Joah Spearman’s Localeur Thrives Despite COVID Travel Restrictions
Joah Spearman is the founder and CEO of Localeur, a leading travel startup that shares local recommendations in more than 185 cities around the world. Localeur has been called one of the best travel apps by The Today Show, Forbes, TIME, The Guardian, other media outlets, and has partnered with Nike, Match.com, Lyft, JetBlue Airways, Bonobos and Tablet Hotels, among others.
Spearman is one of the few African-American technology founders to have raised more than $5 million. He did so by securing the backing of 100 strategic investors in more than 25 cities including Backstage Capital, a diversity-focused venture fund, Capital Factory, the top tech incubator in Texas, several early-stage Facebook executives, multiple Ernst & Young ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ winners such as WP Engine Chairwoman and CEO Heather Brunner, Deep Eddy Vodka and Sweet Leaf Tea founder Clayton Christopher and Bazaarvoice, data.world and CoreMetrics founder Brett Hurt, along with five Texas-based angel networks, led by Central Texas Angel Network.
He previously served as the chairman of the board of directors for AIDS Services of Austin and served for two terms as a member of the executive committee of the board of directors for KLRU-TV, Austin’s PBS affiliate, which owns the legendary music program Austin City Limits.
Spearman currently serves as membership chair for the board of directors of ZACH Theatre, the leading performing arts theatre in Central Texas. He formerly held the position of vice chair of the Austin Music Commission, which advises the Mayor and City Council on music- and sound-related issues in the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
In addition to managing various day-to-day aspects of the site, Spearman writes the Austin page for Localeur. Asked about his favorite meal in this city, he replies: “The bone marrow tacos at Comedor followed by the fried milk desert at Uchiko. Best single dish and dessert in Austin.”
Localeur now features listings for more than 180 cities across the United States and around the world. Will you expand beyond this footprint?
We are in 187 cities today with plans to hit 200 sometime around the new year. Lots more expansion to happen in Africa, Asia and South America especially.
How has Localeur pivoted given the general COVID-19 travel restrictions?
We launched a U.S. Road Trip guide with tips on national parks and regions like the Pacific Northwest and New England that was very popular and well-timed this summer because the majority of our users (now subscribers) here in the U.S. can’t travel to Europe or Asia or wherever else they had in mind before COVID.
Localeur recently added a pay-to-subscribe newsletter to its menu of content. How has the community responded to this new option? What have you learned about subscription newsletters as a result of this addition?
One of the reasons we switched to a subscription model is because, for years, our community was telling us that they would like to get more personalized services or tailored content around specific trips they were taking, be it road trips or vacations abroad. In making the shift to subscription, we’ve doubled down on helping people experience local but with a more high touch and highly personalized approach for travelers. In a lot of ways we’ve taken the best of both words in terms of what a company like TripAdvisor does and what a travel agent does, but with much deeper focus on authentic content and recommendations from locals.
Has user engagement with Localeur changed since the pandemic began? Are different sections of the site more popular now than they were before?
We took a huge hit on usage after SXSW got cancelled and pretty much embraced the current (and likely future) state of travel by pivoting to a subscription site which allows us to focus only on the people willing and able to travel instead of trying to continue being a little bit of something for every traveler. Our guides for staycations, for example, have been very well received given the travel restrictions.
What do you think the travel industry looks like when we are on the other side of COVID?
Airbnb’s IPO is going to be very telling. My guess is travel will continue in the direction it was pre-COVID. So we’ll see more remote work, more road trips as cars move closer and closer to electric and self driving, longer trips to live in places for weeks or months at a time instead of short trips where much of the time is consumed flying, more Americans living abroad and traveling to non-U.S. destinations for both work and fun, and more travel to Africa and Asia. Honestly COVID will likely end up looking more like a reality check for travel as an industry more so than a hindrance.
Have you traveled outside of Austin since the pandemic began? Why or why not?
My partner Angélica and I did a three-week roadtrip in the middle of summer to Yosemite and Olympic National Park, with a few stops between, that was really fun, necessary and uplifting. Seeing so much of what makes this country so beautiful — at least scenically — after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was something I really needed. My faith in this country’s ability to move on from its racist history was at an all-time low after seeing how little empathy so many in this country continue to exhibit for Black people.
