SXSW to let him create and run the first-ever fashion part of the festival. Somehow, the combination of all these experiences gave Joah a unique perspective on what a traveler really wants when they visit a new city: authentic recs from locals. Now, some 180 cities later, it seems to all make sense.

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Joah Spearman: At all times, there’s two things that I think I had and that I would say any entrepreneur or anyone wanting to be an entrepreneur has to have. And I think it was one, a core skill. So for me, my core skill was around marketing and public relations. I knew I had this core skill and so I knew I could promote something.

So I knew it would kind of, regardless of what kind of business I started, I was going to be able to promote. The second thing that I had was I had what I consider like a personal board of directors. And this is like a group of people, former professors, former high school teachers, mentors, former bosses, a group of people who I would say again, regardless of anything that I did, they were going to believe in me and they were going to support me.

And so those two things really equipped me with the confidence that, you know, what, even if I fail at this, I have a good deal of care about me who going to help me and I’m going to fail forward. I want to learn fast. So those are the, that that kind of gave me that confidence to do it.

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Daran Herrman: I got Joah here on the establishing your empire podcast. Thank you so much for joining me here. This is my first podcast, not in the home office, in Hermosa beach, doing this remotely and real excited to have you on the show today.

Joah Spearman: Thanks for having me and, and Hermosa beach is not a bad place to be.

I. I well before COVID I would go out to LA at least a couple of times a year. And even if I was staying in the city, I would, I would be lying to Manhattan beach and do the run down Manhattan beach or most at all that. So I love that area.

Daran Herrman: Yeah. So why don’t you give us a quick background of who you are for those who might not know who you are?

Joah Spearman: Yeah. again, my name is Joe Spearman. I, I, since I was, you know, A kid I’ve had to say it’s Joel like Noah with a J not Josh, not Joel, but JOA. yeah, I live in Austin, Texas. I am an entrepreneur right now. I’m on my fourth business. The F the first three were, they touched in a sneaker retail. I had a sneaker boutique in downtown Austin, and then that morphed into me creating and running the first ever fashion segment of South by Southwest festival, which I did 2011, 12.

And then that transitioned to, me getting recruited by a startup in Austin called Bazaar voice that went public in 2012. I was the director of operations there before the IPO. And after the IPO, I, I pretty much cashed out and decided I was going to do something of my own in tech. And I started a company called Googler, which the premise is really simple.

We want to help. travelers experience local instead of going to where tourists go. So we started literally was following my friends in Austin, sharing their favorite local spots in Austin. And now here we are seven and a half years later, where we have locals in 188 cities around the world sharing their favorite places to eat, drink shop.

And during COVID obviously pick up food to go.

Daran Herrman: Awesome. So let’s go back all the way to the shoe store sneak attack, right?

Joah Spearman: Yeah.

Daran Herrman: So, so how old were you when you, how old were you when you started that company?

Joah Spearman: I, I was 26 and simultaneously I had started a social media consulting agency. and the agency is actually what gave me the confidence to do the sneaker boutique because I had never done anything to retail, sneakers with just a passion of mine.

And Miami, this is back in 2009 and the recession was still going on and it was not necessarily the best time to start a business, especially in retail. but for me, I saw in the recession, I actually saw a lot of opportunity because I saw a lot of syncope seats around the country that were closing and.

So, what I actually did is I skipped several steps and I basically got my car in Austin. I drove to all this sneaker boutiques between Austin and Virginia and talk to the owners and was like, Hey, like how’s business going. A lot of them weren’t doing the business. And I in essence bought a lot of their inventory off.

so that’s kinda how I got my business that started. Oh, I love that. So what,

Daran Herrman: one of the questions I always ask is like, there are so many people out there that want to start a company and like, you know, Hey, it’s very similar to 2008, 2009 right now. Right. And I think a lot of new companies will start throughout this new recession, but, you know, and you were saying kind of social media company or that, that gave you some confidence, but what actually got you to pull the trigger to move forward,

Joah Spearman: right?

You know, what any thoughts there? Yeah. What I would say is I think at all times there’s two things that I think I had and that I would say any entrepreneur, anyone wanting to be an entrepreneur she has to have. And I think it was one. really, a core skill. So for me, my core skill was around marketing and public relations and kind of doing things on the word, the brand communication side, which is different for most entrepreneurs.

Most of them are like probably in finance or engineering and, you know, things like that. so for me, I knew I had this core steel and so I knew I could promote something. So I knew it would kind of, regardless of what kind of business I started, I was going to be able to promote it. the second thing that I had was I had what I considered like a personal board of directors.

And this is like a group of people, former professors, former high school teachers, mentors, former bosses, a group of people who I would say again, regardless of anything that I did, they were going to believe in me and they were going to support me. And so those two things really equipped me with the confidence that, you know, what, even if I fail at this, I have a good people who care about me.

They’re going to help me. And I’m going to fail forward. I want to learn fast and, I’m infinitely employable. So those are the, that, that kind of gave me that confidence to do it. And,

Daran Herrman: and how do you, any advice for people to get a better core group of people around them? You know, whether it’s mentors, you know, in person or virtually or anything like that?

Joah Spearman: I mean, what I would say is take advantage of being in learning mode. I think what happens is people build this insecurity of, Oh, I’m not an expert in this, or I don’t know this. So I don’t feel confident going to someone who is then I would actually say, you know, flattery is your friend. So if it requires flattery of, of someone who is an expert of someone who does have a seat at the table, in order to get introduced to them in order to get some time with them, then do it because, you really don’t have anything to lose if you’re in learn mode.

I think that’s, that’s one of the issues I find with a lot of young people that I know, not so much the people that I mentor, because I think a lot of the times they’re kind of beyond their years, but I think my generation millennials and even younger, I think that a lot of what social media has done is it’s created this, this dynamic in which people think that they could do something for a few months and get results.

