Hummingbirds, an Iowa-based marketing-tech startup, is expanding into the Indianapolis market, thanks in part to a $3.3 million investment led by Indianapolis-based Ground Game Ventures.
Hummingbirds, which formed in 2022 and launched its software-as-a-service platform in January, allows customers to build marketing campaigns with the help of local social media users, which the company calls hummingbirds.
In addition to Ground Game Ventures, other investors included Allos Ventures, which has offices in both Indianapolis and Cincinnati; New York City-based FJ Labs, M25, which is based in Chicago and has invested in numerous Indiana-based companies; Des Moines-based Next Level Ventures, InnoVenture Iowa and Mango Seed Investments; Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based ISA Ventures; and a handful of angel investors.
Ground Game Ventures, Allos Ventures and FJ Labs are new investors in Hummingbirds. The others are return investors, having participated in a $1 million-plus round of funding led by M25 in January.
Hummingbirds customers—which can range from small local businesses and community organizations to national brands and retail chains—pay for access to the Hummingbirds platform, through which they can create marketing campaigns. The customers can also use the platform to connect with the local “hummingbirds” who can help carry out that campaign. In return for their participation, the local individuals get paid in perks.
A local restaurant, for instance, might offer gift cards to 20 “hummingbirds” who visit the restaurant and try some new menu items, then post about their experience on social media. Or a theater company might offer free tickets to selected hummingbirds who attend a performance and then post an Instagram photo of themselves at the theater.
“We’re building a community-led growth platform where the community is truly leading the growth and awareness and sales for localized business,” said Des Moines-based Hummingbirds co-founder and CEO Emily Steele.
The concept of social media users being compensated for promoting things online isn’t new, but Steele said what sets Hummingbirds apart is its focus on local social media users in targeted cities, rather than social media influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. It’s those local users, Steele said, whose social media posts are more likely to have a local impact.
“From the very beginning, I’ve known that influencers don’t drive local behavior,” Steele said. “You can live in Indianapolis and have 100,000 followers and only talk about fitness. There’s no way those 100,000 followers are in Indianapolis. They’re all over, because they care about fitness. They don’t care about where you live.”
Hummingbirds launched first in Des Moines and is now operating in 14 cities in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin. Indianapolis is a new market for the company, and the only Indiana city in which Hummingbirds operates. Steele said the company had recruited 140 Indianapolis hummingbirds as of last week and is working to secure paying customers in this market.
A key to the model’s success, Steele said, is to operate in cities that are large enough to offer opportunities but small enough that residents might still run into people they know at the grocery store. “For us, it’s all about mid-sized cities.” More specifically, Steele said, Hummingbirds is targeting 45 cities around the U.S. that have an employable population of between 300,000 and 1 million.
Steele said the $3.3 million seed investment will help Hummingbirds invest in its technology platform and expand into additional cities.
Steele got the idea for the company when she was running her own small marketing firm, Love Local, and was looking for ways to help her clients grow their business through word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. That initial idea caught on big, she said, and in 2022 she wound down her marketing agency to launch Hummingbirds as its own business. Steele’s co-founder is Charise Flynn, a fellow Iowan whose background is in tech entrepreneurship.
Hummingbirds now has a total of 4,500 hummingbirds across its 14 markets, Steele said. The company has 17 employees and about 85 customers that range from local performing arts organizations and restaurants to national names like Hilton and Iowa-based grocery chain Hy-Vee.
Ground Game Ventures Founding Partner Aman Brar said his firm was attracted by the strength of the Hummingbirds founding team and the startup’s growth to date.
“We really loved this combination of incredible technology that they’re building in support of local authentic moments that could lead to a purchasing decision,” Brar said. “There’s so much power in these companies that can democratize opportunity.”
As part of Ground Game Ventures’ investment, Brar will join the Hummingbirds board of directors.
CORRECTION: This story has been changed to reflect the fact that Allos Ventures is among the new investors in Hummingbirds. Allos Ventures did not participate in a previous Hummingbirds funding round in January.