Cleveland-born entrepreneur Travis Holoway is the co-founder and CEO of SoLo Funds, the first Black-owned personal fintech company to reach one million users. Endeavor interviewed Travis to learn more about what inspired SoLo Funds, the challenges and triumphs he faces as an entrepreneur, and his identity as a Black founder.
Endeavor: First, could you share your favorite memory growing up and how it’s made you who you are? It doesn’t have to be related to entrepreneurship.
Travis: My favorite childhood memory is growing up in Cleveland with a passionate fan base for sports. I’m a huge sports fan. What I appreciate about people from Cleveland is that we have a lot of resilience and are tough because our teams don’t win a lot, so we’re not used to winning. It gives you a chip on your shoulder that even though your sports teams might not be successful, it gives you that extra push to figure out how to create W’s for yourself.
You co-founded the first Black-owned personal finance tech company to reach one million users. Why did you start this company? What made you realize this is something the world needs?
My experiences growing up and being fortunate to be the first person in my family to go to college, graduate, and then start a successful career in finance. Along with my co-founder and best friend of over 15 years, Rodney Williams, we experienced that we had friends and family who needed access to small dollar capital because it’s an everyday struggle, particularly where we come from. Whether that’s because your car broke down, you’re short for rent, or you have a utility bill that needs to be paid and you don’t have the cash to get it done. People tend to lean on their communities. When you’re from Black and Brown communities, unfortunately, if you become successful, many times the burden of helping those from your friend group, peer group, or family who aren’t excelling professionally at the same pace that you are. So those experiences of people coming to us in need led us to look for viable solutions we could send them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anything that we felt was equitable and would treat our friends and family fairly, and that’s really what spurred the idea for SoLo. The idea was pretty simple: those who have discretionary capital should be able to deploy it to have a positive social impact, and also be able to benefit from some returns. On the flip side, we allowed these individuals who need access to capital to be able to solve their needs much more affordably and equitably than they could before.
You were able to get a lot of supporters early on. As you continue to grow, your needs increase, and you’ll need bigger checks to be cut from VCs and investors.
We’re also moving outside the wake of George Floyd and funding dollars into Black communities. How do you continue to raise when the ecosystem and different social factors are changing, but your needs continue to grow?
The unique thing about 2020-2021 and George Floyd was that many companies that should have benefited from some of the initiatives technically didn’t. We’re one of those who didn’t. Many Black founders similarly situated to us at that time thought that the floodgates would finally open and that we would be viewed differently as companies. The opportunities would be viewed as larger market sizes, the valuations would be more fair, and the dollars would start to roll in, and quite frankly, that’s just not what happened. We saw a lot of large corporations and large financial institutions say, “Hey, we want to fund Black founders, but we want them to have $50 million of revenue,” or like these astronomical targets that if BIPOC founders aren’t able to get the seed capital or the Series A capital, but if they can’t get the seed in Series A, how do they get to these revenue markers of this massive scale to make that happen?
With that said, what we’re seeing now is a lot of those programs are ceasing to exist. They’re rolling them back, they’re writing them off, they’re selling them. Whatever it may be, what’s going to happen now? For us, we’re unique in that we weren’t necessarily ever really a benefactor of those programs or initiatives, so we’ve always been forced to be more resourceful, scrappy, and efficient with the capital we do have. We’re definitely in rarefied air when you look at the fact that we raised less than $30 million, but we did just shy of $40 million of revenue just last year.
" The Black American founder experience is unique in the fact that we are used to living with less, so when you're used to living with less because your parents had less, you tend to figure out ways to make things work. You're making ends meet in your personal life, so when you actually have access to more capital from a business perspective, you tend to figure out how to make ends meet from a business perspective as well."
I recently read the article in Fast Company that Rodney [Williams] submitted, talking about how Black founders aren’t allowed the same risk aversion in the VC landscape because we’re looked at differently. Do you think being so cash-strapped early on helped sustain you throughout the growth of the business? And if so, how do you encourage other Black founders as they’re building up to take on that same idea?
The Black American founder experience is unique in the fact that we are used to living with less, so when you’re used to living with less because your parents had less, you tend to figure out ways to make things work. You’re making ends meet in your personal life, so when you actually have access to more capital from a business perspective, you tend to figure out how to make ends meet from a business perspective as well.
What I’ve heard many times that VCs or even some of the accelerator programs will say is, “We really love backing a second-time founder who failed the first time because they know what they did wrong the first time, and now they’re going to get it right.” African American founders do not have a second chance, so we have to make the first thing work. That’s why no matter what happens, we’re going to keep going and pushing forward, as hard as it is and as bad as it may feel because we know we have to make this first one work. It just doesn’t happen that way at all.
What advice can you offer to other Black founders who are solving real-world problems in terms of expansion, scaling, and building a company that will thrive, and be sustainable in 10 years?
The biggest thing is building a community. We happen to be a marketplace where we have to build a community. We need lenders, and we also need borrowers, and we need both of them to have a positive experience. That’s the only way that we’re going to grow. I like that because our level of accountability is high. Yes, we’re accountable to regulators and investors, but we’re also really accountable to our members because this doesn’t work if one side of that is broken; the whole thing falls apart. Building a community of supporters, like speaking to your communities as much as you can, whether that’s, you know, creating Discord channels or feedback groups to get as much information as you can, but also understanding the voice of your members because they have great ideas. Sometimes, they think about the business in a very similar way to how you think about it. When you are solving real-world problems, you’re always going to have an advantage because the application of what you do is so tangible.
Those are the important things: continuing to focus on the real problem and continuing to speak to those who are experiencing that problem, and you’ll be successful.
Last question. What is the biggest barrier you feel you’ve broken down as a founder?
For me, it is the resilience that we’ve had as founders, leading this company, achieving that milestone of being the first consumer-facing Black fintech to cross over a million users, being the only Black fintech that is a certified B Corp in both the United States and Canada, being a CNBC disruptor 50 company, and being the least funded company on that list of the 50 most disruptive companies globally.
We only got to that point because we didn’t give up. The reality is that the towel could have been thrown in so many times. You never know when you’re at the point of your breakthrough. I still don’t know when our breakthrough is, but I’m really excited about what we’ve done, and I think we’ve become a lot more self-sufficient. The only way that we did that is because of my resilience as a founder and the resilience of the people around me every day, going 120 percent at this.