And I always say I do a lot of speaking gigs at colleges and high schools and whatnot. And I always say you don’t get credit for anything that you don’t do for at least a year. So, you know, not until day 366, should you even be pointing to it as something that like, you should get some kind of credit or recognition for it.

So I think. When you initially start something you really should stay in learning though. Maybe you should stay in that place where when you’re meeting someone, you’re not trying to project any kind of expertise or anything, but you’re trying to project a eagerness to learn. And that’s that’s, I mean, that’s the best thing that I could say is, you know, I think it’s pretty, it works across the board, regardless of industry that people embrace people who feel like they’re quick to learn.

And once a while, And

Daran Herrman: there’s so many areas to where like, even the experts really, a lot of times are still not, I’m sure they’re still unsure of themselves. Right. They know they don’t even know if they’re experts still. Right.

Joah Spearman: Oh, I mean, I get an imposter syndrome all the time. Yeah.

Daran Herrman: I mean all that time, but the thing is, is you’re willing to try and you’re trying to figure it out.

Right. And, and when you get a hurdle, you’re going to like, you’re going to figure out how to get across the portal hurdle.

Joah Spearman: Right? Exactly.

Daran Herrman: So. You have the shoe store and all that. How do you, how did you get involved with South by Southwest?

Joah Spearman: Well, honestly through failure, I had this thinker boutique and I had it for, what would happen is I started out doing pop-ups sneaker, sales.

So I would, I would, I basically, my thesis was. I could sit here in a brick and mortar and wait for people to come here every day, or I can show up where they are. And so I would do these pop-ups at, at bars at rap shows at festivals, and those will be really successful. but the problem was with the brick and mortar had a higher cost structure, had a higher burn rate.

And so after about 16 months, that that business didn’t work. I wasn’t really built to be a, a merchant or retailer. but, but thankfully where I was good at again, like I said, I was good at kind of marketing communications, public relations. And so I had built this great brand around sneak attack and the by-product of building that great brand is that I had built a really great community.

So I, I had people coming to my secret boutique and just hanging out like for hours. So I kind of built this community hub for sneakerheads in Austin. And then all these people who kind of wanted to associate associate with sneaker heads would come by too. So for example, the, a lot of the, the main people at C3, which is the company that does ACL festival, a lot of booze, a lot of those people will just come by and hang out with me, you know?

And so through that process, I actually met a couple of the executives at South by Southwest festival. And one day I was just kind of honestly, just hanging out with them and, and I was like, man, you guys do something in tech, you do something in film, you do something in music. Why don’t you do anything in, in style?

Cause that’s so a parallel with all these other creative industries. And they were like, well, you know, they were kind of like, look at us. We’re like, you know, these kind of like old middle-aged whatever white guys, like we don’t really know about style. That’s what we know about gaming and tech and you know, music and all this stuff.

And I was like, I kinda get so. So basically I said, Hey, why don’t you let me come up with something that I think works for South by Southwest. So I, I, in essence spent about nine months of 2010. simultaneously as the sneaker boutique was, it was very becoming very clear that the sneaker boutique wasn’t going to have a long life.

I was spending time developing this, this program for South by Southwest. And in essence had, by the end of 2010, I got them to agree to, in essence, what was a joint venture, where they funded the re sources and I built the team and the infrastructure of how to do it. And in 2011 and 12, we basically did a multi-day.

Expo in which we had dozens of up and coming fashion, boutiques, RNs, sorry, not B6 with brands. So very much like the music festival. So we had like emerging instead of emerging musicians, we had emerging brands and designers, instead of performances and shows we had at runway show with the clothes from these brands, we had panels with different people in the fashion industry.

So, that’s, that’s kind of what came out of that. And again, it all came from me failing at the sneaker boutique, but the taking what I did learn, which is around building community and buying into South by Southwest. So

Daran Herrman: I think there’s a lot of value there for a lot of people who are struggling with COVID at business owners.

Because what you did there is you saw the trend in retail is tough, right? There’s the labor costs are high. I’ve owned retail before. It’s not fun.

Joah Spearman: Now

Daran Herrman: is all the time. Whether, you know, if it’s Christmas all the time, I have to have, I’d be in retail,

Joah Spearman: of course,

Daran Herrman: because that’s, that’s a good time. It’s not fun when it’s 6:00 PM and there’s nobody in the store.

but the, the foresight to pivot and, and, and to do it not when the, you know, To see that it’s going down, but not wait until it’s bad. So you still have a little bit of abundance to where you can act, act from, and a little bit of time, a little bit of runway. Yep. so let’s talk about South by Southwest 2021.

I mean, what’s your thoughts going to happen? You know, with virtual, any thoughts around like how this world is going to be and you know, March?

Joah Spearman: Yeah. You know what I would say, one, one is a, is a disappointment and my disappointment is. Both in a way in South, by Southwest, as an organization and in the city of Austin, that it didn’t have a better plan for South by Southwest, essentially not happening.

You would think for an event that’s happened for over 30 years, that there would be some type of plan around, okay. If this can’t happen for various reasons, then we have a backup plan. It’s also a little bit disappointed to see that there wasn’t too much planning around that. but from an opportunity standpoint, this is what I see happening.

I see South by Southwest proceeding in 2021. I, I do think however, they’re going to have to, I would argue, professionalize it even more. What I mean is they’re going to have to give up some of that serendipitous fill of South by Southwest of people, just walking around aimlessly, not knowing where they’re going to go.

And they’re going to have to make it much more of a kind of working strain conference type scenario, where people are still getting the information and maybe some, even some of the networking. but they won’t be able to have those serendipitous moments of walking down sixth street or fourth street running into someone that they haven’t seen professionally in five years, that type of thing.

so I think in 2021, it will happen. it will be professionally meaningful. will it be as fun? I think that’s going to be pretty much impossible. because even if we assume there was a vaccine for COVID before then the, the adoption won’t be high enough, I think by March of 2021. And now, now one thing that I think could be interesting is if South by Southwest was willing to consider, and if the city of Austin were willing to partner with them in potentially pushing the festival out, into later in the year, so maybe, maybe they decide to South by Southwest 20, 21 is happening in October of 27.

you know, in that case. And I could see them having a full on regular South by Southwest. And, but the, the issue with that is South by Southwest has traditionally relied on that time during spring break in March, you know, when UT students and Austin high school and post-school students are out. So, I think it’s going to be interesting to see, but, but I do think that there will be something in 2020.

