I love MLK Day because it's one of the few days of the year where I know what to celebrate.
On this day, like many others, I celebrate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His book "Why We Can't Wait" remains one of the most influential things I've ever read, and I continue to learn new pieces of his story and impact the older I get, and the more I realize how much his words still apply to situations of today, situations we see in the news and those we don't.
It's been nearly three years to the day since Localeur has become a full-time endeavor for me. I know that three years isn't a lot in the grand scheme of things, but three years is the same amount of time it took Dr. King to go from late 1961 when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference committed to supporting the Albany Movement and learned some important lessons in their struggle for equality after experiencing very little success there to late 1964 when SCLC joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma.
Point being, a lot can happen in three years. Often times things may look worse before they can ultimately get better, e.g. Albany to Selma.
Similarly, it was a little over three years between the passing of Proposition 8 in California banning same-sex marriage and the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that that same law was unconstitutional.
A lot of startups crash and burn in far less time, never to be heard from again. I am proud that we have made it through three years and continue to make Localeur better each day. Slow and steady wins the race, and when I look at the lack of progress or recent financial success by huge incumbents like Yelp since our launch, I get more confident that this is a legitimately winnable fight.
Personally, the single thing I'm most proud of as the co-founder and CEO of Localeur is that we've sustained our focus on the same mission and vision for three years despite numerous challenges and setbacks and a sliver of the resources of Silicon Valley startups in our space in 2013 when we started.
I very vividly remember going to San Francisco the first time with Chase to meet with potential Localeurs and also with VCs and constantly hearing about Sosh, a startup that had raised more than $15 million in VC funding from some of the best known VC firms and angel investors in Silicon Valley. In our first three years, startups like Sosh have come and gone.
From reading and re-reading "Why We Can't Wait" so many times along with reading additional literature about Dr. King's work, I learned that if you believe in something important, if you are willing to struggle and able to learn and adapt quickly before finding success, and if you can build a solid team of supporters and advisers, you will accomplish what you set out to do.
My struggle is obviously not as great as Dr. King's, but the struggle to help more people see the value in supporting local businesses and the struggle to get more diversity in the tech industry, the struggle to diversity an industry that has pattern matched for Ivy League-educated white males for nearly 40 years, and the struggle to secure funding from people that don't share my skin tone or socio-economic background is a legitimate one not simply because of what the future holds for Localeur or me, but also what the future holds for all of technology and society overall.
If the tech industry doesn't reflect where society is headed as a minority-majority nation, then I think many of us will have very little hope for the industry to have the truly positive and lasting impact it aims to bring. How can Twitter share the world's moments if Black people aren't a part of the leadership determining which moments merit a magnifying glass?
David Drummond, Ursula Burns, Tristan Walker, Troy Carter, Charles Hudson, Lo Toney, Maxine Williams, these individuals and others are in the same struggle of diversifying tech albeit at varying levels and positions, and I feel my role here in Austin and in Texas - one of the most important economic drivers to the U.S. and world economy - is to demonstrate what smart, talented and tenacious Black entrepreneurs are capable of.
In 2016, I want to do more to celebrate the small victories of building Localeur.
One small victory I'm proud of is that I believe I've earned my seat at the entrepreneur's table here in Austin not because I've made millions of dollars or won an award but because I've led us for three years and we're still going and growing due to our tireless drive and determination to reach our potential.
Startup life itself isn’t exactly conducive to celebrating smaller victories, of course, unless you’re at Burning Man for a week or at one of Marissa Mayer’s multi-million dollar Yahoo holiday parties, but I’m going to try.
People worry you’re celebrating too soon (Color) or too much (Uber) or, if you're not celebrating and showing optimism enough, people say you aren’t fostering good morale among early employees and investors so it’s a fine line us founders and tech leaders to walk.
The mainstream users, the VCs, the press…they’re often months or even years ahead of your startup from an expectations standpoint. But founders must understand the needs and problems of today's business to move ahead.
Imagine if you were trying to lead the Civil Rights Movement or Black Lives Matter movement today but already considered yourself post-racial because you voted for Obama. That would be pretty hard, right?
Imagine if you got a job at Twitter and failed to notice the non-existence of Black managers or leadership but then celebrated the hiring of a diversity head? That'd be odd, but it happens.
So what do you celebrate? Do you celebrate your own clearly demonstrated lack of racism if racism in America still exists? Do you celebrate hiring a head of diversity if your company still hasn't hired a minority executive yet? Do I celebrate reaching 1 million total users if it's not 1 million monthly app users?
It's easy to put the cart before the horse in the tech because the industry itself demands tireless optimism as no pessimistic (or even realistic) minded person ever changed the world or created the iPhone. Sell the dream.
Dr. King knows a thing or two about the dream, but he also taught us that words don't just speak to intentions and ambitions, but also help to create the mindset needed for necessary actions. Sometimes those words will be of hope and other times of struggle, but in either situation the actions necessary are ones that move you closer to your mission and goals even if it means turning around on a bridge one day so you can walk across it another day.