“Commercial space travel is a great pursuit so long as they make sure to reduce carbon emissions rather than repeat the mistakes of air travel today where the emissions are one of the most severe pain points about flying today.”
Most underrated travel destination?
In the U.S., definitely Bend, Oregon. Outdoor lover’s dream town. Abroad, I’d probably say New Zealand is only just now getting the attention it deserves, largely due to their amazing COVID response. It’s definitely worth the long flight whenever they open back up.
Most overrated travel destination?
Barcelona is a fun city but it’s been one of the cities most impacted by over-tourism. So perhaps COVID will allow their government to put in systems to better keep things in check so the Catalonian locals aren’t overrun and out-priced by American, German and British tourists staying in Airbnbs.
Favorite travel memory?
A couple of Januarys ago, Angélica and I lived in Madrid for a month and that was unreal. Great weather, amazing art and long walks, the bluest skies, her native country, I took Spanish classes, and we ate and drank wonderfully. The best part was I got to get nearly a full day in before my team in the U.S. woke up; this could be a recipe for years to come.
What excites your more? Commercial space travel or human-flying drones?
Commercial space travel is a great pursuit so long as they make sure to reduce carbon emissions rather than repeat the mistakes of air travel today where the emissions are one of the most severe pain points about flying today.
What current technology or technology trend are you most excited about?
There’s a company called Petal that I’m super excited about. I think they’re about a month out from launching their first product. I met their founder through Capital Factory mentor hours and have been evangelizing what he’s building ever since. It’s simple really, but they’ve taken all the water out of hand soap, turned them into pods, and are launching a reusable bottle that allows you to add water to make your own hand soap at home instead of buying single-use plastic over and over at a grocery store. These are the kinds of practical advances and inventions that we need both in tech and for our environment.
If you were a VC, what kinds of startups would you invest in now and why?
I would invest almost exclusively in Black founders, people like Angela Benton whose company Streamlytics is going to make the world of streaming far less opaque, which will only lead to better, richer content and empower content creators in ways they wouldn’t be able to with streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon that are more reluctant to provide creators the data they need to make smarter decisions about content. Black founders have so many of the key ingredients founders should have to succeed from tenacity and grit to a real and differentiated connection to culture, consumers and problems, and more than 2% of VC dollars should be getting into our hands. I’d make occasional exceptions for founders building products focused on sustainability and the environment.
Preston James of DivInc talks about how little capital has historically been available to black founders. Was this your experience? Aside from the obvious mindset of “this needs to change,” do you have specific solutions on how to make startup funding more equitable?
This has very much been my experience. I know factually that we had the metrics to get institutional VC funding but didn’t while competitors with white or Asian male founders in our space with the same or less traction did. It’s frustrating. There are two things that I specifically would suggest.
First, angel investors should play the long game. What I mean is angels shouldn’t make one investment in a Black founder out of, say, 40 personal investments and think they are a part of the solution. They need to stay in the game rather than thinking every single at bat must be a home run.
Second, VCs need to write the checks. And if they aren’t willing to write checks, they should lay out very clear metrics or frameworks for what they can and will invest in. The number of times I heard allegedly early-stage and first-check VCs say “you’re too early” despite our traction while investing in dozens of other seemingly pre-launch startups is pretty triggering for me because I lived that for two or three years of my life.
In a 2015 interview with the Austin Business Journal, you said “Austin is a good city to fail in with your first business. Its cheaper than LA or New York, and its easy to recover because people will allow you to move on.” Does that statement still hold true in 2020?
Yes, that statement still holds true if you don’t over-raise. Serial entrepreneurs are often where the money is; the issue for Austin and all cities is allowing Black and other underrepresented founders (women, Latinx, etc.) the opportunity to fail without it being assigned value to an entire ethnicity or gender or group of people. If you go out and raise $20 million from local VCs and don’t have anything to show for it a few years later, you may not be so fortunate. But I think if you fail forward, learn and maintain good relationships, this city and that statement still works.
