In this episode, I talk with the Founder and CEO of Away Zone, LaToya Johnson. Away Zone is an app built around cultural access that will connect business owners and service providers who represent a racial, ethnic, or religious affiliation or sexual orientation minority group to consumers who are looking for culturally specific experiences. LaToya details the moments that provided inspiration for creating Away Zone.
The current focus for the platform is based on reaching out to women, particularly women of color, and the LGBTQ communities. LaToya has chosen to start with African American and LGBTQ communities because she is involved in them, and she has plans to expand to all minority groups in the future.
Topics In The Episode
Expected outcomes of beta testing the platform
Post-beta testing marketing and launch strategy
The importance of focusing on women founders as their early adopters
Involving the community in the growth of the platform
Pitching the platform to Millenials and Gen Y-ers
Pitching the platform to businesses
Registering your business to be attractive to investors
The process of finding a developer, and what to look for when selecting making your selection
Mike Kelly: Welcome to the show. Today we have LaToya Johnson who's the founder and CEO of AwayZone. LaToya, welcome.
LaToya Johnson: Thank you, Mike. Thanks for having me.
Mike Kelly: All right. Let's start maybe with a quick pitch for AwayZone.
LaToya Johnson: Sure. So AwayZone is an app built around cultural access that will connect business owners and service providers who represent a racial, ethnic, religious affiliation or sexual orientation minority group to consumers who are looking for culturally specific experiences.
LaToya Johnson: So a couple of examples that I give as an African-American woman with natural hair, if I'm out and about in this country traveling and I need to connect with someone who has the skills to do my hair, I am usually unsuccessful in finding those people because Yelp and Google do not go that deep into the cultural specifics.
LaToya Johnson: Then there's another example, maybe someone of LGBTQ community who's out and about traveling this country and maybe they are looking for a place of worship that will accept them for who they are. Again, those sort of cultural details are not included in Yelp and Google searches.
LaToya Johnson: So what I'm trying to do with AwayZone is close that gap and help business owners and service providers connect with those end users based on cultural demographics.
Mike Kelly: Awesome. Got it. Current status of the business. I'd love any vanity metrics you can share around where the business is today. That could be number of users. That could be number of businesses. That could be geographic scope of the communities that you support. Any of that. Could also be revenue, fundraising, number of employees. Anything you're open to sharing.
LaToya Johnson: So we are still in early stage startup. We have just gotten to the point where we are ready to test our beta and I am actually having our beta test event on April 25th where we have invited business owners who have agreed to be a part of my early adopter group. So they will come and they will test out beta MVP that was put together by DelMar Software out of West Lafayette. And so after we do that test and we collect some data and make sure that the current model that we have right now is working, we'll sort of put that out to the market locally. Meaning that we're going to do proof of concept here at local Indianapolis. Again, with those 10 business owners who agreed to be earlier adopters of the platform. And then once we have that established, we will go into a really intense marketing campaign to make sure that we're getting traffic to those early adopters, those people who have agreed to be a part of our platform.
LaToya Johnson: So we have not done a full scale launch yet. Like I said, we're beta testing. We're getting ready to beta test but we're close.
Mike Kelly: That's awesome. By the time this comes out you'll probably be in the beta test.
LaToya Johnson: As long as everything goes to plan, yeah.
Mike Kelly: I hope so. All right so ... which will be good timing for this, so that's great. So 10 beta testers, is that right?
LaToya Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mike Kelly: All in one community or across different communities. What was the approach there?
LaToya Johnson: So the approach right now is to work with business owners that are either African-American woman-lead or LGBTQ woman-lead. And we choose to focus on women more so because women founders are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in this country right now, but women founders also receive less venture capital finances. Women of color have a harder time getting bank loans. A lot of time, women entrepreneurs experience ... I don't want to say adversarial but just when they are trying to get backing for their companies and their ideas, they're not as successful as their male counterparts. So that's why we're focusing on women.
LaToya Johnson: And I've chosen to start with African-American and LGBTQ because I sort of have my hands in those communities. And so the business owners that have agreed to be a part of the earlier adapter group, they know me and they trust me and I believe that contributes to why they were willing to be a part of the early stage of this startup.
