Emily Steele describes the first iteration of Hummingbirds — a marketing technology startup leveraging people’s local influence on social media to elevate local businesses — as an “experiment” and a “hypothesis.” 


It was 2018, a time when companies were beginning to introduce influencers to their marketing strategy as a way to promote their business to larger followings on social media. Steele was curious how the trend would evolve.


Steele noticed how often she was turning to friends’ social media posts to get recommendations for new businesses to visit and events to attend. She wanted to see what it would look like to build out the “influencer” concept on a local level with a network of everyday individuals and content creators who lived in Des Moines and partnered with small businesses to generate authentic word-of-mouth marketing.


“I had this moment where I was like, ‘I don’t want to be an influencer, but I want to use the influence I have locally to help amplify small businesses,’” Steele said.


She combined her background in marketing and history as a serial entrepreneur to start growing a bouquet of “hummingbirds” — the people who share their experiences at businesses and local events on social media in exchange for perks, such as a gift card. Participating businesses also pay Hummingbirds a flat fee of $50 for each local influencer they hire for their marketing campaign. 


Numerous hiccups occurred in the first campaigns, Steele said. However, the constant in the experiment was feedback that the hummingbirds’ involvement helped businesses grow and sparked interest from younger demographics.


The business survived the absence of in-person gatherings in 2020 and jumped back into gear in 2021 as companies flocked toward digital marketing to reconnect with customers.


The activity made Steele realize the grassroots, community-based approach to influencers had potential beyond Des Moines.


When Hy-Vee, Kum & Go and other large companies approached Steele, she said she began to see that “this isn’t just benefiting local business; this is a really, really big opportunity.”


In the past year, Steele has shifted Hummingbirds into growth mode and transitioned her mindset to thinking about scaling the brand to communities nationwide while sustaining the core mission of supporting local communities. 


Joining the 2021 cohort of the Iowa Startup Accelerator was her first move to build on the company’s momentum. The accelerator’s adjacent venture capital firm, ISA Ventures, gave Steele $25,000 in exchange for equity in Hummingbirds. 


Steele invested the money into building technology. She worked with Erin Rollenhagen of Urbandale-based software company Entrepreneurial Technologies to replace Hummingbirds’ basic technology platform with one that is self-service. The platform is designed so businesses can create their own campaigns and so local influencers in any location can see the campaigns available in their community.


“Large franchise brands with hundreds of locations could tap the database for specific locations, or regional enterprise brands wanting to do multiple locations in the Midwest could target Des Moines, Kansas City and Minneapolis,” Steele said. 


The Hummingbirds model has expanded into Omaha and Milwaukee, and Steele hopes the technology and additional investment will take the brand national before the end of 2022. 


To scale to the size and influence of a marketing technology giant like Yelp or Groupon, Steele has consulted the playbooks of GrubHub, Instacart and Uber, companies that also expanded by specifically rolling out in new cities.


Steele also started raising her first round of venture capital funding in August. To date, about half of the $500,000 goal is raised in soft and hard commitments, she said. 


Steele initially set out to raise capital from Iowa-based venture capital firms and angel investors, including as many women as possible, but has faced challenges. Iowa is “very familiar with agtech and insurtech” and less with marketing tech, she said.


Influencer marketing companies and technologies have quickly multiplied and are set for growth. The U.S. influencer marketing market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 33.4% from 2022 to 2030, according to a Grand View Research report. The ubiquity has made educating investors about marketing tech and differentiating Hummingbirds a priority for Steele. 


Many of these companies could be working with numerous large brands and thousands of influencers. Steele has focused on building out a local brand, with which businesses and Hummingbirds’ influencers in each community can feel connected. 


“The community we’re building is about people with local social influence who want to make a difference in their local community,” she said.


It’s important that the individual influencers are allowed creativity with the content they share and that each offers their different perspectives, she said. Hummingbirds has had several years of tangible results, including growing to about 600 active influencers in Des Moines. That growth helps show investors the company’s potential, Steele said.


“There’s a lot to this story that isn’t just an idea. I’m not coming to you and saying, ‘I think this is the next thing.’ I’m saying, ‘This is the next thing, and here’s how I can start moving it,’” she said.


Even as Hummingbirds expands to new communities, Steele’s roots in Des Moines won’t diminish.


Her long-term goal is for the company to be acquired and then she will reinvest the capital in the community. Her ideas so far include starting a venture capital fund or firm working with underrepresented founders. 


The risks Steele took when starting Hummingbirds are paying off and she said she has felt “supported” in Des Moines’ startup community. But with fewer female founders to consult, she is passionate about creating opportunities for more women and underrepresented founders to take the same risk.


“I think for me, the legacy of the Hummingbirds … is the impact after an acquisition,” Steele said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about making this such a big thing for small businesses and small communities, but also for Des Moines [because] at the end of the day … I’ll circulate the wealth back into the community. 


“It’s my passion. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years.”

 


How Hummingbirds got its name

Emily Steele struggled to land on the right name for Hummingbirds when she was conceptualizing it in 2018. She was prepared to go with Central Iowa Influencers until one night when she was having dinner with family at Malo.

Her father-in-law was telling each family member which type of bird matched their personalities.

She said he deemed her a hummingbird because “I was always zipping around and doing things in and for the community.”

 

“I told a friend about this story on a walk and she stopped in her tracks and said, ‘That’s the name. That’s what the company name is: Hummingbirds,’ Steele said.

“The more I looked into it, the more compelled I was. Hummingbirds are pollinators, and that is exactly what our community does every time they create content.”