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A Nomad ad campaign. (Nomad Photo)

Walking on the campus at Washington State University, Jonah Friedl had an “aha” moment. He wasn’t just surrounded by fellow students, he was among an audience perfect for marketing.

“There were 1,000-plus millennials in the same place at the same time,” Friedl said.

That realization inspired the creation of Nomad, a Bellevue, Wash.-based marketing startup that launched last year.

Nomad hires people to wear tablets or smartphones that show ad campaigns, essentially turning them into digital billboards roaming city streets, sporting events and other popular locations. But the Nomad “billboards” go a step further by having the people it hires engage with potential customers. The interactions are tracked and analyzed to determine the effectiveness of the marketing and can be used to set the cost of a campaign.

Friedl started working on the idea as a college junior. The initial concept was limited to simply putting tablets displaying ads on students’ backpacks and having them walk through crowds.

“What we quickly learned is that the tablets are attached to a person, and they are marketers on demand,” he said.

So the business expanded to include conversations between marketers and potential customers. Nomad also added smart phones hanging on a neck lanyard to the mix. And the company began using the devices’ cameras to record the interactions, so that businesses running a campaign could learn whom the marketers were engaging with and how people were responding to their product or service.

“The privacy concern is valid,” Friedl agreed when asked about the use of cameras. The information is analyzed to estimate the age, gender and race of a person and how they responded — with smiles or frowns, for example — and then the images are erased.

“It’s not much different than information that is collected from a cookie when you browse a webpage,” he said.

Nomad team, from left to right, Derek Dawson, software development, Brett Boese, business development,COO David Greschler and CEO and founder Jonah Friedl. (Nomad Photo)

After some successful campaigns while still at WSU, Friedl partnered with David Greschler, a long-time neighbor who has sold companies to Microsoft and Dynamic Signal, to continue growing the company. Friedl, who is the CEO, and Greschler, COO, have been joined by Brett Boese, who works on business development and Derek Dawson, in software development.

Nomad has an interesting approach to recruiting. Prospective marketers signup on the website, including information about their interests and when and where they’re available to work. Nomad does some vetting to select suitable people. Then when a campaign starts, the site looks for marketers who would be a good fit to hit the streets.

They get a “Tinder-style alert that there has been a match,” Friedl said, and the person can respond as to whether they want to participate. So far, 3,500 people have signed up. Assignments pay $10 an hour or more.

“There are plenty of part-time jobs available, but nothing as flexible as driving for Uber,” Friedl said. “This is a way to earn some pretty good money, totally at their leisure.”

We caught up with Friedl for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Johah Friedl

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Nomad is a software platform that allows brands to market in the real world with the same ease, accountability and effectiveness as the digital world. Just like launching an ad on Facebook or Google, our customers select the right people to represent their brand and deploy them at the optimal time and place (inside cities, campuses, events, trade shows, etc.). We then use the sensors of everyday devices like phones and tablets to measure the performance and effectiveness of interactions to make customer conversations better and more effective over time. The result is an end-to-end platform where brands can deploy, measure and optimize their campaigns and leverage an ever-growing set of demographic data to better engage customers in the real world. Our customers include Zipcar, Soylent, YouTube and LimeBike.”

Inspiration hit us when: “I was working for a local business while attending WSU and I was given the job of getting more students through the door. I knew that connecting with students in-person could be effective, but it was labor intensive to manage and nearly impossible to track performance.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “It’s always been important that we test the market before we build product. We bootstrapped to build a minimum viable product and get early customers, raised angel money to figure out market fit, and we’re currently raising a VC round to grow our technology and scale operations.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “A willingness to take risks, experiment and learn. Pushing the edge of our capabilities forces us to continuously think about customer pain points and how we can help solve them with technology.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Keeping our product lean until we truly understood market fit.”

Nomad human billboard marketers can signup online.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Not listening to our customers sooner. We decided to open our ears a few months back and we quickly discovered that Nomad can help brands across multiple industries and sectors.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos! First he was thinking of the cloud years ahead of anyone else and now he’s trying to get people into space with Blue Origin. I want him in my corner for whatever comes next.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “We call it ‘Friday drink and think.’ We make craft cocktails in the office and discuss success and what we learned from the previous week. It’s a good way to transition to the weekend and it keeps the team thinking at a high level about our common goal and vision.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Someone who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Every hire has to experience being a Nomad for a few days. We believe in learning by doing.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Test the market. Nine out of 10 ideas can be tested without writing a single line of code. See if anyone will pay for your solution.”

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