“We still need much more inclusion. With a few exceptions, there just isn’t enough inclusion in Austin in general, not just tech but also on nonprofit boards, at events, in small business ownership, at restaurants. Even startups that have a fair number of Black employees or female executives don’t seem to have cultures that are truly inclusive.”
What is the best thing about the Austin entrepreneurial ecosystem?
This is a great city to build community and bootstrap or grow without institutional VC. People, especially angel investors, are truly engaged and supportive. I can’t imagine doing what I’ve done without people like Chris Shonk, Clayton Christopher, Heather Brunner, Brett Hurt and Josh Baer opening up their wallets or doors or hearts at times to help me out as a first-time tech entrepreneur. The same is true for out media with ABJ, Austin Inno and the people who help founders like me share our stories.
What is the biggest challenge about the Austin entrepreneurial ecosystem?
We still need much more inclusion. With a few exceptions, there just isn’t enough inclusion in Austin in general, not just tech but also on nonprofit boards, at events, in small business ownership, at restaurants. Even startups that have a fair number of Black employees or female executives don’t seem to have cultures that are truly inclusive. To work for a tech company shouldn’t be an act of assimilation into the dominant culture.
You are part of the tech boom in Austin, but you also dabble a lot in music. Post COVID, how can the city’s tech sector help the local music community rebound?
Tech can play a huge role in supporting and partnering with the music community. Tech is a creative industry. I know that WeWork and SoftBank and others have led tech down a path of looking at things through more of a finance, Wall Street-driven lense, but tech should be more aligned with musicians and artists than management consultants and bankers. I’d love to see Capital Factory lead a cohort of tech investors to purchase and/or partner with one or two live music venues in Austin and create more connection between the person coding all day and the person playing on stage at night.
How has the entrepreneurial experience in Austin changed over the last decade? Is it easier or harder to be a startup now than it was when you first became active in this ecosystem?
It’s much harder to win early with a startup, but the payoff reputationally, financially, socially is far higher than ever now in my opinion. I think success in tech can help you become a power broker in the nonprofit or social entrepreneurship sector as Tyson Tuttle and Dan Graham have. Or an educator like Kendra Scott is doing or any number of other arenas where you can have a material impact on quality of life for fellow Austinites.
What did you say to Tim Cook when you met him at Capital Factory in 2017?
We talked about my focus on Localeur not just being an app but a better way to approach travel. Going to tourist traps is no way to experience a new city or destination; it’s so much better to find and support locally-owned businesses. He was really nice and totally got it.
What is your favorite gadget at present and why?
I’m gonna go low-tech here and say a film camera. I spend hours and hours of my day with computer(s) in front of me and my phone in my hand, so having a film camera helps me unplug a bit, slow down, recognize moments and take note of what’s in front of me instead of what’s miles ahead.
What is your favorite website at present and why?
I love going to window-swap.com and just getting lost in the windows of people’s homes around the world.
Who or what inspires your creativity?
I have a whole community of creatives within the Localeur network. People like Joshua Kissi, Autumn Merritt and Eugene Kan who really help shape culture in different parts of the world from New York and Chicago to Hong Kong, but I definitely get my most routine inspiration creatively from people here in Austin like my brother Kahron who writes for the Austin Chronicle and my partner Angélica who has used this time to become an amazing portrait artists. I try hard not to self-segregate myself into just tech circles, but to stay close to writers, designers, photographers, musicians, restaurant and bar owners, and others who give me a more complete perspective.
Have you envisioned your next entrepreneurial venture yet?
Yes, I definitely want to get closer to social impact at the city level, either through real estate tech or some kind of mechanism that would involve building a better bridge (figuratively) here in Austin and more broadly between city governments and the developers that rely on city approval to initiate and complete projects.
Austin has so many renters. But a lot of the city policy is built around home ownership so if owning a home garners you outsized political influence, we need better business infrastructure and public-private partnerships to make home ownership more attainable for people, especially single women, Black and Latinx people who’ve statistically been precluded by systems built by others. Localeur has been about travel, but next I want to root myself more deeply in what we all do in the cities we live and work in.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.