In December 2014, Forbes named Localeur one of the best travel apps for 2015, and that started an avalanche of much-needed press that our app continues to get from travel writers and bloggers around the world. We'd previously gotten mentions by the Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Austin American-Statesman, San Jose Mercury News and other regional and local media outlets, but 2015 has been a year in which we've seen a massive uptick in national media and love from travel bloggers.
When you're an early-stage consumer startup, press is an important part of your marketing strategy, but often left to someone other than a founder or CEO. A lot of well-funded startups in San Francisco and New York are often able to use funds from a super angel or seed-stage VC to hire a PR firm, but in Austin we've had to be a lot more scrappy without the deep pocketed consumer investors in those cities. With a paltry marketing budget compared to our competitors like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Foursquare, we've had to fight tooth and nail to make sure we get both top-of-mind awareness amongst our core demographic - Millennials; the most important demo in the travel industry - while also leveraging channels like Facebook and earned media to get as much organic conversion (for mobile users) as possible.
So far, in 2015, I've been extremely pleased with the results. We've grown our user base nearly 1,200% since that Forbes mention and we continue to get favorable app reviews from national media and travel bloggers alike. A lot of this is organic and involves little to no involvement from me, but much of it comes from the countless hours I've spent researching other travel brands and startups like Airbnb and HomeAway and Expedia and Priceline to see the kind of coverage their well-funded PR and marketing teams are able to generate to learn which journalists and editors care most about our industry, what angles and types of stories they like to write, what times of year make for different stories, and how to best reach out to these writers with targeted pitches in hopes of securing coverage.
Going after PR isn't as sexy today as coding or diving deep into mobile user acquisition and "growth marketing", but this is challenging, time-consuming work that a lot of startup founders either lack the know-how to do, never get the advisers to help understand or don't think is important. A lot of people advise startup founders to spend time getting familiar with your customers and understanding the sales cycle before handing over the reins to someone else and I feel the same way about those things AND PR and marketing. Do it yourself first in order to understand exactly why it matters and how it's done.
These aren't big name bloggers, but here's a snippet of some of the reviews we've gotten in recent months:
"If you really want to know where the best places to go are, listen to the locals. The places are recommended by people living in that city and their lists are just awesome." - Model Haircut blog
"Even if you don't know a soul where you're headed, Localeur...lets you in on what the locals are doing and keep you off the beaten path." - Karla Kant, Examiner
"And for traveling like a local, there’s Localeur. It solicits advice from the people who know a place best – the locals – to find awesomely authentic places to go, where to eat, and fun things to do." - Jennifer Jolly blog
"Keep it on your radar, because it's on the cusp of blowing up in the European market. Localeur serves as your local bestie in whatever city your are visiting." - Cambio blog
"Guidebooks are all well and good, but many people prefer to see a city’s true hidden gems—not just the tourist highlights. Localeur can help." - The Hudsucker blog
"Overflowing with tips and information added by real locals, Localeur is your insider’s guide to 16 major US cities (with more destinations coming soon). Use it to create the most authentic, road-less-traveled, locals-only vacation experience." - Freshly Techy blog
It's worth noting that every startup founder has to bring an unfair advantage to the table when leading their company, especially as the CEO, and, as a non-engineer, I've always believed one of the advantages I bring to the table is a combination of go-to-market strategy know-how (I helped shape the travel strategy at Bazaarvoice which counts Hilton, Starwood, IHG and Expedia as clients before launching Localeur) and media relations. Our go-to-market strategy has relied on launching 16 major U.S. markets (and counting) and working hard in each city without full-time staff to ensure we have an authentic, quality community in each market. This has depended significantly on my network of social media influencers around the country such as Marcus Troy, Mick (both investors in Localeur) and Gary Williams. This understanding of local and influencer marketing coupled with our media strategy, which builds off the dozens of friendships I have with people in the media industry as publishers, editors, columnists and journalists has helped Localeur grow tremendously. And, in a way, it all starts with knowing our customer. Knowing our app user, knowing Millennials, knowing cities, knowing our investor prospects, knowing our partner prospects, and having these media relationships (new and old) which involve constant efforts to better understand the oft-difficult jobs journalists have of curating and correlating key pieces of data to make stories that people want to read.
It's also worth mentioning that I got a degree in PR and spent many years developing relationships with the media in politics (as the chief speechwriter for FEMA after Hurricane Katrina), sports (as a media aide for the Texas Longhorns, Beijing Olympics and Pac-12 Conference), fashion (as the founder of both South by Southwest's fashion component and ESPN X Games' style elements) and global brands like FedEx and Volkswagen. Among my current investors are people like Jeff Eller, who was Bill Clinton's chief media advisor during his presidency, Dick Kiel, a former White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and Joe Householder, who was once Hillary Clinton's communications director. These things help, and while a lot of startup founders optimize their advisory teams with deep pockets and tech gurus I've made sure we also have investors who understand the complexities and nuances of marketing and PR.
In January, we were named one of the best new travel apps by "The Today Show" and Washington Post gave our app a favorable review on the same day. Since then, we've also gotten positive mentions by MTV, Men's Journal, TIME, MSN and countless other publications. More recently, I've been interviewed and profiled in the United Airlines magazine, by Tablet Hotels, for the Aer Lingus magazine and by the Austin Business Journal. Companies spend a lot of money on various user acquisition and advertising platforms, but in most cases PR ends up being more bang for your buck if you know how to effectively share your story while also allowing the larger community of storytellers - journalists and bloggers, especially - to tell your story in their own way, too.
I focus a lot of my time on the day-to-day operations of Localeur, from our content and community management to accounting and legal matters to working with my co-founder and engineering team to contribute on big picture product initiatives, but one of the parts of my job where I get the most reward and sense of ownership is in our marketing, PR and, most importantly, user acquisition. I know my job as the CEO will continue to evolve and morph over the coming months and years, but I do hope to remain as closely intertwined with our PR and marketing strategy - at least from a high level - as I am today for years to come.
If you're an early-stage consumer startup founder or app creator, you may want to do the same.