LaToya Johnson: But as far as the platform overall, we do focus on all minority groups. It's just that we're sort of starting with black women and LGBTQ so we can learn, find out what works, what doesn't work, and then as best we can, replicate what does work for the remaining cultures but also making sure that we're culturally sensitive and appropriate once we start expanding out.
Mike Kelly: I mean you're in many ways, launching a two-sided marketplace, right? So you need both users -
LaToya Johnson: I have BTB and BTC, yes.
Mike Kelly: You need users of the app and you need businesses on the app. So I'm interested in your thoughts, post-beta, how are you planning to both reach those consumers and the businesses as you scale?
LaToya Johnson: So one of our strategies right now is to partner with the local universities and college campus communities. I am growing a relationship with IUPUI as we speak. And so the hope is to work with their community engagement department, ultimately get to those student organizational groups that have that cultural focus. So you know there's the African-American group. There is the LGBTQ group. There's the Asian group, et cetera, et cetera. And do pitches towards those groups of students to let them know, "Hey, there is this platform here we're using to try to uplift minority business owners."
LaToya Johnson: And the Millennial and Gen Y'er market is pretty significant for us. There's a few articles and research out there that suggests that Millennials and Gen Y'ers are more socially aware and socially conscious about where they spend their money. And so what we're wanting to do is pitch to them and say, "Hey, this is the data. This is what we know about minority-owned businesses. We want to try to close that disparity and create an environment of equally and equity for our business owners. And so if you download this app, which is free for end-users, we will then have the data to take to the business owners and say, "We have a pool of people ready to support you in your business based on the one thing you all have in common which is your culture. So if you sign up for the platform, you have an immediate access to your target population at the tip of your fingertips."
Mike Kelly: So I'm assuming based on that answer that the business is the one paying for access to the app? Is that correct?
LaToya Johnson: That is correct. Our BTB model is a subscription fee based model. Monthly fee where business owners will pay to be a part of the platform where they will have an opportunity to increase their visibility without interruption from their mainstream counterparts and also their chance to build their brand awareness around the uniqueness that they have to offer and be proud of their culture and what they're trying to do and who they're trying to reach.
LaToya Johnson: And also, promote themselves in the fashion to let it be known that they are open to all consumers. I think a lot of times, there are some situations where one member of a culture doesn't necessarily feel or know that they are welcomed into another culture. So they're apprehensive about going into those stores or into those salons or whatever the business may be. But that's, from my experience, I know that not to be true. It's just kind of getting over that hurdle. So if they have all that information in an app where they can just look and say, "Hey, this is a X-Y-Z friendly organization or a welcoming organization," then the end-user knows, "Well I can go there at least and see what's happening." And that's what we need to do, right? Is just get their foot in the door and give them a good experience while they're there.
Mike Kelly: Well you kind of hit where the idea came from in your opening pitch but when did this become tangible for you? Like when did you say, "I have to do this."
LaToya Johnson: Sure. So this idea had surfaced in my head many years ago. Again, being an African-American woman with natural hair, I had gone out to Las Vegas and you know anymore, Las Vegas is just one big tourist trap. So it's hard to locate normal just the mom and pop average restaurants or stores or whatever the case without having to go into a casino.
Mike Kelly: You don't want to pay $500 to get your hair done, yeah.
LaToya Johnson: Yeah. And so I had forgot to pack something that I needed and I was trying to Google around and find it and I was just unsuccessful. Now it's just like, "Wow, there should be something to make this easier." And ideally you think about Yelp or Google but in my particular case, that just wasn't happening.
LaToya Johnson: But what really sort of said, "Okay, I have to do this." I was working a part-time job. A little background about me, I do have a full-time job. I am an Occupational Health and Safety Risk Manager is my day job. What I call my reality job while I'm chasing my dream. In 2017, two very important people in my life were getting married and I was in both weddings. So I needed extra money. So I actually took on a part-time job at Crackers Comedy Club. And so as you know of Crackers, they have comedians coming in and out all the time. And I was having a conversation with one of the comedians and he was just asking me some culturally specific questions about Indianapolis. He was from New York, so he obviously didn't know where things were. And so he was just asking me like, "Where do I go to get a haircut?" Or, "Where do I go to get this particular dish?" And so as we were talking and I was informing him of where he could go, we were just kind of laughing and it was like a, "Ha, ha, ha, there should be an app for that."
