Updated: Feb 27, 2019
AwayZone started from a simple question inspired by a stranger: “Where are all the people who look and act like me?” The inquiry prompted a deeper conversation on the limitations of mainstream media and marketing to cater to diverse audiences traveling away from home. Too much information was missing for people of color. A “there should be an app for that” said originally in jest, had LaToya Johnson waking up as an entrepreneur the next day committed to creating one. AwayZone moved from a chance conversation to a commercial opportunity overnight.
AwayZone is a travel app that connects minority business owners to consumers looking for culturally specific products, goods and services. Think of it like Yelp, but specifically focused on underrepresented communities. AwayZone acts as a contemporary “Green Book” for minority travelers and business owners.
Founder LaToya Johnson started AwayZone Inc. because she wanted to close the knowledge gap experienced by minority travelers who find themselves in unfamiliar places. She knew firsthand the lack of resources available to locate services unique to cultural norms. However, it wasn’t until that random conversation with a visitor to Indianapolis that she decided she could be the one to build the bridge.
Johnson recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring the AwayZone app to Hoosiers. Interested supporters can visit https://ifundwomen.com/projects/awayzone to learn more and provide funding support.
Johnson detailed her business journey for The Startup Ladies and what’s ahead for AwayZone Inc.
What have been the most important things you’ve learned in your journey to launch AwayZone?
I had to learn more about the tech industry than I ever thought I would. I do not have a technology background and never imagined I would work in the tech industry. I also had to grow into a business thinker, particularly around the health metrics that support business development, growth, and scale. However, I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to absolutely trust my instinct. Going against my instinct at the beginning of my business journey was a very costly mistake. However, that experience has made me laser-focused on creating a product so useful for underrepresented communities.
How are you handling business funding?
I’ve bootstrapped AwayZone myself and covered the cost of business expenses for as long as possible. I now have reached the point of needing additional capital to launch the AwayZone app in the Central Indiana market. I decided crowdfunding would be the best option to pursue additional support. It not only helps me raise capital, but it also helps me raise awareness about AwayZone’s mission and the problems it aims to solve. I have become outspoken about the traditional challenges faced by minority business owners working to obtain the funding needed for business development and growth. I also am facing those same challenges, so taking a conventional route to business funding was not an option I wanted to rely on. Many investors overlook cultural nuances within market segments that provide larger customer bases. With crowdfunding, I can spread the word about our mission and collect supporters along the way.
How are you planning for future scalability?
We are starting in Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis represents a great launch city for many reasons:
Familiarity to verify business authenticity;
Existing multicultural business community;
Organizations committed to community outreach like The International Marketplace Coalition, Immigrant Welcome Center, and The International Center;
Three large universities with multicultural students new to the area;
Active chamber of commerce; and
International organizations providing relocation services for employees.
As AwayZone grows, app expansion will include cities meeting a distinct profile:
Designated as or located near a Foreign-Trade Zone
Large and/or international employers
Non-profit organizations providing global outreach
Chamber of commerce
What’s the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice is the truth around how the business journey is full of ups and downs, but you need to stay consistent. If I stay consistent with my time and emotions, I will achieve my business goals.
The road to starting a business is never easy. How have you persevered and what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
The source of my strength comes from my desire to break generational curses that have long plagued my family. I am the first to pursue starting a business. With its success, I will be able to mentor and guide other members of my family to do the same. The generation behind me will have a foundation that I did not have to accomplish their dreams. I want to provide that support. For that reason, I cannot stop. I refuse to give up! So, my advice to other entrepreneurs is to identify something deeper than financial gain as a success metric.
“My advice to other entrepreneurs is to identify something deeper than financial gain as a success metric.”
What is next for AwayZone?
We will invest in upgrades to the app to ensure truly authentic and high-performing experiences for users. We also will partner with local non-profit outreach organizations to raise funds for participating businesses and spread the word about AwayZone’s problem-solving tool.
How has The Startup Ladies helped your business?
The Startup Ladies has provided me with connections to people who have really helped me understand the tech industry. When I started, I had no mentors to guide me. Now I have at least five different people I can go to for advice, leadership and emotional support. Being around women who are top performers in their designated field is inspiring and motivating. With each interaction I am rejuvenated to keep fighting.
Want to learn more? Watch the video to experience AwayZone!