Daran Herrman: It’s tough because I just

Joah Spearman: love, I’ve always loved South

Daran Herrman: by Southwest too. Like you said, just walking around,

Joah Spearman: not nowhere to go. I did

Daran Herrman: a photography for them for five

Joah Spearman: years

Daran Herrman: and, you know, it’s, it’s fantastic and

Joah Spearman: terrible at the same time.

Daran Herrman: but you had stumbled into some things, meet some people. you know, I think there’s a ways we’re going to have to figure out some ways to virtually do this, right?

Like this is, and, you know, That’s some opportunity for some people to really figure out how can we actually

Joah Spearman: get that?

Daran Herrman: Where, where you can meet people that you didn’t mean to meet. Right. And get around very interesting people. Right? How can we do that? And, we’re going to see some companies do this.

Joah Spearman: So too.

I think, I think that the issue with South by Southwest. Is you have, you know, I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think they had something like 30% of the people were coming from the coast, you know, New York, LA that type of thing. 25% of the people were coming from outside the United States and other BB 25% coming from other parts of the United States that aren’t the coast.

and so I think that the issue that they’re going to have is not only are they, if they try to do something virtually not only do they order that the tech hurdles of pulling it off, but there’s also, the, the problem of having this disparate group of people who pay to pay attention to what you’re doing.

And so. In a lot of ways South by Southwest. I think that suffer from the lack of unified, adoption of one specific type of technology, you know, like in the U S obviously we’re all using zoom, but I don’t know if everyone in, in Hong Kong or in Sweden is using zoom. Right. And so there there’s, they’re, they’re going to end up being this position of like, trying to put tech adoption onto people about certain platforms and things of that nature.

So I think that’s, that’s where, smaller contained things are going to be more powerful. So I could see maybe even South by Southwest, if they did something virtually, they’re trying to break it up into these kind of like half day mini conferences. And maybe there’s a half day for 300 people who care about AI.

And there’s a half day for 300 people who care about ed tech or whatever. And, but then you kind of silo everyone. So you don’t get that again. Don’t get that serendipity as much. but I think, I think something like that to work as well.

Daran Herrman: Yeah, it’s gotta be tough, and, be excited to see how it turns out.

you know, I’m, I’m definitely rooting for it. I’ve always, I’m a huge fan of the festival.

Joah Spearman: Yeah.

Daran Herrman: So let’s, let’s continue on the story. So what I know is next happens is bizarre voice, right? So

Joah Spearman: how did that come about?

Daran Herrman: How did you get my brother the way I worked for bizarre voice near similar time, very shortly after you

Joah Spearman: still pre IPO

Daran Herrman: is a computer programmer software architect.

so tell us that story.

Joah Spearman: Yeah, well, I mean, I really think that, I don’t, I don’t know what the actual wording is, but it’s like, luck is when hard work meets opportunity. And I very much subscribe to that and I’ve, I would say gain a job at Bazaarvoice was probably one of my breaks professionally.

And what would happen is while I was running the sneaker boutique, actually the very month that I was starting to wind it down, in late 2010, I was asked to moderate a panel on social media for the McCombs school of business, which is the MBA program at university of Texas. And on that panel where several tech executives in Austin, including, Heather Bruner, who at the time was the chief operating officer group was our voice.

so through moderating the panel, I was able to impress upon her that I was smart. I knew the space. and so after the panel, she pulled me aside and she’s like, Oh, I’d love to learn more about you and talk. And so I went and met her and told her about my business background, but I booty how, at the time I was working on South by Southwest launching the, the event there, my social media consulting and, and basically she was like, yeah, we, we would love to have you work here.

And purr and, Brett hurt, who is the founder CEO, then CEO of Bazaarvoice. They basically started recruiting me for the better part of three, three and a half months. and they were like, you know, I remember Brett saying, you know, I got my MBA at Wharton and I’m telling you, if you come work that as our race, even for a year, this’ll be like getting your MBA.

And that pretty much sold me on it because it was the combination of working for Heather, who I just I’ve always been super impressed by her. And I think she just. An amazing leader. and the promise of, being able to work at a tech startup that was kind of gearing up for an IPO and learning all that stuff.

it was just too, too good to pass up. And so basically I shut down my consulting business. I closed the sneaker boutique, and by April of 2011, I, I joined, Bazaarvoice. So it was really, it was really just the, the timing was right. And Heather, especially with someone who understood that I had a unique skillset that, was, was probably well suited for the union time.

They were in, you know, they were only going to go public once. And typically when they started Techstars to go public, that’s exactly that time where there’s a big kind of Exodus of talent. There’s a, there’s a lot of friction between the people who worked with Aboriginal people, the founding team versus the new people who get hired.

And I thought she kind of viewed me as someone who could help with that transition. And

Daran Herrman: real quick, a bizarre voice is basically your, your, the biggest ratings and reviews, behind the scenes player. Right?

Joah Spearman: You see your ratings on Walmart,

Daran Herrman: best

Joah Spearman: buy play, places like that.

Daran Herrman: Those are all curated by a third-party company likes Bazaarvoice.

and in fact, they, got basically a monopoly clause specifically. It was because

Joah Spearman: they got a little too big. it’s so funny that all that happened, because it’s like, It’s it wasn’t like it was this massive business, but then, you know, there were some anti-emetic Annapolis things that possibly were happening, but what’s interesting is like, I look at what’s happening today with the big tech companies and it’s like, wait, these companies are worth trillions of dollars.

