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Humdinger grows by catering to other startups

Humdinger and Sons, a young ad agency in Minneapolis’ Mill District, may have found the formula for startup success in a competitive industry dominated by entrenched behemoths: seek out, and partner with, other ambitious startups.
With a full-time staff of six and a trusted supporting cast of freelance scriptwriters, developers and designers, Humdinger has built and scaled a business around memorable, well-produced promotional videos.
Thanks to a rapidly rising profile and impressive client retention rate, Humdinger is growing faster than at any point in its two-year history. At least two new hires, including for business development, are imminent.
“We’re taking the expertise we’ve developed over the years in the ad business and reinventing a business model that really hasn’t changed in 40 years,” says Nicolas Will, who co-founded the company along with fellow Minneapolis native Andrew Berg. “Our clients are immensely receptive — we haven’t lost a single one since we’ve been in business.”
Will and Berg tie Humdinger’s retention figures to the company’s unique niche and approach. Unlike traditional agencies, which typically compete for high-profile clients like Target and Wells Fargo, Humdinger seeks out ambitious but often cash-strapped startups — in MSP, coastal innovation centers and even international markets — that simultaneously need funding and exposure. In many cases, Humdinger clients can’t even afford an in-house marketing employee.
“For a lot of our clients, we’re basically operating as an external marketing department,” says Berg. “Once they see what we can do [after the first project], they totally trust us to handle their promotional needs.”
Humdinger’s startup culture appeals to entrepreneurs and innovators, too. Startup owners are used to devising and implementing solutions quickly, without filtering decisions through multiple layers of red tape or aligning directives with corporate protocols. For people used to results, says Will, working with a traditional agency can be a frustrating experience. With Humdinger, there are few if any barriers between agency and client.
And for Will, Berg and the rest of the Humdinger team, working with smaller firms ensures that creative work doesn’t get diluted or shelved by an in-house marketing department or hands-on C-suite employees, as sometimes happens with larger corporate clients.
There’s an additional benefit to Humdinger’s niche: a relative lack of competition. Will and Berg struggle to identify their closest competitors, largely because established agencies — even small ones — tend to pass on unproven startups that may still be scrounging for funding.
While Will estimates that 80 percent of Humdinger’s business is paid upfront, the company will often exchange its services for a percentage of a client’s Kickstarter funding, or even (though less frequently) for an equity stake. Some of Humdinger’s most promising clients” have accepted Humdinger’s services in exchange for equity or a “Kickstarter kickback.”
Accepting equity or a percentage of a crowdfunding round — which isn’t guaranteed to succeed — “is a bit of a risk,” says Berg. But for truly promising startups, it’s an acceptable risk.
Will and Berg weren’t always risk-takers. Both cut their chops at big coastal ad agencies with high-profile clients — Will was part of a team that designed LeBron James’ first website, after the NBA superstar signed a massive deal with Nike. But in the early 2010s, Will and Berg returned to their native MSP, ostensibly to settle down. The pair first crossed paths at Olson, where they worked for a few months on the company’s Tivo account.
Though Will and Berg enjoyed working at Olson, they soon grew frustrated by the sheer volume of inquiries they and their colleagues received from smaller companies and startups without the six- or seven-figure budgets necessary to support a full-scale campaign with a major agency — the types of companies that would later become Humdinger’s bread and butter. So Will and Berg conceived the “Humdinger model.”
Current Humdinger Job Listings in Minneapolis
  1. Business Development Manager
  2. PR Specialist
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