Where students become ‘Prodigies’

Prodigy Marketing, a student-run company, starts to win clients around region

Alec Spillum (right) is a senior at UND and manager for Prodigy Marketing, a student-run company housed in the UND Center for Innovation. The company’s six members are all students at UND and responsible for running their for-profit firm. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

A new startup company in Grand Forks had the backing of big names earlier this year.

UND Aerospace Foundation, Microsoft and Xcel Energy, among other organizations, supported a new, home-grown effort to advance autonomous technology. The project’s management team started to coalesce.

But the new company didn’t have a name, or a logo, or a website to tell its story.

That’s when Prodigy Marketing, a student-run marketing company housed in UND’s Center for Innovation (CFI), started to turn heads.

“I was sitting in class, and our group was talking about coming up with a name,” said Alec Spillum, a UND senior pursuing an entrepreneurship degree and a Prodigy manager. “I thought, well, it has to do with flying and autonomy – so Airtonomy. It was literally the first thing that came to mind.”

The name stuck, and so did Prodigy Marketing’s persistence in building Airtonomy’s web presence, client communication and overall branding throughout the past year. As a result, more businesses around the area are soliciting the services of what has been called a “rare, unique group” – one that could be hard to find on many other college campuses.

UND’s top talent

“In this community, and through the CFI, there are so many small businesses and startups that don’t have marketing services,” said Abby Wilfert, a management major originally from Independence, Minn., who serves as the company’s finance director. “Many don’t have access to large marketing companies like they would in the Twin Cities. Also, those services are just so expensive that usually these smaller businesses have to do their own marketing, or it doesn’t happen at all.”

Abby Wilfert

That’s where Prodigy comes in. Prodigy Marketing is the brainchild of Tyler Sletten, an entrepreneurship coach at the CFI. But after handpicking the company’s first cohort of students, Sletten has taken more of a hands-off approach.

“The six students comprising Prodigy Marketing represent some of UND’s top talent,” said Sletten before launching into an assortment of adjectives such as ambitious, dedicated and creative, all used in praise of the six. “I find them to be truly inspirational, and, to be candid, I feel lucky just to be around them.”

In the words of Wilfert, working for Prodigy Marketing is more than just an internship – it’s actually a job. The company is a for-profit venture and wholly-owned subsidiary of the Center for Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit. Aside from a percentage of profits going to the CFI Foundation, the company’s revenue means the student workers can earn a paycheck.

Tyler Sletten

But, Sletten noted, “They’re clearly doing this for the experience and opportunity to run a business while in college.”

The company occupies an interesting niche at UND, a niche that connects students to real-world business and project management. Spillum said his Prodigy work complements the experiences he had with Dakota Venture Group, a student-run investment nonprofit. He’s gone from being someone who invests in startups to someone who uses that funding by working for those startups.

One-stop shop

Spillum broke down exactly what Prodigy can do for clients.

“We offer search engine optimization, web design, photography, videography, graphic design and market research,” among other services, he said, characterizing the company as a “one-stop shop” for marketing.

Also, the company’s operations exist outside of the span of semesters. After starting work for Airtonomy in early spring, Prodigy maintained its momentum through the summer. With some of the founding members reaching the end of their time as UND undergrads, they’re also now in a position to hire more ambitious, bright students.

“We’re in charge of everything, ourselves,” Spillum said. “We develop prices for our clients. Generally, they will give us a quote for their budget, and we will give them requirements of what we can accomplish within their budget and timeframe.”

Each student on the Prodigy team brings something unique to the company’s table. While they all contribute to a marketing mission, none of the students are marketing majors. Carter Razink (center) is a physics and math major. Kelly VanDrisse (left) is pursuing graphic design. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Combining skill sets and savvy

Prodigy Marketing’s employees come from an array of backgrounds, Sletten said, but they all share one thing in common.

“They’re all business owners, themselves,” he said.

Another aspect the students all share in common: none of them are marketing majors, despite running a marketing company.

Neither of these commonalities are required to join the Prodigy team, but they’re indicative of the quality of student Sletten had in mind as a recruiter.

Carter Razink, for instance, is majoring in physics and math. His name may be familiar to UND Today readers, as he’s been featured as one of the participants in the Main Street GF Challenge. At Prodigy, Razink’s computer skills come to the fore.

Caleb Wilkinson

“I’ve been really interested in business for most of my life,” said Razink, a sophomore. “I had my own search engine optimization (SEO) firm going before this, and working with Prodigy has helped me reach out to new clients and develop, practice my craft.”

Prodigy’s most recent hire, Caleb Wilkinson, worked to establish his own video production company for two years in Hawaii before coming to UND for a degree. He’s in his second year with electrical engineering.

Wilfert, by means of a Mueller internship, has turned her passion for oil painting into a luxury greeting card business – scanning her artwork onto cards and full-size prints. Spillum originally came to the CFI to meet with Sletten about starting a government contracting firm.

Haley Erickson

Prodigy’s social media guru, Haley Erickson — also majoring in management — has a background in influencer branding and management for a salon in Minneapolis, where she calls home.

Kelly VanDrisse, a senior graphic design major, has been a freelance photographer for four years and a graphic designer for two.

“As an art major, the last thing I knew off the top of my head were things about marketing, or businesses – any of that,” she said. “Just in the four months I’ve been [at Prodigy Marketing], I’ve learned so much more than I normally would have.

“This has aided my growth in education, and it’s nice to actually see what the marketing field is like for graphic design,” VanDrisse continued. “I’ve also learned so much from everyone in this group.”

Provost Tom DiLorenzo took immediate interest in the CFI’s student-run, for-profit enterprise as he works to develop high-impact practices across campus. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Recognizing high-impact potential

With a couple of clients under its belt, and a recent Grand Forks Herald story linking the company to a major downtown development, Prodigy Marketing now may find an opportunity closer to home.

This past week, Provost Tom DiLorenzo sat down with the group to expand on some comments he heard during a previous CFI board of directors meeting. When one of Prodigy’s members described how they wish they’d had more knowledge and skills before joining the company, DiLorenzo’s interest was piqued.

“It immediately led me to think, ‘What are those skills?’” recalled DiLorenzo of when he first heard from the group. “And, ‘Is there a way we could provide those types of skills to students before their placements or internships?’”

The provost prompted Prodigy to brainstorm what exactly it was they had to learn “on the job.” It led to an hour of back-and-forth discussion that left DiLorenzo impressed. As he works to establish more high-impact practices for students, he knew a group that is “nothing short of remarkable” would provide excellent feedback.

“It was a fabulous meeting,” commented DiLorenzo. He was fascinated by the group’s ability to quickly turn loose ideas into structured approaches, and he hopes to continue working with Prodigy as his ideas for new programming evolve.

“This all comes back to the value of liberal arts education,” DiLorenzo said. “At UND, we’re teaching people how to think. To see it in action here was very exciting.”

 

The Center for Innovation at UND is currently looking to expand its line of student-run enterprises; students interested should contact Tyler Sletten for more information.