Q&A with Joah Spearman, CEO and Founder of Localeur


Kennedy Nunez
Q&A with Joah Spearman, CEO and Founder...

Joah Spearman is no stranger to the tech world. He is the founder and CEO of Localeur, a leading travel startup that shares local recommendations in 200 cities around the world. From an early age, Spearman knew that being a businessman was second nature and rooted deep within him. 

One of his specialties is a multifaceted perspective spanning entrepreneurship, racial equity, startup funding, and global community growth. He captivates audiences across the country with his riveting stories about overcoming a childhood of poverty and being raised by a single mother. Below is Spearman’s advice for founders at all stages, from first-time entrepreneurs to seasoned business owners.

What factors in your background led you down the path to an entrepreneur?

Spearman: I had a business mind from a pretty early age. My grandmother, who passed away earlier this year, would tell you that even when I was four or five years old, I would say, “I want to be a businessman,” but I couldn’t even say the word fully. I was always thinking about business for some reason. I think it was wired in me, but then the reality of it probably was just out of scarcity. 

When I was in fifth grade, there was a field trip that I couldn’t go on because it was $90, and my mom was raising my two older brothers and I on her own. $90 was our electric bill. I quickly learned, from a young age, the relationship between money and access. I started my first business when I was 11 years old, cutting grass for my neighbors. It wasn’t just to make money, it was to have access. I wanted to be able to do everything every other kid could do.

How do you successfully build a startup team from scratch?

I think oftentimes people have solutions in search of a problem, so they start with “Oh I have this idea for an app.” It’s great that people are creating and that they have ideas. To me, the best way to start anything entrepreneurial or otherwise is to solve a problem. When I started Localeur, it was really rooted in my own experiences traveling and thinking, “why is it so much easier to find out where tourists are going than where locals are going?” I wanted to help solve that problem. It didn’t matter to me if it was an app, website or magazine. I was just going to figure out a way to help solve this problem.

How much time and money should early-stage startups spend on building an MVP?

Spend what it takes to do one thing better than your most well-known competitor. Our most well-known competitor is Trip Advisor. We spent $125,000 on our MVP to demonstrate the concept “Look at our Austin content versus Trip Advisor’s content when we launched. Wouldn’t you rather go off what we’re doing?” So we spent $100,000 building that website and launched it before SXSW 2013. 5,000 people used it in the first 10 days, validating that people would use it if they had access.

My friends started sneakers apps, and you don’t always need to start with technology. “I don’t have an engineer,” many people think. Many issues can be handled manually. Solve it manually first if you have to, and then figure out how much it costs to solve. Then you can tell the engineers or whoever to build it. A lot of people want to jump right in or hire engineers, but do you know how to communicate with engineers or are you just guessing?

When should founders seek investors for their startups?

This is the advice I give most startup founders I mentor, regardless of their company or industry. There are probably 30-40 questions you should ask yourself before meeting with someone. I usually say “write down the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your idea.” Each of those should have three to five questions. You can start approaching investors once you have good answers to 80-90% of those questions. You don’t want an investor to ask you a question you haven’t considered.

The best thing to do is answer the first 10 or 12 questions. So then if they stump you and ask you something new, you can say “hmm, that’s really interesting, I’ll get back to you.” This is not developed if that is the first thing you say in the first two or three questions.

What is the secret to not getting caught up in the whirlwind of the tech industry and never losing sight of yourself—being more than a tech CEO?

Tech is a very myopic industry. Honestly, tech is kind of a religion. People think if they only talk with other people in tech, then that’s enough. It’s not. It’s like if you’re a white person, you shouldn’t only have white friends. If you’re a tech person, you shouldn’t only have tech friends.

What is your best piece of advice for black startup founders overcoming biases?

There are two things that I wish I knew when I started. One thing is, not everyone is going to get it. As a founder, you have to decide, does this person get it? If not, do I want to spend the time doing business with them, despite the fact that they don’t get it? I have a lot of investors who truly still don’t get that I had it harder than a white founder that they’re invested in. But, I’ve chosen to do business with some of them, because I still feel that the larger benefits of Localeur are greater by having them than not. 

The second thing is to build a community of people who can relate. I think for the people who do get it, it’s really important to surround yourself with people who are also in it. Five years ago, I could’ve legitimately said that I personally knew 80% of the black founders who had raised as much money as I had. Even if we’re not best friends, we know each other and we talk. 

What has been the biggest lesson you learned since getting into the tech industry?

You must have your own north star to guide you. Overall, I’ve been successful at that, but I also look back at the tenure of Localeur and realize the times I failed at that. We definitely changed our product and focus several times in the first three or four years to please VCs and investors. It was difficult to stick to our guns and vet our own vision during the first two years. That’s why it goes back to solving a problem. 

If you truly want to solve a problem, you recognize it. You know everything about the problem, its causes, and its solutions. Nobody you meet who has thought about your problem for 10 minutes or a day is going to be smarter than you. Obviously, you should still listen to others and seek advice, but in terms of overall general north star direction, that’s something that should be like changing the course of a cruise liner. You should be really dedicated to what you’re trying to do. 

What can Austin as a whole do to foster a shared, multigenerational, economically mixed, industry-agnostic reality that benefits everyone?

The multigenerational piece is probably the most important because it speaks to so many different disciplines and realities. One example is tech. My friend owns a tech firm. He started in the 1980s. The industry has changed dramatically since 1980 when he started as a software engineer. If you’re thinking multigenerational, then you’re thinking “OK, in the 1980s, tech was a creative industry.” Tech was like being a gamer or an artist in the music industry. It was seen as even more underground than fine art or music. 

In the 1990s, the tech boom with Apple and Dell made it more glamorous. Then in the 2010s with Facebook and all that. Now, tech is a lot like finance. Those who succeed have not only the best ideas and creativity but also the best access to capital and have raised the most money. But, if you’re multigenerational, you’re thinking about how to build an ecosystem where both the creative person and the person who’s doing it out of passion with no idea of how much money is possible. You think about that person succeeding as much as you think about the latecomer who knows they can become a billionaire. You’re creating a universe where everyone wins.

Begin with a single-use case and a single problem. You need to think about how we can solve this problem for everyone, not just this one person. I think cities and businesses should think like that. 

What advice would you give to startup founders on how to de-stress?

It’s different for everyone. For me, I’m a distance runner, so I run. I write a lot. Sharing and being really outspoken about my journey has been a de-stressor for me so that I don’t feel as alone. Being a founder is a very lonely journey. 

I would also say, have hobbies. I think so many times you have founders that think their company is their personality, their friend group, their hobby, their job, and all this stuff. You need something to relieve the tension that you’re putting onto that, so having a hobby, whether it’s something like traveling or something small like collecting records, is just something that is not connected to your startup. 

About Kennedy Nunez: Kennedy is a Business Development Associate for Swyft, which is a tech PR firm in Austin and Houston and a top digital marketing and PR agency in Denver since its founding in 2011. Swyft also has a small satellite office where it offers tech PR in San Francisco. Swyft has been listed as one of the top tech PR agencies in Texas for two years running by the B2B services review site, Clutch.co.

 

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