Five Questions For: Joah Spearman, Founder of Austin’s Localeur
Austin—The tech community in Austin, TX, takes great pride in its reputation as an innovation hub. So when Joah Spearman, co-founder and CEO of online city guides Localeur, called into question local venture capitalists’ dedication to supporting young tech companies, the allegation swirled around social media.
“Despite this being an industry about first-movers and early adopters, investing in us or a black founder is a move I’ve yet to meet the Austin VC willing to make,” Spearman wrote in a blog post. “It’s not racial bias that I’m trying to touch on here, but fear of the unknown. That’s perhaps why I haven’t even been able to get a meeting with a partner at two local firms.”
The message caused a stir of online conversation. “Oh, I hear it a lot: Don’t be black. Just be a person and they’ll see past the fact that you’re black,” he tells Xconomy.
In the blog post, Spearman says that as much as he loves Austin, he was considering moving to Silicon Valley, which is more hospitable to young consumer-focused tech companies. (Ultimately, he decided to stay. More on that below.)
Spearman says he’s proud of the progress Localeur has made, even with the extra challenges. Most recently, the company announced a partnership with JetBlue Airlines for which Localeur will provide content for the airline’s digital and social channels.
“The traction speaks for itself,” Spearman says. “We have one million total users; we’re in 20 cities. My megaphone is only as big as Localeur’s success. If Localeur weren’t doing well, they would say shut up.”
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Xconomy: Tell me about your early influences that shape you as an entrepreneur.
Joah Spearman: I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was until I was about 11 years old. I started cutting grass for my neighbor to make money. At 13, I started selling candy to my classmates. I was doing that hustle; I grew up very poor to a single mother of three boys, food stamps, and all that stuff. Mom got a job working for Horace Williams—he was a Pizza Hut franchiser. He was the first person I really interacted with that owned a business.
We went to the same church a black Baptist church in Greenville, SC. After church one time, we went to brunch, a brunch of 15 to 20 people from church. He was putting his credit card down and not even looking at the bill. I remember thinking, “Man, that’s just so amazing.” It wasn’t just the money to me. It was the confidence associated, that was apparent with that move that I really started studying, “What is this about owning your own business?”
At that time, I made up my mind to be an entrepreneur and run my own business. The University of Texas ended up being my top pick and I ended up ended up studying public relations. The communication school didn’t let you have a minor, but I did the business foundations classes, and I studied Japanese as well.
X: You’ve been outspoken about what you feel are the inherent biases against black entrepreneurs in tech. Have you been “punished” for this, or received any sort of backlash?
JS: The backlash that I would say is along the lines of people don’t like it when you remind them of a problem that they have. They’re not going to be receptive to it. But at the same time, some people do want to change and be better. The best VCs in the world are into personal professional development the most. There are a lot of shady VCs that think they’re the best VCs, who say, “I see past color, yadda, yadda.”
What I’ve decided is the more I bring it up, the more I make it that only the best VCs will pay attention to me. I have a lot of people paying attention to my moves. That’s a good step.
When I wrote the blog about moving to Silicon Valley, top VCs with investments in the most cool unicorn companies reached out to me saying, “I hear what you’re saying. I want to meet with you,” or, “I have a friend who’s a successful CEO at a massive tech company who wants to meet with you.’’ Some people are interested in meeting people like me and interacting and learning and there’s people who won’t. I’m OK with that.
I am not moving to Silicon Valley. Since writing that post, an angel investor reached out to me who doesn’t want to be named. This person wrote the biggest check that anyone’s written to Localeur. This shows me there’s there there, a belief in me as CEO and my team. I’m pretty proud.
X: What did you want to be as a kid?
JS: If you ask my grandmother she would always say businessman. I was 4 or 5 years old before I could even fully say the word. I would say that from a pretty young age, I looked at my family and I didn’t see a lot of ownership. We didn’t have college degrees; we were not homeowners. There wasn’t sustainable marriage. I felt like if I could own my own business, I could build something of my own, something I call my own and no one could take it away from me. When you’re an entrepreneur, the number one thing you can have is believing in yourself. When you look at a story of poor black boy without a father, all these people have a lot of self-belief. The self-belief that I needed to have to make it out from where I was trained me to be an entrepreneur.
X: How do you define success?
JS: Getting aligned with whatever your sense of purpose is. I really love supporting and creating entrepreneurs. I’m talking not just about tech, but business owners, bars, musicians that have their own businesses. I created the fashion part of South By Southwest, helping these emerging designers. With Localeur, I feel like I’m going helping local businesses.
Other thing I’m passionate about is place. A lot of people focus on people; I really focus on place. That’s the reason why Austin has the creative energy it has, Silicon Valley has the tech scene it has, [and] New York has [the] finance/media scene. I love supporting local business.
I lived in [Washington,] D.C. for a little under four years. One of the things I didn’t like in D.C., when you met someone, the first thing they asked was, “What do you do?” It’s all about the relevance to them professionally.
One of the reasons I moved back to Austin was the creative entrepreneurial energy I find in Austin. I ended up opening up a sneaker boutique in downtown. It was short-lived. It only made it a year, but I had the best interactions that I ever had with people. I made friends for life. There I was in Washington, D.C., thinking I was helping out the world, a part of American politics and all this stuff. I realized within one year of owning a local business that I had a bigger imprint on the city of Austin in that one year than almost four years working in politics in D.C.
X: If you get stranded on a desert island, what is the one thing you need to have with you?
JS: Definitely nothing involving technology. … What I would say is a really good book. [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] “Why We Can’t Wait”—I’ve probably read that book 20 times in my life. A really good book I can reread and uncover new things. It can give you hope, and if you’re on a deserted island, that’s kind of what you need.