Local knowledge is the currency of many a travel startup. However, the truth is that much of this local information is delivered by professional writers who don't live in the subject destination.
Localeur, a four-month-old travel startup based in Austin, is changing that model by seeking out true locals - writers or not - to share their actual local haunts. And it pays them.
The Localeur blog explains it thusly:
Localeur.com isn’t about reviews.
The power of our site is in recommendations from a curated group of locals whom we believe - more than any average reviewer - is equipped with the type of experience, familiarity, insight and knowledge of local places to make sound suggestions to travelers on places to go.
We pay our Localeurs because we value their perspective and time. We don’t pay them as full-time or even part-time employees, and we never pay them to write about specific places. Instead, we pay them to share the types of recommendations they themselves would want if they were visiting a new city.
Our Localeurs are not bloggers nor are they editors or professional writers. (Mind you, some of these individuals may have personal blogs or write for other publications.)...Authenticity is important to us, not whether or not you have an English or journalism degree.
This definitely flies in the face of conventional wisdom, where travel startups either focus serious efforts on developing user-generated content or deploy significant resources on content farmed out to low-paid career copywriters.
As far as the reasoning behind this content model, co-founder Josh Spearman says that today's travelers are seeking more than just content - they want true perspective stemming from actual experience of a person who spends every day in the destination.
Millennials like us don't want to hop around tourist attractions having the same cookie-cutter trip as the next guy; we want something that's more authentic and gives us the feeling that we're not just visitors but we're locals even if just for a few days.
This is an oft-repeated mantra in the travel business - authentic experiences! be a local! insider tips! - a mantra that just as often falls flat. Mostly, the verbiage lacks punch because it lacks actual backup and truth.
By providing true local tips - not just "local tips" written by someone who may have visited a destination once - the company has the chance to build relationships with both visitors and locals.
And one of the implied advantages is that different demographics can connect with different travelers. There's more cult-of-personality on the part of the Localeurs, which also allows the company to recommend similar Localeurs by using customer profile data.
Read on for the team's full Q&A with Tnooz.
What's the meaning of the name?
The name represents the community of local connoisseurs we are building.
In the dictionary, you’ll see two definitions for connoisseur: 1) one who understands the details, techniques or principles of an art and is competent to act as a critical judge, 2) one who enjoys with discrimination and appreciation of subtleties.
Two people can live in a city, but it doesn’t mean both are locals in our view. A Localeur not only knows the difference between a tourist spot and a hidden gem, but they also take time to learn the nuances of their neighborhood and city because they have a passion for local.
We are a travel startup, but we emphasize local because we have a fundamental belief that locals – and not travel editors or writers or anonymous online reviewers – are the true connoisseurs of what someone should do when they are new to a city.
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
From the time Chase shared the initial concept with Joah to the first investor pitch was about three months.
After about 30 minutes of chatting with Joah, Chris Shonk became our first investor and we launched two months after that meeting on March 1st with an Austin beta just before SXSW. We wanted to get Localeur out there and start helping people immediately, and the response has been great thus far. We were named one of Digital Trends’ favorite apps of SXSW six days after launch.
What is the size of team and who are the principals?
We are a team of two co-founders to date: Joah Spearman and Chase White.
We met while working at Bazaarvoice where Joah led travel industry market strategy attending conferences, speaking with hoteliers and companies like AmEx and Expedia and sharing insights on user-generated content’s value to the industry.
Meanwhile, Chase was on the product design team working with some of the most notable brands and retailers in the world helping them fully leverage their review content to impact purchase behavior. Needless to say, we are building on our knowledge from the B2B side to create a better user experience for travelers.
Before being recruited to Bazaarvoice by its then-CEO and COO, Joah founded the fashion part of South by Southwest and co-founded an experiential marketing agency that counted ESPN X Games as a client. Chase worked in brand management, graphic design and taught web entrepreneurialism and social media in Duke University’s Talent Identification Program.
We are proud of the progress we’ve been able to make with the two of us full-time thus far, and as we expand beyond the two cities we’re in today, will grow our team starting with development and marketing this summer
What funding has the company received to date?
We raised $250,000, largely through friends, in early part of this year. We are raising a larger Angel / Seed Round right now between Austin and New York that should take care of our funding needs for the foreseeable future.
We’re extremely happy that the friends who participated in the early round are successful entrepreneurs and have been executives for great Austin tech and non-tech companies like Sweet Leaf Tea, Spredfast and Bazaarvoice, but also more established brands like Amgen, Austin City Limits, Goldman Sachs and FedEx. We really wanted to get a good mix of people who understand technology and social, but also branding, design, finance, marketing and Millennials.
For example, one early investor, Dre Hayes runs a fashion showroom and marketing agency in New York City, and another New York-based investor, Mick, often DJs for the likes of Jay-Z and LeBron James and advises startups around the country.
Our emphasis on understanding Millennials extends all the way through our investor team so even though we’re just a two-man team right now, we have a slew of reputable advisors and early investors lending us valuable counsel in just about every aspect of our business.
What is your estimation of market size?
TripAdvisor and Yelp, companies valued at an estimated $9bn and $2bn respectively, are in this space to give you a sense of the market size. Google, Facebook and Twitter are also showing more interest in local and recommendations so the space is very large and attractive even to the biggest online players.