LaToya Johnson: And I woke up the next day and I was just like, "No, there should be an app for that." Because I know from my own personal experiences that if I had a tool like that as I was traveling, I wouldn't have felt so lost. Then for him to come to me and sort of ask that question, this is something that I think a lot of people of color and religious minorities and LGBTQ kind of have that same thing of, "Okay, now I'm in a new place. Where can I go to find my people, my community, the people that understand why I act this way or why I think this way? How can I connect with that group?"
LaToya Johnson: And so I just decided that no, I need to make this a real thing. And I started down the path of trying to find a developer that could help me make my dream into a reality.
Mike Kelly: And what year was this?
LaToya Johnson: 2017.
Mike Kelly: This was not long ago.
LaToya Johnson: No, not long ago yes.
Mike Kelly: A couple years ago.
LaToya Johnson: That's right. It was the summer of 2017. I actually officially registered my business with the state of Indiana in October 2017. And moving forward from being an LLC registered in the state of Indiana, I did change over to a C-corp registered in Delaware. Some of my research has suggested that within this tech industry, that's an ideal situation when you're looking to take on investors and get people to join your teams at a C-corp is more manageable in that sense as opposed to an LLC. And so that is definitely a goal of mine is to grow and expand my team.
Mike Kelly: Nice. I'd be interested in more of that journey. So late 2017 ... Well actually, walk me through, okay, you decide to go down this path summer of 2017. Start looking for a developer. So how did you get plugged in with DelMar? And then maybe some of the other resources that you found helpful along the way.
LaToya Johnson: Wow. It was a really long journey to get to DelMar.
Mike Kelly: Uh-oh. This is where I'm going to hear the three failed ... Oh, I'm sorry.
LaToya Johnson: Yes.
Mike Kelly: This is like my day job, right? So I'm sorry. We hear those a lot and it's tough.
LaToya Johnson: It's unfortunate but it's growing pains because when I did start this journey, I was not a tech person. I don't have a technology background. Like I said, my day job is Occupational Health and Safety Risk Management. And so I knew early on that I was going to have to work with someone that had the tech experience.
LaToya Johnson: And so I had been living in Indianapolis at that point for 14 years and I had no idea that Indianapolis had the huge tech community that we do. And so, like most people, I started my search on Google. And I ended up connecting with a firm. This was after making the list, narrowing it down and narrowing it down again. I had three firms that I was sort of settling on. And this one particular firm, I had actually said, "You know what? I'm going to pass." Because something in my instincts was telling me not to. I didn't listen to my instincts. So that was the first major lesson as a business owner and entrepreneur that I learned was to trust my instincts. I will not make that mistake again.
Mike Kelly: Do you know what it was that tipped you? Do you have any insider idea as to what tipped you off as to why it might not have been a good fit?
LaToya Johnson: So having the conversation with the first salesman of this organization, he was sort of just quip talking and not really listening. He was just more intent on selling me than actually listening to me, if that makes sense.
Mike Kelly: Totally makes sense.
LaToya Johnson: And so that was a turn off. And I told him, I was like, "You know I don't think this partnership is going to work and going to move on." So actually what ended up happening was their vice-president of operations called me directly. And he did a much better job at his salesmanship. And he did convince me to go with them. He gave me somewhat of a discount. He seemed very intuitive and very about his business. This is a high-level timeline I can give you and we will have a fully fleshed out functioning app for you by the fourth quarter of 2017. Mind you, this was still in the summer when I was calling around and trying to get with someone.
Mike Kelly: So within three to six months?
LaToya Johnson: Yeah. And so I said, "Okay." Well since the senior VP was so convincing, I went against my instinct and went with that firm.
LaToya Johnson: So as we fast forward nine months later, I still did not have a working app. Okay? No let's forget about a prototype because the agreement and the amount that I paid was for a fully fleshed out application. Knowing the VP, of course you know a phase one and phase two. But we were trying to work through all that with this time. And throughout this nine month period, red flags were coming up and I was calling attention to those red flags. And I would always be told, "We're going to take care of it. We'll fix it. This is minor. It's no problem. We'll do this, we'll do that." It got to the point where there were plenty of things in the beginning but at the end of that nine month period, once we had what they called a finished app, when we went to test, the end users in my group, my testing group, could not find the businesses that were registered within the platform. And that's the whole point is connections.
