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Nathan Nerland and Daniel Williams-Goldberg left a leading corporate coffee company to start, in NADA Advertising, the type of agency that a neighborhood coffee shop or other small businesses could afford.
Nerland spent four years at Caribou Coffee, in marketing and as a store manager. Williams-Goldberg was in Caribou operations for six years, overseeing 16 stores and hundreds of employees as a district manager.
"Daniel and I have endless ideas," Nerland said. "We take such ownership over everything we do that we thought we also might as well go out and use those ideas for our own good."
They founded NADA -- the name uses the first two letters of each of their first names -- in 2004. The full-service agency offers website, print and social media services, including branding, advertising and marketing, design and Web development.
NADA has three employees, with 10 independent contractors rounding out its services. Each founder serves as relationship manager for his own roster of clients. But they collaborate on high-level project decisions and strategy. Revenue reached $510,000 last year and could hit $600,000 this year.
NADA operates virtually, to run as an efficient, lean agency that's affordable to small-business owners like Nerland's mother, who has two coffee shops. Nerland works from his St. Paul home, Williams-Goldberg from his home in Laguna Beach, Calif., after moving there from the Twin Cities three years ago.
The agency started in a small office on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, then moved to downtown St. Paul. But they gave up the fancy, glass-walled digs to stay lean.
Although they've never met face-to-face with more than half their clients, they have all the work they can handle thanks to repeat business, referrals and their own marketing efforts. They communicate with clients throughout the country, from Chicago to New York and California using Skype and other online tools, including a proprietary Virtual Office site where they share work with clients.
The virtual move came just before the recession, as did a well-timed push to diversify NADA's client base. The agency, which had been heavy on clients in real estate and development, used online marketing and networking to develop new business in health care, restaurants, professional services and media.
Now, as the new year approaches, Williams-Goldberg and Nerland are preparing to expand. They're considering how to redefine the agency, their own roles and whether to continue operating virtually as they consider making a hire or two. One goal is to do more project-based rather than hourly work. They also would like to license their Virtual Office tool to other agencies and photographers as the first of what could become a number of NADA products.
"We've talked about not adding or not reducing but maybe focusing a little bit more on some services," Williams-Goldberg said. "We're so good at design, we're so good at website development and we're so good at print, maybe we'll focus on those three areas and just totally expand those but still be the full-service agency for the clients that want it."
John Travalent, marketing coordinator at Village Cooperative, said he has been pleased with the new sales portfolio, revamped website, direct mailings and newspaper ads Nerland has overseen over the past four-plus years for the Eagan-based company, which develops senior housing communities in the Midwest.
"We've had a very strong relationship both in communication and effectiveness," Travalent said. "He understands our projects, our target market and is everything we're looking for in our sales and marketing."
Rob Max, executive director of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund in Laguna Beach, said the website that Williams-Goldberg created has won praise from some of the top artists and management companies that support the nonprofit, which assists disabled musicians.
"It's as good as anything I've seen from the giant [advertising] houses in the country, and we've gotten acclaim from around the country," Max said. "They had to straddle the professional feel you want someone to feel when they go to a charity site but also the hipness you need when you're based in the entertainment world."
The expert says: Michael Porter, adjunct marketing instructor and director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said he respected NADA Advertising's choice to operate without an office. Porter started and ran a virtual agency earlier in his career for similar reasons.
"They're looking to add value to whoever they're working with and to limit overhead," Porter said. "They're making good marketing available to a wider range of organizations."
He said he would be interested to see if NADA ends up back in a brick-and-mortar location as the company evolves.
"If I were in their shoes, where there's this sort-of need to have walls, I might be looking for appropriate partners that might deliver complementary services," Porter said, offering the example of an architect and a surveyor partnering to share office space.