Todd Obernolte, a one-man band who owns and orchestrates a St. Paul digital-media production company, has proved a couple things in the last several years since he fled corporate life.
For one, you don’t have to be big and complicated to win several national awards for a compelling public-service video.
Obernolte’s Mr. People production shop in 2017 produced “New Again,” a Silver Telly winner that benefited Pain Free Patriots, a Twin Cities nonprofit that has helped several hundred veterans find alternative treatments, including supervised exercise, massage and meditation, oftentimes helping them to wean from addictive painkillers.
The video cost a few thousand bucks, according to Obernolte, thanks to his pro bono effort and the agreement of supportive technical and creative contributors who worked on the project for a fraction of their usual fees.
“Pain Free Patriots got a $50,000 production for about $5,000,” Obernolte said the other day, noting that he’s worked on commercials for window and HVAC companies that can cost up to $100,000.
“We work in an impactful industry,” Obernolte added. “We want to work on projects where we are paid plenty. We also want to do some good.”
Obernolte, 48, who launched Mr. People in 2015, also is the embodiment of how the so-called gig economy has disrupted an industry once the near exclusive province of advertising agencies and production houses.
Obernolte, assisted by part-time partner Pete McCauley, with whom he worked 20-plus years ago at a since-deceased production house, follows the internet-enabled, virtual agency model.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated last year that at least 10 percent of U.S. workers are self-employed contractors, and that seems disproportionately the case in the creative end of the economy.
Obernolte relies on an interchangeable team of freelance creative professionals who create audio and video productions for broadcast, social media, B2B marketing, as well as education, music events, documentaries and events.
These two guys aren’t rich yet.
In fact, Obernolte notes that he wouldn’t have been able to launch the business on a shoestring four years ago if he did not have the security of a wife with a job and good health insurance.
McCauley, 47, works days on video content for the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development and works alongside Obernolte when he can to support his one-income household.
Obernolte was making $68,000 running a commercial-production business inside KSTP-TV several years ago, when he considered going on his own.
“I was the senior commercial producer,” Obernolte recalled. “I had two guys under me. I was working hard. I did a considerable amount of freelance work. And I was so busy I had no life.”
He spun out and immediately picked up old and new clients, including a regular engagement with Thornton and Grooms, a Detroit-area HVAC repair outfit. Obernolte knew how to pull the pieces together. And there is plenty of creative-and-technical talent available in the Twin Cities. The advantage is that he can undercut some of the big agencies and production houses because he’s a low-overhead business.
Last year, Mr. People grossed something close to $500,000 in revenue.
Obernolte pays himself a base salary of $40,000. After paying contractors, renting equipment and other expenses the past couple years, there was enough left for him to gross more than he made at KSTP.
There’s also psychic income he gets from running his own business after 25 years of working for somebody else.
Being his own boss also gives Obernolte the opportunity to put together projects such as the public-service music video for Pain Free Patriots.
Obernolte met Doug Huseby, founder of Pain Free Patriots, producing commercials at KSTP years ago for Huseby’s Becker Furniture World.
Huseby, who has turned over partial ownership and operation of the furniture business to his children, is a grateful capitalist.
He didn’t serve in the military. His calling is helping those who did, and who need pain-related help.
Patriots, through several clinics and referrals, has helped hundreds of vets get alternative treatment they may not get through the V.A., and to reduce their dependence on addictive, potentially-fatal painkillers.
Huseby, who taps into a wellness club network he started for Becker employees, has donated a few million to Patriots over the years to buy mobile-treatment units and for grants to help fund vets’ health and wellness treatment.
Huseby said the “New Again” video was an unspecified financial boost for Patriots in 2018 through raising visibility as well as cash donations.
The organization raised about $475,000 in 2017.
“Todd is a good partner,” said Huseby, 76. “The video went viral. The song is unbelievable. People went to our website and saw the [veteran] testimonials. We have more people who know us and we’re helping more people get better. That’s good.”
The simple but elegant production can be seen by searching “Maiden Dixie” on YouTube.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.