Mike Kelly: That is the business, yes.
LaToya Johnson: The whole point is connection. And so I went back to them with that data and ultimately said, "This does not work." And they're like, "Okay, well we'll fix it. Just give us a chance to fix it." And I told them, "Absolutely not because you have had months to fix it." Because again, red flags had been coming up and I had been trying to work with this group. I didn't want to just cut them off because I was looking for a long-term partnership. But unfortunately, they were not able to provide me with the product that I paid for. And so we have severed ties and I am still working behind the scenes to rectify that.
LaToya Johnson: So that is why I say that was my biggest learning lesson as an entrepreneur, trust those instincts.
Mike Kelly: And so that took you into early 2018? Is that right?
LaToya Johnson: That's right. So that brought me into early 2018. And at this point, and I'd like to say, thanks to Kristen Cooper and the startup ladies. When I got involved with the startup ladies, that is when I was able to get people on my team that were trustworthy and had my best interest at heart. And I connected with a gentleman named Tom Cooper and he's really the one who came in and said, "LaToya, this is just not right. They are supposed to X-Y and Z, and they're not doing those things." And so he actually armed me with the knowledge and the right verbiage, so to speak, to say, to call them out essentially. And so he helped me get that ball rolling and I greatly appreciate Tom's help for that.
LaToya Johnson: But it was with the startup ladies and this tremendous support of Kristen Cooper that I was able to connect with DelMar. Representatives from DelMar had heard me pitch at the startup ladies four year anniversary and they were interested in trying to establish a relationship, as was I. And we have been working together on getting a MVP ready for testing and launch. And something that I can show potential investors I actually have a prototype that works.
Mike Kelly: That's awesome.
LaToya Johnson: So that was the journey. And like I said, I was a novice in all of this and you're going to bump your head throughout the business journey. I had that that happened to me the way that it did but -
Mike Kelly: Let's stay on that theme for just a second. If you're willing to say nice things about them, what were some of the things about your experience with DelMar? Like early signals that like, "Oh, this is so different from the last firm. Like this is exactly what I needed."
LaToya Johnson: Yeah.
Mike Kelly: Like what were some of those early tells? Because if somebody ... There are a lot of people who are listening, potentially, who have experienced what you experienced that first time. So what are some things that they can look for that will tell them, "No, you're in the right place."
LaToya Johnson: Yeah. So I don't know if it's okay to drop names but my project manager, his name is Dan Kim. And he's just on it. Like he was ... If we were corresponding via email, he always responded quickly. Was very knowledgeable. Knowledgeable but also spoke to me in layman terms if that makes sense. So he wasn't so high up in the technical jargon that I didn't understand what was going on. But he also was obviously educated and experienced enough to know what he was doing. He and I had met a couple of times face-to-face before we actually signed the agreement.
LaToya Johnson: And so it was very just straightforward, business-focused. He was not trying to sell me on DelMar, if that makes sense. He mostly just said, "These are our capabilities and here's what we can do for you. And this is the experience that we have, my team and the owners of DelMar. This is how we got started." So from a professional, business sort of technical sense, it all came together. But like I said, Dan was just very on top of it, very professional, always kept in touch with me. Didn't let things lag. He was just on it.
Mike Kelly: Excellent. Thank you for sharing that. And I'm sure he's going to be tickled when he hears it. That's great. I would love hearing that about me, so that's good.
Mike Kelly: All right, so -
LaToya Johnson: Well if you encounter good people I think good people need to be acknowledged. Because there are some not so great people out there in the world and so when I do come across good people, I love to acknowledge them and let them know that I appreciate the help that they have given me.
Mike Kelly: That's good. Let's switch into competition. When you think of competitors for AwayZone, who comes to mind?
LaToya Johnson: Yeah. So I think instantly, most people think about Yelp. And Yelp is a great platform but the issue with Yelp is that they lack in diversity and inclusion and cost effectiveness. And so what I mean by that is they have their free business listings which a lot of people go for because it's free. Okay, great.