And you know, in only, just now, are they getting the same type of attention? From the justice department, that is, our books is getting into 2000 as well. And Bazaarvoice had like 25% of the market. So it wasn’t

Daran Herrman: like they had 90%, like some of these companies right. And completely control things. So, but you, you left rather soon, right?

Like, like you got out kind of early. So like how, like how, tell us that story. Like, why did you leave and what did you leave for, right.

Joah Spearman: Yeah. So I basically got to a point where I had been there for about 16 months and. I was the director of operations. And then after the IPO, I basically transitioned to a position where I was kind of helping with market strategy and thinking about other industries that was our most could focus on travel, being one of them.

So I spent basically my last five months at Bazaarvoice thinking about the travel industry and Bazaarvoice has working with big hotel companies like Hilton and IHG holiday in the big cruise companies, the big airlines and. In going to meet with these clients or potential clients. I was learning that there was this huge gap and the gap that I saw wasn’t anything around transactions, which is where all travel companies typically focus on like booking flights or hotels accommodations.

The gap that I saw was around content. You know, TripAdvisor at that point was a very mature business. Had already been around 15 years. And I, I could see that Airbnb was on the rise and even in 2010, 11, 12, but when I was using the Airbnb, initially I could see, man, this is going to be a really big business.

And this is going to really kind of dictate the terms of the future of travel in a lot of ways. And TripAdvisor didn’t feel like a business that was ready to match that from a content standpoint. And so to me, I felt like my. Background, lends itself towards trying to possibly build something that could be kind of like the, the new generation of a TripAdvisor for that Airbnb type of customer.

and so basically around labor day of 2012, I decided, and I had, you know, the, the head of product dev is our head of marketing. A lot of different people. It was always, were kind of encouraging me to, to stay in, potentially help with their teams. But I, I really felt like, you know, what’s the next, what’s the next best move I can make.

that’s gonna, that I’m going to be really proud of and invigorated by for the next year to three years, at least in that, that felt like starting my own thing. So that’s pretty much what I did. And the tiny worked out because it was at the kind of deep time of what the stock price was as well. Right.

But

Daran Herrman: yeah. Great. You get out of stock price, which is great, but like you left, I’m assuming a pretty good paying job. Right,

Joah Spearman: right,

Daran Herrman: right. Because it was, our voice was on the up and up.

Joah Spearman: Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Daran Herrman: And did you have like, like how far along on your new company?

Joah Spearman: Not far, I mean, the name of the company wasn’t local or there was nothing built there.

We didn’t have a deck, we didn’t have a business plan. We had nothing, all we had was this premise. And I say we, because my co-founder, he also met was our voice. and he was like, he was a designer there. And, so we didn’t have anything, honestly, we. I think I left was our voice in early September, 2012.

And only in late September. Did you really start talking about the, I mean, these had mentioned it, but that’s when we started getting serious about, okay, this is a thing and it wasn’t until like late October, early November that I really decided for myself that this was going to be the thing that was going to focus solely on.

So what happened is, My co-founder and I, we were, we spent about six weeks leading up to this probably early December, thinking about the business plan. And we ended up renting out a room in capital factory, which is kind of a startup incubator in Austin. we rented a room there in downtown Austin for a weekend in early November, and we were like, we’re going to hash out the entire thing in this room and what I did.

we, we re read on like probably 80% of things, but that last 20% was bringing some friction. So what I did is I brought in a startup friend is more of a CFO type of guy. I brought, I flew them in from San Francisco and I said, I can’t tell you on the phone, what this is about, but I did. Can you just spend the weekend with us?

So he agreed. And he came down and he basically acted as our, like our arbitrator for the weekend. So my co-founder and I would spin all the ideas and he would listen to them. And then if we didn’t agree on something, then he would hear both of our arguments and then he would help us kind of decide what way to go.

so through that, that’s how we kind of landed on what is now local or which is this more or less a content driven platform where it’s not about locals hanging out with travelers or tourists, all this stuff, or giving experiences. It’s more about. Locals know stuff, they have content and insight that, that tourists don’t have.

no matter how many reviews, a tourist writes on TripAdvisor or Yelp, locals have more insight and we created a platform where those vocals could share it with travelers. And

Daran Herrman: I think, and this is what you hit on. I think completely is, you know, time is so important. Right. And w w you know, some people are like, I’m pretty lucky.

I get to travel pretty often, but some people don’t get once or twice a year, if that right. And they want the

Joah Spearman: best

Daran Herrman: trip ever. Yeah. And they don’t want, and there’s some people that, Hey, look, I want to go all the tourist stops, whatever Disneyland, but there’s people like me that I don’t want to do any of that.

Right. Show me like where I want to get the hamburger. That’s. That place or whatever it is,

Joah Spearman: where’s the

Daran Herrman: actual place to go where the locals hang out. You know, I want the true experience. That’s why I love Airbnb because I, you know, I want to stay in the middle of it. Right. in fact, right up to my door is like, there’s a restaurant next to me and you got to go back and watch them kind of working it, but I love that.

Joah Spearman: Right. And

Daran Herrman: you get immersed yourself in the world. so I get real excited about your business,

Joah Spearman: but

Daran Herrman: before we get too crazy into it, so. This is, this is something that I think is very interesting. So you’re starting to start up. You burn the boats, no income.

Joah Spearman: Yeah.

Daran Herrman: How you know, like, what’s your, you got your, you hash out your ideas.

Like, do you start getting funding? Do you start building a team? Like what,

Joah Spearman: what’s your next steps? So, so the, the main two things that we were focused on or that I was really focused on, was one I personally needed to have a a hundred percent conviction around it. So that I could not, there was no half measures.

It was like, I have to, I have to fully believe in this and that didn’t happen until we spent a weekend in capital factory hammering out the rest of the business plan. So once we did that, I went from like 70% to a hundred percent. And I was like, okay, this is what I am doing. And I made a personal promise to myself that I was going to do this for at least seven years.