As a founding CEO, I must place a ton of value on the words I share and the story I shape around the aspirations of our business. I'm always thinking of how big this business will become someday and I personally do the math on the potential financial outcomes for my team and angel investors on a routine basis, but more importantly I'm always in a position of evangelism.
But I have learned to respect the journey in my words and actions, too, no matter how cliché that may sound.
I think that's the most important thing Dr. King learned in Albany, too. The now-famous "Turnaround Tuesday" in Selma demonstrates to us that King understood that the outcome of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and entering the county was less meaningful than the true aims of the Movement. Dr. King faced doubt and scrutiny after the turnaround, but ultimately they achieved more by being patient and respecting the journey.
I was making more than $170,000 a year before I started Localeur a year plus I went through $80,000 in personal savings and stock options to get here to a point where I've been able to get by on around $35,000 a year for the last three years. Financially, Localeur has not been a lucrative business for me so far. But money isn't what I'm after today or what will keep me going tomorrow. Localeur is less Powerball for me and more Civil Rights Movement. That may not be the best investor pitch, but I think the people who've invested in us understand what I mean by that without thinking the worst.
It’s the mission, the journey and the destination that pushes me past the doubt and fear, the tens (now hundreds) of thousands in deferred compensation, the dozens (now hundreds) of sleepless nights and headaches, and – worst of all – the constant rejection from people who don't share my struggle and may not care at all about what I'm after.
Let me be clear, startup life is totally and undoubtedly worth it to me because I wake up every day and carry a tireless belief that the journey I’m on with Localeur takes me to a place where a problem I care deeply about is solved and a lot of people’s lives are improved and a lot of communities and local business are enhanced as a result.
Also, I believe this is the company that will make me independently wealthy so I can buy my mom a house, hire the next generation of Black leaders and so I’m not just the youngest person on the board of directors for AIDS Services of Austin and KLRU, but the biggest donor, too. Can’t leave that out.
We hit 1 million users, expanded to 20 cities, got some great national press and secured several awesome strategic investors last year, but I don’t feel like I took the time to celebrate it all because by the time those things happened I felt like a) they were a long time coming or b) they were nothing compared to the milestones I read about on TechCrunch.
I wonder if Dr. King ever really celebrated any of his accomplishments?
For us founders, early employees and angel investors especially, our startups are an evolving and iterative process. The amount of conviction, confidence, faith and trust involved – especially pre-VC funding – is akin to saying Chelsea Clinton is going to be the President someday. That sounds possible, plausible even, given the information available to us today, but damn that’s a long way off and a lot can happen.
For the users and VCs, it’s more of a destination; either you’re there today (product-market fit) or come back to me later when I have more evidence you are. Even seed stage investors and members of tech press read the tea leaves of startup land to decide when to invest in or cover an early-stage startup that personally like.
Similarly, not everyone was convinced by the merits of the Civil Rights Movement. Read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham" and you'll feel it.
That can cause people in my position to overlook the smaller milestones because we’re constantly striving to please an external audience and get validation. Minorities, especially, are in a position to seek validation from outsiders as we enter one of the most homogenous industries in America.
That city you want us to launch on Localeur tomorrow? It’s in the pipeline for this coming spring. That feature you want in the app? It’s on the product roadmap for around 6 weeks from now. Those companies you think we should totally partner with? Trust me, we’re dying to work with them, too.
Meanwhile, founders and early employees get so deep in the trenches, grinding, executing, measuring, sharpening and sawing that survival itself becomes something to celebrate (yet we don't celebrate that much either) more than the actual milestones that keep the business and concept moving forward toward the eventual destination, whatever that is for each person.
Case in point, monetization was something we didn’t feel prepared to do in 2015 because we were laser focused on user growth but just this month we signed a contract with one of my three favorite brands in the country. This is a big deal as this company is one of the top 3 companies I listed on a piece of paper 3 years ago when Chase and I were thinking through the business plan and go-to-market strategy for Localeur. It’s also the first revenue of this type for Localeur, and was created from an inbound request rather than me selling.
But I can’t celebrate it just yet because the first check hasn’t cleared and they don’t want us announcing anything until closer to South by Southwest. So add this to the list of milestones I’m not supposed to celebrate too much (because it’s not that big a deal) or right now (because it’s a huge deal).
Startup life is not exactly conducive to celebrations is what I’m trying to say because one minute you’re up in the eyes of that journalists/investor/user and the next minute you’re doing it wrong.
So on this Martin Luther King Day what I'm going to celebrate is the fact that it's been three years and I still get to do what I love and that over this period there have been countless Black, white, male, female, gay, straight, young, older and all types of people who've joined the #experiencelocal movement.
I'm going to celebrate my ability to take advantage of the very society Dr. King wanted to make possible for young, ambitious, hard-working people like me.