Imagine the best week of your career also being the worst week of your career. Seriously, imagine waiting for an investor check for $100,000 the same day you’re applying for a $2,000 personal payday loan? If you ever experienced that, then you may share my journey. Risk, failure, and success are part of the trip. If you’re looking to understand the experience of an entrepreneur, you’re going to get all three. Show me the wealthy, successful entrepreneur and I’ll bet there’s plenty of struggle and failure right there next to the success.
I’m really no different, I have my peaks and deep valleys, but I don’t consider that the worst thing…I’m only 33. The single most important attribute I have, and something that separates me from many people I know with ambition and big ideas, is resilience. I don’t say this to be self-congratulatory. I say this to tell you that without it, I’d never be able to call myself an entrepreneur. Today, as the CEO and founder of Localeur, a travel startup that has built a community of locals around the country to share their favorite places to eat, drink and play, I’ve relied heavily on this attribute to push through the unique barriers I’ve faced. Part of my resilience comes from the experience I have in pushing through these barriers such as becoming the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year college and starting other businesses over the years.
I guess I’ve always been fairly entrepreneurial. At 11 years old, I started my own lawn mowing business that cornered the neighborhood market, including putting my older brother out of business. At 12 years old, realizing I couldn’t mow lawns during school, I started a candy selling business with a 300 percent return on investment. Yep, for every $20 I spent buying Bubble Yum on the weekend, I pulled in $80 that week.
As I grew older, my business scaled along with my ambitions. At 26, with no retail experience, I launched the first-ever pop-up centric sneaker boutique in Austin, Texas. The name Sneak Attack became well known amongst sneakerheads in Austin and in a matter of weeks we built a solid following by showcasing limited-edition kicks at hip-hop shows and festivals. The concept was such a hit that the owner of a popular running shoe store allowed me free use of his downtown brick-and-mortar location. At 27, I pitched the co-founder of South by Southwest Festival on creating a style component of the popular creative industry conference based largely on my experience with Sneak Attack. Style X, my creation, showcased emerging brands like BucketFeet Shoes, Zanerobe and Tortoise & Blonde Eyewear and spawned a similar engagement with ESPN X Games. Similar to Sneak Attack, these event partnerships didn’t pan out long-term, but I learned tremendously by working with these globally recognized brands.
So my first stabs at entrepreneurship were far smaller than what Mark Zuckerberg was doing in his Harvard dorm room or what Steve Jobs was doing with Macintosh, but the desire to create beyond the resources I currently controlled (Harvard Business School’s definition of entrepreneurship) was clearly there. Once I realized I wanted to tackle a bigger opportunity, I took a day job at a tech startup in Austin that was on the verge of going public. Working at Bazaarvoice, particularly under the tutelage of then-Chief Operating Officer Heather Brunner, was an eye-opening experience into the inner workings of technology. Working for a startup before, during and after its Initial Public Offering was an extremely influential professional experience. It confirmed that this entrepreneurship thing was truly for me. I quit the job 18 months after I started, and left with a heightened sense of boundlessness. With my eyes wide open (at least I thought so), and a great business partner whom I’d met at Bazaarvoice, we launched Localeur during SXSW 2013.
By most accounts, Localeur’s first three years have been fairly impressive (considering we've never had more than two engineers or six months of runway). We’ve grown from Austin TX to 32 cities in our community, with hundreds of active local contributors. We’ve raised more than $2 million from angel investors like my old boss Heather (now the CEO of prominent Austin startup, WPEngine), Bazaarvoice founder and former CEO Brett Hurt, Blake Chandlee (VP of global partnerships for Facebook) and Steve Pamon, who is COO of Beyonce’s Parkwood Entertainment and is a former executive at JPMorganChase, the NFL and HBO, among others.
We have a national partnership with JetBlue Airlines and a very cool affiliate partnership with Tablet Hotels. We’ve had incredible user engagement, growth and publications like Los Angeles Times, Time.com, Washington Post and others have raved about us.
But there are three versions of the story I tell someone when people ask me specifically how Localeur is doing:
Version 2. Things are going well, but we’ve had a tough time raising venture capital funding in Austin where there’s a lack of consumer-focused VC firms (also true).
Version 3. Things are going well, but I sometimes wish I were a white male instead (the whole truth).
Now, versions one and two are both accurate and inaccurate. You see, things are going very well. We did receive those accolades and we have built an impressive community considering our primary competitor, Yelp, had just 12,000 reviews on its network after a full year with a million dollars in funding. It’s also true that raising VC funding in Austin is not nearly as effective as if we were based in New York, Silicon Valley or, even, Los Angeles. But the whole truth is a bit different. The whole truth is hard. One of the primary reasons raising funds in Austin is challenging for a startup like Localeur with a CEO like myself is that I’m Black. No seriously, I can count on two hands all the startups in America in the last few years with Black CEOs that received VC funding because I personally have met the majority of them. They are guys like Tristan Walker with Bevel, Chris Bennett with Soldsie, Sheldon Gilbert with Proclivity, and Robert Reffkin with Compass. So despite a solid resume that includes launching my own businesses, working at one of Austin’s most successful tech companies prior to starting Localeur (Bazaarvoice), publishing a book, being named the top emerging business leader of the year by the Greater Austin Black Chamber and being recognized a four-time finalist for the Austin Under 40 Awards, I’ve fully realize that the bar for me is much higher than the bar for many tech founders.
I seemingly have the feeling of doing twice the work with half the resources or benefit of the doubt. Of course, this is an experience I’ve grown accustomed to throughout my life, and its an experience my Black predecessors and role models — from Jackie Robinson to Barack Obama — have been tasked with to reach their levels of success as well. This is where resilience comes into full effect; that I can always count on. Plus, if this tech thing doesn’t work out, I can always go back to selling bubble gum and mowing lawns, right? I'll always be an entrepreneur. You can count on that.
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