I literally was like, I don’t want to do something for a year or two years. I, I am. So I have so much conviction around what we’re trying to do that I think we may be so far ahead of the market that I have to do this for seven years. And so th that was the level of conviction that I needed to have for myself.

And then once I had that, I had made a list of about 12 names. Some of these were people from my personal board of directors that I mentioned, the 12 names of people who I thought could be potential early investors. And I set up meetings with them. Some of them were former clients of mine for my social media business people I worked for before.

That kind of thing. I’ve made a list of those 12 names called them or met them all and eight of those. So people invested. So that was so by basically by. The first week of January of 2013, I had raised about 120 $550,000 from, from people, that I, that I knew or, or, or adjacent to those people. and we used that money basically to build the first website.

You spend two months building out the first website with contract developers so that we can launch by South, by Southwest that year,

Daran Herrman: and then, okay. So friends and family around basically. Right. And then you got the website built. What happens does it, you know, a lot of people start going like ours, it

Joah Spearman: crickets.

Right? Thankfully again, my skillset at this point, what I learned is my, my first skillset was around marketing communications PR. so we, we got some attention and we got some early press. so that helped. And then the second thing is the sneaker boutique in the Southwest Southwest experience taught me how to be a community builder.

So when we started. What I did is I did, just a date. Let’s do a tangent for a second and say, I wanted to take the best people in Austin to share where they go. So what I did is I created this almost like a 40 questions survey about Austin. And I sent it out to a bunch of friends and said, Hey, I’ll pay $50 to anyone who fills this thing out.

And so I had like 35 people, I think, fill this thing out. And I picked the 12 best people based on their responses and said you 12 or the first 12 local groups, you know, you seem like, you know, Austin the best. And, and I had them each share their five favorite places in Austin. So the day we launched, we had about 12 people in Austin sharing their five favorite places.

And it was March 1st. It was a week before, South by Southwest. And so the timing was great because now you have all these people coming in from all over the country, all over the world to Austin. They want to know where to eat, where to drink, where to hang out. And so the combination of the timing before South by Southwest plus, we got a little early press, when we launched and we were just in Austin with these 60 places.

but Oh, by March 10th we had 5,000 people on the site. so it, it gave us the ability to quickly say, okay, see, there’s like, there’s a use case for this. people need this now, now, by that point though, we, we only had enough money for, I think at that point we had enough money for like eight more days.

And, and also we had enough money for like another week or so, and also South by Southwest is going to end in a week or so. So we were like, what’s going to happen to our traffic when this is, you know? And so then we pretty much leads we had success. but we immediately, you know, we were under the gun that to raise more money and prove that we, that this thing could work, even if it’s not South by Southwest.

Daran Herrman: And I want to get to fundraising a ton, but I do have to, I have

Joah Spearman: to ask,

Daran Herrman: how did you come up with the name?

Joah Spearman: Like, what’s the story behind that? Yeah. So, The first thing, I’ll tell you this. I don’t think I’ve ever said this in an interview or anything. So we, the first name of the company, the first day, it was a company called travel us and it’s felt like travel us.

And we were like, you know, so that was the first name of the company. And we’re like, ah, it’s very us sounding, but we were like, but it’s, but it’s kind of, this is kind of a nice word, you know? And, so we tried to buy the domain. Yeah, definitely. That sounds like an expensive domain. Yeah. Well, so it started out and yeah, it wasn’t, it was like $1,500.

And then the guy was like, Oh no, I 5,000. So we went to our first investor and we’re like, what’d you give us $5,000 to buy this domain. He was like, okay, I will. So he was going to give us the $5,000. So he went back to the guy and he was like, Oh no, it’s 150. Yeah. And so he just, you know, I think he was just like, I mean, people into this kind of auction scenario or something.

And we were like, okay, nevermind. So the morning that we find, we found, I think this was like, I want to say it was like December 27th or 28th of 2012. When that happened. When we found out from the, the domain guy that it was going to be 150,000 now. And we’re like, we’re not doing that. So we S like, I remember my co-founder texting me and telling me that, and then we spent like six hours on the, on the phone, just texting all day.

And, and basically he came, he came up with the word and I basically gave the word the meaning. Cause he was like, we were playing around with like local or then a stuff. He came up with local area and that was like, Oh, that’s great. Because it’s like, you know, it’s like a connoisseur of local or it’s like, you know, it’s like, or restaurants or entrepreneur, it’s all these we’re in this era where like that, that means something to a certain set of people.

And th th the thing that really does, two is two things. One, when you add that you are in a word, it adds a certain level of discernment, you know? So it’s like, if someone says they’re a restaurant, sir, that that means they own a group of restaurants, but they, you know, that they don’t mean that they’re a franchise owner, you know, no one says I’m a restaurant or they own like 10 pizza huts.

Yeah. And I think the travel us would just be

Daran Herrman: a bad idea. Great. Because people would have remembered it really easily and

Joah Spearman: it would just spell all that. But like, what brand is that? 

Daran Herrman: a tough one. So I want to dive into fundraising a lot. So, because I have my own questions on this. Right. So, all right.

You’re out of money. And unfortunately you only got like a week before you’re out of money. It sounds like, what worked what’d you do? Like what you wish you would have done, what obstacles, like, let’s just wherever you want to start and

Joah Spearman: just keep diving in. You said, actually earlier, I can’t remember what we were talking about, but earlier you used the word that I think.

Is really, really at, and you, you mentioned the word abundance. And what I would say is the problem. And the thing that I wish I had done is I wish, I mean, I’m thankful for the journey that we’ve had and how everything worked out, but if I could do it again, I think we launched. And by the time we launched, we had only raised about $150,000.

I, I certifiably would not have launched unless we had about $400,000. because I,

Daran Herrman: in real quick, would you, do you think you would have got it? do you think you would have got 400?

