My two older brothers and I grew up with clothes from discount retail stores like Hamricks and Goodys (this was before Ross was a thing) and before that Goodwill and hand-me-downs from my mom’s friends. My oldest brother Kahron was the first in my family to wear a pair of Jordans and when it happened I remember it seemed like a major accomplishment in my family at the time. He’d bought them with his own money and paved the way for our middle brother and me to also take a liking to sneakers.
Years later, I’ve bought dozens of sneakers and donated dozens back to Goodwill hoping to help out some teenaged kid trying to make it through those painful middle school years. But the most important thing sneakers did for me was help make me a better business person and entrepreneur. There are a lot of tools for small business owners to promote their businesses, but when I think about who Localeur can help the most, it's the inexperienced business owner who is following a passion, has minimal family and financial resources and is getting by on pure hustle and grit.
In early 2009, when I moved back to Austin after a little under four years in Washington, D.C., I had the bold idea of opening a sneaker boutique in Downtown Austin. I was one of those business owners in need of whatever tools I could use to promote my business only I didn't have the budget for paid Yelp ads and realized that without such a budget it'd be pretty damn hard to trust the positive or negative reviews their algorithm chose to display. I would've loved to have Localeur recommendations about Sneak Attack back then, I can tell you that much. My business was about 50% from locals and 50% from travelers and this was before ACL Live and the JWMarriott were opened.
Looking back I realize sneakers didn’t end up being the right area of passion for me to pursue as a business. Simply put, I failed. But the great thing about failure, especially here in Austin, is that I learned plenty in the process. I learned a few key things that were truly surprising:
First, I learned that Austin is a city that embraces newcomers. Sure, you hear plenty of resentment about rising real estate prices and worsening traffic from the influx of people from California or the East Coast, but when I look around at all the successful businesses in this city, I see a community that loves good business. And, it turns out, good business comes from lots of different people in lots of different places. Some Austin business owners were born and raised in nearby Texas cities like Dallas and Houston, while others once called Los Angeles or New York home. Bars, restaurants, startups, they’ve all been launched and groomed here in Austin by people from all different walks of life, and not all of them Austin natives. That’s a good thing.
If the mentality of Austin was to keep non-Austinites from doing business, imagine the ramifications nationwide if the people of other cities followed suit and ostracized people who didn’t have the privilege of being born there. That's why I focus on what it means to be a local rather than what it means to be a native. We don't choose where we're born. My experience running Sneak Attack then creating the fashion component of South by Southwest and now with Localeur has continued to impress upon me how vital it is for a city, a community, to foster local business even if the owners and founders of these businesses didn’t have the benefit of being born in the city limits.
The second thing I learned was that every business owner is seeking more business, especially locally-owned ones. This is not out of greed, like what one may think of corporations like Wal-Mart, but out of fear. As someone who owned his own small, local business and has dozens of friends who are running their own businesses today, I’ve both experienced and watched friends struggle with the daily (and nightly) fear of losing everything you’ve worked hard for. Well-run locally-owned businesses often sustain the ebbs and flows of business from month to month or year to year, but when the recession hit in 2008-09, just before I opened Sneak Attack, I saw many business owners suffer personally, emotionally, financially and professionally. It’s a very challenging road to pursue your passion, give up safer, more traditional routes for making a living, and opening one’s own business; a road many people who haven’t owned their own business may find hard to understand.
I implore everyone to have empathy for business owners, especially the people who own the bars, boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants and yoga studios they frequent. The more business these local businesses can get – especially when the economy is stronger as it is today – the better they’ll be able to develop cash reserves, pay better wages and not only survive but thrive despite corporate competition.
There are many other things I learned during my time as a sneaker boutique owner, but the third one I’ll share today piggybacks on the first two: business owners benefit from newcomers more than anyone. Word of mouth has always been the number one driver of business whether you own a brew pub or your business is DJing clubs on Friday nights. Word of mouth is how locals find out about a new business, and it’s how those locals spread the word to other locals.
But the other truth is that a lot of businesses also rely on locals to spread the word with their friends visiting from out of town and with travelers visiting their city. Businesses here in Austin like Franklin BBQ and the live music venues along Red River depend on business from tourism significantly to cover their bottom line expenses and support the job creation they’ve made possible. In talking to hundreds of small business owners over the past few years since moving back to Austin from the musicians managing themselves to entrepreneurs who’ve built and sold businesses worth tens of millions, I’ve learned one common thread: they’re all hustling on a daily basis to get more customers and more business. Why? Because there’s a lot of fear in running a business that isn’t growing, isn’t attracting new customers and isn’t getting word-of-mouth support from locals and travelers, alike.
If you're the kind of "local" customer who thinks you're helping your local business owner by not telling your friends (be they locals or travelers) about your favorite places to eat, drink, shop, workout, etc. then I'll let you in on something: you're the source of that business owner's fear equal to or greater than you are a source of their bottom line. Don't sound so upset if they end up going out of business. Facts only.