Since 2012, Localvore.co has been the go-to place to find sweet local deals in Vermont. This fall, the site is relaunching with a major facelift – and it’s more than just cosmetic. CEO/co-founder Dan White explains the company’s evolving business model – and reassures us that the deals will continue.
AllYouCanTech: So, what’s going on with Localvore? Recently, some longtime users of the site (like me!) have gotten an email notification that things are changing. Is this “a pivot”?
Dan White: We are “pivoting,” in a sense, by going from a transactional-based business model, where we kept a portion of the revenue from deals and event ticket sales, to a subscription-based model. The new platform is based on what we heard from listening to all of our fantastic customers, on both the merchant side and the consumer side. It’s more of an iteration and a major improvement to the software and technical infrastructure of our core product.
Our revenue and customer base has grown year over year for 4 consecutive years, and in 2016 we took in over $1,000,000 in gross sales from our 20,000-plus New England consumer customers. This new product is really a pivot to scale that success nationwide.
AYCT: You launched Localvore Today here in Burlington in August 2012 as a sort of locally focused, more socially responsible Groupon. I’ve always loved the local deals for restaurants and other local businesses that I could get through Localvore – are deals being phased out completely?
DW: Deals aren’t going away at all. In fact, they are being improved for merchants. Our new SaaS suite will have a self-service deals feature, so merchants can decide to set them up whenever they like, and we’ll still help promote them to the Localvore audience. Based on user feedback, we’ll have feature updates coming soon that will help merchants target the deals to specific audiences, and to use the deal model to raise money for nonprofits and causes they care about. Before, we typically sent checks for 50% to 60% of a sale – now merchants will keep 100% of the revenue.
AYCT: The new front page of Localvore.co looks like a sort of Yelp for local food and farmers. So, it’s more of a local food “discovery” platform now?
DW: Localvore helps people find what locals love, not what tourists hate. We get that people would try to understand Localvore by positioning us within the context of other businesses, like Yelp or Groupon – but the reality is we’re trying to do things that those businesses never attempted or positioned as core parts of their brand. We’re a different animal. We help people find the best in local food. Right off the bat, we’re creating and displaying connections between businesses that users know they can trust. So, for example, you can look at a restaurant’s profile, see what farms and producers they’re sourcing their food from, and trust that those farmers and producers have verified that information before it’s presented publicly.
Every user is required to set their home zip code when they create their account. Capturing local knowledge is a central tenet for us. We care where the locals go; our customers care where the locals go. New features will be all about making that local knowledge more accessible to everyone. We’re making it easier to find the information food people want to know: what specials are happening, what deals and promotions are available, what new cocktail menu was just released, what hot new restaurant just opened up? There is no other platform that centralizes all of that information right now – especially without the noise of a million other competing topics, from politics to cat videos. We’re building that.
AYCT: So, will locals get to rate or vote on places they like?
DW: We’re tracking what users do (follow, buy, like, share, RSVP) and where those users are from – that data is the foundation of our algorithm, allowing us to be a recommendations platform rather than a search or review platform. Think Netflix instead of Yelp. No one has done that for food yet, making a much more convenient experience for conscious consumers.
We run a business, so we understand how valuable it is to receive direct feedback from users. Even when it’s painful! But we hate the way public online reviews can turn toxic, allowing trolls to hold a business hostage in order to get what they want. We believe there’s a time and a place for productive feedback, through private channels. That’s in our roadmap.
AYCT: What kind of businesses are your ideal customer?
DW: Small businesses that want to help a startup change the world. Restaurants that source a lot of local ingredients. Local food producers that are crafting high-quality products from local ingredients and distributing them to restaurants and markets — think hard cider, artisan cheese, craft beer, salumi, etc.
AYCT: Is the platform mobile, too?
DW: Yes, the mobile web experience is ready, and we expect our Android and iOS apps to be ready in 2018.
AYCT: You started here in Vermont, and then expanded into some other local markets, like Maine and Chicago. What did you learn in that process? Which markets are you focusing on with the new platform?
DW: We learned was that it was tough to scale with just the deals model. A part of this product shift is creating a platform built for scale. We are focused on New England primarily out of the gates, naturally. However, by the end of the year, we will have 20 cities curated, including Asheville, Madison, San Francisco, Austin, Boulder/Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
AYCT: You came here from Chicago to start Localvore. You’ve just passed the five-year mark – crazy! What do you think of your decision to locate here now? What have been some of the challenges and advantages of starting and growing your business here in Vermont?
DW: One of the biggest advantages here is the local angel investment community. We have over 10 local angel investors, and all of them have followed on and invested more than once. The Flexible Capital Fund has also played a major role in putting Localvore in a position for growth. The other big advantage is the foundation that Dealer.com created, as what I call ‘Burlington’s Unicorn.” There’s a lot of technical and business overlap, and that was something I was completely unaware of when I decided to make the leap and move to Vermont in 2011. There are always challenges – I’m sure everyone out there can imagine how it can be difficult to start up in a market with very few consumers and very little venture capital. When I start making excuses, I reflect on what I heard Peter Welch say a few years ago at an event I attended for entrepreneurs raising investment capital. He said, “I hear a lot of people say, ‘Business is tough in Vermont.’ I travel all over the country, and you know what the truth is? Business is tough everywhere.” That quote keeps me going when I need the extra motivation to not make excuses about what isn’t working, and instead look to new opportunities that will work. Finally, I’ve had two amazing co-founders, Michael Nedell and Meg Randall, who have stuck with me through thick and thin. It’s all about we for us, not me.
AYCT: How many people are at the company now?
DW: We currently have 10 employees, with 8 full-time. We really consider many of our investors and advisors a part of the team as well, so it feels more like 20.
AYCT: What’s next? When will we see the next phases of the new platform start rolling out?
DW: You can expect new features to be released every few weeks on the new platform. Next up, look for a specials feature, which will allow you to quickly see what specials are being offered in your community, or by businesses you’re following, on any given day. (Think taco Tuesday, dollar oyster happy hours, and more.) Deals will be back. And events – imagine having a one-stop shop to find wine tastings, craft beer tap takeovers, ticketed dinners at farm-to-table restaurants, and more.
We’re excited to finally be in a place where we’ve built a solid foundation and can ship features and iterate based on user feedback at a faster pace. We have the team and the infrastructure to do that efficiently now, which is a breath of fresh air and an accomplishment we’re really proud of.