Joah Spearman: I think what would have happened? I think we would have missed South by Southwest. but I think we would’ve gotten it and gotten it if I had been willing to wait until summer.

but for me,

Daran Herrman: do you think that, do you think that start would have been as good, right? Cause that’s kind of a killer start right

Joah Spearman: before South by. Yeah.

Daran Herrman: Yeah. And this is what I’m getting to, and it started interrupt. It’s just like sometimes yeah. It sucked that you only had one 50, but you maybe that’s the reason you just strapped it the way you’re supposed to.

Joah Spearman: Right? Yeah. So, so I’m, I’m thankful that we did that. because. What South by Southwest gave us is it gave us the best possible launch use case. And then it also gave us a great time to get a lot of press, because the middle of summer, like you’re compete with every other startup in the world. But during South by it’s, like South by becomes the center of tech press.

So that helped in our, that would work. We got Mashable, we got like all these different things that happen. and like on our first few days it was crazy. so yeah, so I’d probably, I, I probably would have tried to raise more or. I would have certifiably called our launch a South by Southwest beta and intentionally said, we’re just going to beta this already South by, and then returning it off because this is the use case.

Right. And then I would have raised against that use that beta test. but that’s not what happened. We turned and kept it on. but thankfully what did happen is because of the South by Southwest, success in, you know, We, we didn’t have money. but back to that word, abundance, what we did have was we had an abundance of confidence that if we did have the money we were going to succeed, and I think that’s the challenge of, I think starting any business is like trying to add from a place of abundance and not sphericity because scarcity it’s a forcing function and sometimes it can be, it can be good for you, but for the most part, I think scarcity forces you to make the kinds of business decisions.

That, your either well-funded competitors or your, the people, people who come from better financial circumstances, don’t have to make those kinds of decisions. And so, as a result, I think that you ended up curtailing the, the scope of your business. I think a perfect example right now is look at Uber.

Uber was not first in that industry live started before them sidecar started before. And a lot of people don’t even remember sidecar. but those companies sidecar raised a small seed around, I think even a small series, a I think union square ventures invested in them. Lyft have raised a decent size, I think series a, but then Uber came out and they just started raising these crazy amounts of money.

So it allowed Uber to, to spend those first few years acting out of pure abundance. And even though they were making mistakes and what not, they could cover their mistakes with abundance. And so it, and the thing is, is, you know, it’d be different if sidecar and Lyft had these, you know, black female founders.

And it had been hard for them to try to match Uber dollar for dollar, but truth be told like John Zimmer and the guys up in Logan Green, those guys that Lyft, they could’ve raised every bit, as much as Uber, but they weren’t losing it as big as Travis Kalanick in here at camp or right. So. So I think Uber kind of set the terms of the industry by realizing that they could use abundance as a, as a growth driver, as opposed to just using like business mechanics.

Daran Herrman: and I think in my own experiences, that is when you are pressed and kind of in that scarcity mode, because you make a lot of short term

Joah Spearman: decisions.

Daran Herrman: Not long-term business decisions. Cause like it, you know, Oh, let’s get revenue, let’s figure it out.

Joah Spearman: Let’s you know,

Daran Herrman: and, and that is it because you have to, if you know, if your payroll is due in four days, you know, the long game is hard to see.

Joah Spearman: Right? Yeah. I love, I love it. That’s what Kobe, I mean, just the jump afford a little bit. I mean, with COVID I think you have two different things happening. You have a set of businesses that have to make sure turn decisions to stay alive. And then you have a set of businesses, probably in the minority of which I’m very thankful to be in, in which businesses have the ability to make longer-term decisions.

and so that’s when you, when you’re in that scarcity brain, you’re not only you’re servicing the short term, but you’re also preventing yourself from making longterm decisions later. because. You’re you’re forcing your customers, users, investors, whatever, to get used to making short term decisions.

So a big thing that I’ve realized throughout, you know, the seven and a half years of running local areas, as I’m communicating with my investors, I want to show them at all times that I’m making longterm decisions. Because if you make short-term decisions, you kind of sink or swim by them. So even if you do something really good for like a month or two.

Now you’ve put more pressure on yourself. So do something really good in the next month or two, because it becomes this kind of what have you done for me lately cycle. so I think it’s really important to just even at the business is trying to force you into scarcity mode to try to stay in abundance mode because not only are you going to make better decisions long-term, but you’re also going to keep the pressure lower.

and I think. That’s one of the biggest things it’s yet you’re battling when you’re a founder, I think of anything is there’s the, there’s the, the pressure that the business actually puts on you. And then there’s the pressure that you put on yourself, because of like, Oh, what are people gonna think if we close, we’re going to have people in.

I think that we have to do this and start this parallel thought of like what the world thinks about you in the world doesn’t even care. Honestly. They’re just going to follow your lead. So you have to, if you’re lead is to be around long-term focus.

Daran Herrman: So, so how much have you guys raised right now?

Joah Spearman: Now total we’ve raised about $5.4 million.

And that H yeah. And

Daran Herrman: how many, how many meetings.

Joah Spearman: Did it take,

Daran Herrman: you know, like I want to talk about the, like, I won’t ask that question. Cause that’s success

Joah Spearman: is what people will see.

Daran Herrman: I want to talk about the failures. Right? How many meetings did it take? What’s some

Joah Spearman: bad experiences

Daran Herrman: let’s, let’s get into it.

Cause, you know, I think we can, especially today in 2020, the race racial quality’s big. Let’s get into this a little, a little bit deeper.

Joah Spearman: Right? So

Daran Herrman: first and foremost, just for anyone like. Obviously you didn’t raise $5 million with one meeting and they were done. Right.

Joah Spearman: So

Daran Herrman: let’s talk about some of those failures, right?

Joah Spearman: Yeah. So, so this is what I’d say is if you want to see the difference. so it took me three and a half months to raise the first $150,000 for a low blur as a black founder, who this is my resume. I first person in my family graduated from college. I then worked in DC as a speech writer to a, basically a cabinet level official.