LaToya Johnson: But then they also have their purchased advertisement program. So if you are someone with a marketing budget where you can afford their minimum advertisement subscription because it's tiered, and the last I checked the minimum was $300 per month. So if you are not an individual that can afford that $300 per month and a lot of early startups and a lot of minority-owned firms can't afford that, then you've sort of relegated to that free listing. And that's where the purchased advertisement program starts to decrease the awareness of those businesses that have signed up for the free listings. Because those that have purchased the advertisement programs can then advertise on your page.
LaToya Johnson: Like I've been duped a couple of times trying to use Yelp and I'll go and I'll click on someone's page and other competitors show up at the top of their screen. And it's a little confusing because I'm like, "Well did I click on the right name?" But it's a distraction, nonetheless.
LaToya Johnson: And so, in terms of connecting consumers to goods and services, obviously Yelp is one of my major competitors. I just want to feel that sort of cultural distinction gap.
LaToya Johnson: And then there's other platforms out there. One that comes to mind, it's called Official Black Wall Street. And it's a great platform. I understand why they started and why they are focused on African-American business owners. It's a really good platform and I would not bash them for anything that they're doing, but they only focus on African-American business owners. And so I am empathetic enough to understand that it's not just one minority culture having these kinds of struggles when it comes to business performance and strengthening revenues. This is something that kind of goes across the board and that's just a statistical fact.
LaToya Johnson: So I wanted to open the AwayZone platform to all under-served and underrepresented groups.
Mike Kelly: That's interesting. You said an interesting thing in there that I wrote down which is that they only focus on black business owners. Or I wrote down they only focus on X. Because one of the things that I think about when I think about go-to market strategy, particularly with a two-sided marketplace, is that in a lot of cases it can be helpful to focus on one community or in your case, you've got two sides to that. It could be one community or it could be one, a diverse community but one type of business. So I guess I'd be interested in your thoughts on there's incredible strength in clarity and messaging when you're focused on one thing versus I think the end goal, which I totally get where you're going from an end goal perspective. How do you balance that dichotomy?
LaToya Johnson: I think there's overlap. When you're talking about trying to make the connections and you focus on one group and you give them a list of features and services that you would most likely give the next group and the group after that. And what we're trying to do is create an ecosystem of support. So with focusing on the African-American woman-lead and LGBTQ woman-lead, I'm going to ultimately sort of hit both markets if that makes sense to you. Because there are clearly African-American women that are of the LGBTQ community. And there are supporters and allies on both sides.
LaToya Johnson: And so that's kind of why we're starting in that spectrum. And the services are the same. The experiences are similar in that the desire is to help them increase their customer acquisition and I think that I can do that with both groups using the same ... Not the same messaging but sort of the same techniques if that makes sense.
Mike Kelly: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.
LaToya Johnson: But as I go out to other cultures, I will need some assistance with that. And so that's kind of our understanding of scaling outwards as opposed to upwards. Outwards meaning that we will need to hire personnel to help in understanding those cultural nuances and making sure that we are respectful and doing things so that the end users have an authentic experience. Right now, on my team, I have the help to make sure that African-American, women-lead and LGBTQ women-lead will get the appropriate experience.
Mike Kelly: How big is the team today?
LaToya Johnson: So technically, technically, I own 100% shares of AwayZone Incorporated. So I do not have a formal cap table because there are no signed contracts or agreement. I do however, have a board of directors of four women, with me, makes five. So there's five member board of directors. And then I have an advisory board and my advisory board, there are about five to six. We kind of teeter back and forth of my advisory board but five to six individuals that again, represent the two demographics that I'm focusing on.
LaToya Johnson: So with my BOD, we are strategic and coming up with the overall plan on what we want to see, how Q1 is going to go, what we want to see happen in Q2, Q3, Q4, et cetera. And then I'll go back to my advisory board and they sort of say, from culturally speaking, we can do X-Y-Z. Or they also just help execute tasks as well.
LaToya Johnson: So 10 member team, I guess you can say. But officially, I still own all shares of the company.
Mike Kelly: Right on. And you're in the midst of fundraising right now, correct?