The immediate market we’re going after is the 15% to 25% of overall travel ad spending – an estimated $40 billion worth - that happens online and grows steadily each year. However, the total market is actually much closer to $100 billion when factoring in the influence on Millennial purchase behavior, the tourism industry and its impact on local businesses around the world.
What's the competitive landscape for Localeur?
There are a ton of startups in the space – many of them covered by Tnooz - that we keep track of, but we’re all so much smaller than TripAdvisor.
Similar to Google in search, TripAdvisor is the Goliath in the industry that we are up against. Yelp is another company we consider a major competitor because of their focus on places.
Ultimately, the competition we’re in is to show the value of our curated, local recommendations vs. non-curated reviews from non-locals on other sites. It’s a competition we’re excited about and a story we’re happy to tell.
Please tell Tnooz more about Localeur's revenue model and strategy for profitability.
We understand our revenue model will likely change a bit as Millennials mature and their wallet size grows.
The immediate sources of revenue we are already beginning to recognize with brands are through dynamic sponsorship campaigns with brands seeking to reach this important demographic and lead generation/ad deals for everything from hotels/vacation rentals to restaurants and yoga studios.
Profitability is extremely important to us, perhaps earlier than our competitors are focused on it, and that’s mainly because we believe our penetration per market will happen much quicker than our competitors since we aren’t trying to be everywhere at once. When we say Localeur is in a market, we want that market to respond quickly and bring value to our partners immediately.
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves (differently to what is already out there) and for whom?
The problem is that Millennials are looking for recommendations from people they trust, not online reviews. For some, that means their Facebook friends, but for most of us it simply means people who look like us (other Millennials) and people who possibly live they way we would if we lived in that city. When Millennials touch down onto the runway in a new city, we turn our phones on and immediately start seeking a local experience…not looking to assimilate into some typical tourist mentality.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
There is no other site or mobile app in the world offering curated, local-only recommendations that cuts through all the tourist clutter the way Localeur does. That’s a position we feel confident in today in both Austin and Houston and it’s a position we plan to keep and grow in every market we enter.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
We have nearly 5,000 fans across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in less than four months with only two cities entered so social media is a huge component because our Localeurs are the voices of our brand and our product.
Our go-to-market strategy is to focus on one new market launch at a time and not try to be everywhere and everything to everyone.
Experiencing local is a concept that starts with quality not quantity so it’s not about the number of reviews or the number of people sharing some piece of content; it’s about the value we bring to our audience through every single rec one of our Localeurs shares. We aren’t just building a startup here, we’re building a true brand experience that we can already see people evangelizing through their social networks.
How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?
Our initial vision was probably a bit closer to TripZaar or Peek, but we kept going back to the core principle of helping travelers experience local.
What we realized over and over is that it’s not tour guides or celebrities or reviews that help people get the true local experience…it’s getting as close to experiencing that city through a local’s eyes as possible by having access to the same information without having to be chaperoned.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
In three years, we plan to be in every major city with thousands of Localeurs evangelizing our brand and helping millions of travellers experience their cities not as tourists but as people seeking more authentic, personalized trips.
The main challenge we hope to overcome is time to market; this is a crowded space with lots of points of view, but we are confident in our approach given early traction and going as fast as we can to reach all the people sending us tweets and Facebook messages saying, “come to San Francisco”, “this would be great in Thailand” and “I want to be a Localeur when you launch London” and so on.
In the near-term, we're planning on expanding into 5 to 8 cities this year to continue to show and prove our model. In the mid-term we will develop partnerships to allow us to help a traveler from end to end of their experience from finding a place to stay to finding that perfect place to have dinner or host a bachelorette party.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
The travel industry has built a hamster wheel focused on attractions…most travel industry players try to drive people to the same places over and over thinking this is the best way to monetize along the way. In reality, providing authentic local experiences – allowing the traveller to trust the sources of information while also allowing them to curate their own trip – is a much better path to enhancing their trip, getting them to really enjoy a new city and supporting local businesses that make cities like Austin or Kyoto or Barcelona special.
The "local travel tips" space is littered with plenty of dead concepts, in addition to the barely-getting-by walking dead. It's a tough space, but here are some reasons why Localeur is well-positioned to be the exception to the rule:
1) Advisors. The two-man team has done an excellent job of securing investors that can add significant domain expertise to the product, process and road-map.
2) Locals. By focusing on truly local people who have profiles and can develop their own mystique/cult-of-personality, the company ensures a more emotional, direct connection that can parlay into traction across cities as they grow. This is much different than more anonymous content-farm style articles, or uncurated user reviews that come from anyone - and that are not necessarily connected to a meaningful profile.
3) Go-to-market strategy. Slowly expanding is key to the concept. Understanding and owning each market is vital, because the whole value proposition hinges on the quality, authenticity and accuracy of both the Localeurs themselves and the recommendations they make.
4) Style. The team is clearly committed to making the best experience possible on the website, which looks much more robust and well-designed than a team of two belies.
Assuming that the team continues to build their advisory team, focuses on both the visual product and the actual content on-site, and builds up local domain knowledge in each new city, the team most definitely has something interesting going on.