And then I moved back to Austin and I started a social media consulting agency of which my first client, my first deal was a six-figure deal with FedEx. I then run the first ever fashion part of South by Southwest, which is profitable both years. So I had a pretty decent resume. And then I was the director of operations for Bazaarvoice pre IPO.

Right. So. I raised $150,000 in three and a half months. My co-founder after about three years with local or he kind of got burned out and he left, he started a new thing in the first three months of his new thing. He raised $800,000 and he’s a white man, a white male hands, hands on white male at that. and his resume was, he was a junior.

Designer ed was our voice. My I’ll just tell you, my salary of Bazaarvoice was almost $170,000 a year. His salary at Bazaarvoice was less than $75,000 a year. So that was us going in. Right. And then he and I both worked at Bazaarvoice voice, which I was the CEO. So resume wise, I was so far ahead of him, but that’s the difference, right?

The difference is right there. Like he was able to raise a number that I couldn’t even fathom. In the first three months of my next venture. So, so that’s, that’s the disparity there. So in terms of my meetings, I would say I have today, I have 109 investors, 109 angel investors. They, on average, they each put in $50,000.

Some of them have put in the 25,000. Some of them put in a hundred, but the average is 50. Right. That’s how you get to the 5.4 number. So. For to get those 109 investors. I have probably pitch between 350 and 400 investors. Wow. and the here’s the crazy stat. There is one VC firm on my cap table and it’s backstage capital, which is run by a black woman named Marlin Hamilton.

they were the only VC on my cap table and they invested, I think year four in us. And that’s how to over 95 VC firms that I pitched at one point, our, our, our site traffic grew from, I think, 13,000 to 140,000  and like a few months. And we, we sh we should have raised, been able to raise a $1 million seed round, like hundreds of other startups between 2012 and 2013, when money was flying around for seed rounds.

But again, we weren’t able to, I even had one of the partners that would comedy or call us a potential Yelp killer. And we still didn’t get accepted the Y Combinator, nor did he raise any money, raising any money from VC since so Arlyn.

Daran Herrman: So

Joah Spearman: what,

Daran Herrman: what advice would you give, you know, another founder that you know is going to go through this, or, you know, obviously we don’t want to disparage anybody to start cause you want them to still start, but like what, what, what did work cause you obviously, you still have some

Joah Spearman: CSS.

Yeah. Not at the level that you wish

Daran Herrman: it was, but, yeah. What advice would you have?

Joah Spearman: I mean, Well, I’ll say even before I go into answering that, I’ll say I’m really thankful now that I wasn’t able to raise that money because I had owned far more of a company than most founders do when you’re seven and a half of their business.

I independently can I control and operate or today I, I could wake up today and sell it and not have to get any approval for anyone. So I have the voting control. I have the equity control and that’s, that’s not common. But what I will say is I have had not been able to act in an abundance in the way that, like, let’s say we started, one of our competitors was Foursquare.

Foursquare has raised over $230 million in VC. Are they worth billions and billions of dollars? No, but they raised $230 million. Right. So now, if I were even able to raise 10% of that, let’s say $20 million in local, it would be a much different business today. but. But what I did have success doing was I realized probably about four years into local or that pitching VCs was a waste of my time.

And instead, what I did is I realized that I could pitch an angel investors really effectively because angel investors, weren’t thinking about limited partners that they had to think about from an investment standpoint, they were thinking about is local or solving a problem that I care about. And if you’re a traveler, then you care about what we’re solving.

Like I haven’t met a traveler yet. He was like, man, I just love doing all those tourist traps. So I don’t want this, this local or thing. I’m spending

Daran Herrman: 25

Joah Spearman: hours research exactly where that go. So, so basically what I did is I started approaching the investors the very much, the same way that I approached the new logo colors.

And I was, I basically said I’m going to build a community of investors. So through approaching them that way and approaching them as users and approaching them as people who are going to benefit from what we’re building, it allowed me to have far more success. and that’s basically what I, what I, what I’ve done is turning it less to a story around these outsize crazy returns, like VC’s expect and demand.

It’s turning it more into a story around, you know, This may not be this crazy, huge outcome, but we will fulfill our mission. You know, when I started out, my early investors would ask me like, how big I had VCs asking, like, is this just an Austin thing? And I was like, because they were like, this is Austin here about local.

And there, I was like, no, this is an awesome big name to be expanded to New York, LA San Francisco, Houston. And the people were like, Oh, is this just a millennial thing? And it’s like, no, like not just millennials care about it. So there was always this barrier. Right. And. Now I would always say there are probably 250 to 300 cities around the world that need locally.

Like you literally can’t just show up in any of these cities and have the best possible experience because you would have to live there as a local to have the best possible experience, but local work can help. And so now today we’re in a hundred eating cities, so we’re, we’re almost there like. We are not that far away from the number of cities that I think that really local, or once you have local are in 250, 300 cities around the world.

It’s like, you can, you know, it’s almost like having a friend that lives in that city, wherever you go. so that’s so, so that’s what I really sold to those investors. And, and, and, and the more we grew, the more they saw, man, this is you’re right. Like whenever I go to a new place, I want this.

Daran Herrman: So let’s talk about COVID.

What happened? What’d you guys have to do easy, hard, like what, what happened with COVID?

Joah Spearman: Yeah. So I mean, March through may, March through mid may was just pier honestly, like. Triage, you know, thankfully again, because I haven’t had the ability to raise a ton of money, compared to our competitors, you know, even, I think even Yelp raised like 26 or 30 something million, so we just haven’t raised anything close to these companies.

we never had a high burn rate, so I got, we, we, we grew to over 150 cities with three employees. So we, we, we really learned to scale we’ve. We were forced to learn scale M and a capital efficiency. So, so would that help, does that when COVID hit our burn rate was already really low. And so I didn’t have to lay anyone off and all that stuff, cause we’re already not spending a lot of money.

so, but we did have to do is we had like partnerships and stuff that slowed down. We had a partnership with Nike that we had been working on that the brakes, it real fast on us. we had, we had a four year relationship with jet blue that had just stopped. you know, so all this really affected our revenue.