LaToya Johnson: I am. So we've just closed on Q1. So in Q1, we launched a crowdfunding campaign with a platform called iFundWomen. And it was a really good campaign. They were very supportive. Like-minded in mission of wanting to uplift women entrepreneurs and help them raise seed funding through crowdfunding. And so we were able to raise a little bit of money through that. And then I also pitch and so I was a part of the Pitch Pardi presented by the Black Hatch Fund and occurred in February. As second runner-up, I did receive a monetary award plus in-kind services from various organizations within the tech community. So that was a great opportunity. And then I was also awarded a grant from SOURCE River West. And so that's kind of where my connection to IUPUI comes in.
LaToya Johnson: But then working with that group that's been a great group, Jason Andrews, Saidah Pearsall and Elizabeth Davis, she's great. They awarded me a grant. And so with the money raised in Q1, it's how I was able to go ahead and pay DelMar for their services of the MVP. And like I said, now we're getting ready to beta test.
LaToya Johnson: So I think most of my fundraising efforts come from what I call the pitch circuit. I've been pitching around Indianapolis and actually on ... Let's see, is it Thursday? On Thursday April 4th, I will be pitching in the Crossroads Pitch Competition in Bloomington, Indiana where we are all going for a $10,000 grand prize. And that would help my company out significantly. Not only will that help me improve the MVP that we have right now, but that will make some room for me to hire a couple of interns and have them do some tasks for me that help keep the business running in the background.
Mike Kelly: I'm interested, what's the thing that you're personally working on right now, where you're trying to level up in terms of skillset or ability that has you kind of excited for 2018? So it could be books you're reading, things you're doing online. Like how are you trying to level up right now?
LaToya Johnson: I am reading, or listening shall I say, to a book called Tribes. I'm going to pull that up.
Mike Kelly: Excellent.
LaToya Johnson: Yeah, I just started it but that whole aspect of ... It's like lead by example and just being yourself and leading and rallying everyone around this common cause is really what ... It's ultimately what AwayZone is all about. The goal is to help underperforming businesses perform better by making sure they have access to markets that contain people known for supporting their kind of services, goods, experiences, whatever they have to offer.
LaToya Johnson: And so rallying the people to say, "Let's help these businesses perform better financially so that they can grow themselves and then they can hire. And not only hire but hire people from their community and now we're increasing jobs. And once we have people working, they can take pride in having something that they're earning money in. And then they take their monies and give it back to the communities. So we can invest in better schools. We can invest in sort of the curb appeal of our residential housing situations and just brighten things up. And so it's like this cycle that once you get one part built up strong and going, it'll eventually have an effect throughout everyone in the community as long as it's done correctly and with good intention. And that's my valley cry is all those with good intentions, please join me in helping to uplift underserved and underrepresented communities by way of supporting their businesses and trying to keep ... And strengthen their economic ecosystem. That's really what I'm trying to do.
LaToya Johnson: So Tribes so far has been really motivating in that. And in I think sort of personally professionally, one of my weaknesses that I'm working on is public relations and marketing. Rallying the troops means bringing everyone together and so I think of events. And so what's the logistics behind having successful events where everyone is getting something out of it and they feel good for participating? That is what I'm learning and working on right now. It's both personal and professional. It'll feed my soul and my business. And it's a skill that I don't have that I'm looking forward to growing. So ...
Mike Kelly: That's awesome. Is that just at bats? Is that just running events and learning trial by fire or are you reading anything about that or talking to anybody?
LaToya Johnson: You know I do have ... So two of my board members have a lot of experience in public relations and marketing. So for me right now, it is trial by fire because I'm a hands-on learner in that aspect.
Mike Kelly: Yeah, me too.
LaToya Johnson: So I just kind of need to see it and get a direction at first. And then it's like, "Okay, now let me run with it and see if I can make it happen as well." I like to learn that way.
Mike Kelly: That's awesome.
LaToya Johnson: Yeah.
Mike Kelly: All right. Well thank you so much for the time. I know we're a little bit over. If anybody wanted to get in touch with you to learn more about AwayZone or to offer any help in any sort of way, how can they do that?
LaToya Johnson: Definitely visit the website. Www.awayzone.us and then I can be reached at ljohnson@awayzones (with an s) .com. So that's awayzone.us is the website. Ljohnson@awayzones (with an s) .com is my email address.
Mike Kelly: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on. This has been great.
LaToya Johnson: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. This is way better.
Mike Kelly: You're awesome.
LaToya Johnson: I appreciate it.