And thankfully I have this 24 person advisory board that consists of 24 of our most kind of influential locals around the world, Hong Kong, Madrid, New York, LA, that kind of thing. Every year I fly them to Austin and we have an advisory board retreat. So we had just had that in early November of last year.

And one of the big things that came out of that was that we all agreed that we should introduce a subscription product. And so we, we kind of talked about the pricing, the structure, and when COVID hit, it became not an if, but when, and so pretty much when COVID hit and our revenue slowed down dramatically, we were saying, okay, we have to do this.

So I made the decision, by April that come June 1st, we were going to completely switch to subscription. So we shut down our website. We shut down our, our free app. and we completely rebuilt the site from scratch. It’s focused on, just basically encouraging people to become subscribers to color.

we launched it June 1st in August. We launched the road trip guide. That was our first big successful thing. We got, we made more money in the first week of our road trip guide. the first week of August of this year from our website, then like in the previous three years of our website combined. because, and

Daran Herrman: that’s awesome, right?

Because people wandering, they’re wanting to do road trips now, and that’s that nimbleness of the, of the smaller company, enabled to kind of pick and choose where to go. And are

Joah Spearman: you guys starting to see more?

Daran Herrman: International travelers use the subscription model in the site or is it

Joah Spearman: still pretty? Not

Daran Herrman: quite there yet,

Joah Spearman: right?

Yeah. It’s very us centric right now. our subscriber base is I, I mean, I think it’s 95% us travelers. And what I would say is while our old site nap had more international usage, the thing that I like about it being us centric right now with the subscribers is that. I wanted to, I told my team, I wanted to make sure that when we launched the subscription, it wasn’t, Oh, we’re we’re changing local or no, it’s like we launched a new brand new business.

So we are going to treat, we’re treating the subscription business. Like it’s a brand new business and we’re still, we just launched. You know, so we, so if we’re just launching it, maybe we wouldn’t have too many international subscribers just yet. Right. That’s going to require its own dedicated marketing strategy in 2021.

But for right now, I think we’re, we’re being very effective with our subscription strategy for people in the U S especially here in Austin. So that’s kind of what we’re doing is we’re saying, Hey, like that now more than ever, you need to. Have a lot of confidence before you go somewhere. and we’re going to be that layer that provides that confidence to you.

Daran Herrman: W where do you see yourself, the company, or however you want to take it five years from now. Right? I think there’s a lot of fun things happening AR is going to come around. You know, there’s a lot of cool stuff. what do you, what do you see yourself? Five years?

Joah Spearman: I mean, I think, I think two big things need to happen.

I think one is. Local area is not in the business of building audience. So we now that Lisa subsistence subscription, especially our web traffic in our ad traffic went way down. Right? So now it’s like, we’re not so much focused on, you know, building a site, that’s going to reach 5 million travelers tomorrow as we are like, how can we deliver value to, you know, 500 subscribers or 5,000 subscribers or 50,000 subscribers one day.

so, so now that we’re out of the audience growth business and we don’t have to spend money to build audience, what it’s allowing us to do is focus more on like quality. So what I would say is us locally, or five years from now is one we’re partnered with a company that has audience. So whether that could be any big travel platform, cause they’re all.

They’re all pretty big and focused on transactions. So Airbnb booking.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor, all these companies have hundreds of millions of people coming to their websites every year or their apps. So they have audience. So we should partner directly with one of them and provide value, add services to their customers, their users that don’t give us the scale.

but the second piece is to your point about AR especially. The ability to see into a place is when it go up. Right? So I can imagine in five years from now, or when we’re giving our subscribers itineraries, we’re not just giving them texts, we’re giving them like, Hey, click this. And you’re going to visually go into this place for 15 seconds and get a feel for it.

Right. So I think that that’s something that’s going to be possible. And the great thing is because we have all these locals around the world, we’re going to have. I think we’re going to have a leg up on competitors because we’ve already built a community, you know, whereas everyone else is going to have to figure out a way to use technology, to like do the things that humans do.

And they’re going to take those and be a lot of lag in doing that. I mean, a perfect example. Look at Google, like anything that Google’s ever tried around social media has not worked, because engineers and technology can only do so much. At some point you’d still have to figure out to build a business that requires human input.

and we’ve done that.

Daran Herrman: Completely a great, so here’s my last question. I end every podcast with this question is how would you like to be remembered?

Joah Spearman: I really wanted me to remember as a community builder and as someone who paved the way for other underestimated founders to succeed. When I think especially about, I use this analogy a lot of.

I’m not the Jackie Robinson of black founders in tech. that’s that person’s already happened. But what people don’t remember is between Jackie Robinson and, you know, modern day, every team had to, at some point have their first or second black baseball player, you know? So no one remembers who the first black player was for all the other teams in major league baseball.

They just remember Jackie, to me, I’m one of those people. I’m one of those people, who’s like an unsung hero, you know, kind of like that movie, hidden figures. Like I’m one of those people who maybe it won’t be for 30 or 40 years that people even know that like, people like me existed to pave the way for some future of black tech billionaire.

but, but that’s, I want to be remembered as someone who builds a community and in paved the way for people like that. And the great thing is, you know, I could still be one of those people who’s crazy successful. Like I could be really amazed or Hank, Aaron, who was the, also they were early black baseball players.

just not as early as Jackie. Right? So, so that could still be me, but even if it’s not, I know that I’m one of those people in the forties, fifties, who was integrating those teams and in fighting the, fighting the good fight and suffering the consequences in a lot of ways. But in order to pay a way for people to have it easier to me,

Daran Herrman: Oh, I love it.

That’s fantastic. well, Joel was a big pleasure to have you on the establishing your empire podcast. so much value in this episode. I think we could have gone on for hours and hours. Yeah. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Cheers. Joah Spearman: Thanks so much.

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