Chip Ransler, Executive Director of HackCville, Talks Entrepreneurship During College




"Meet Chip Ransler. Chip is currently the Executive Director of HackCville at the University of Virginia. He is also a seasoned entrepreneur who has helped build awesome companies! He is a co-founder of Husk Power Systems, a company which offers off-grid renewable power to communities in India and Africa, and a former CEO at Branch Basics, a company which sells non-toxic cleaning products."

Meet Chip Ransler
How did you get interested in entrepreneurship?

"Great question. I was always interested in creative pursuits (I was actually an Archeology major in school) but really got the chance to be creative on the business front in a UVA Systems Engineering class on ECommerce. We created a "book exchange" to dis-intermediate the bookstore (BOO university bookstores) and the rest is history. To this day the project we did was the most fun thing I've done."

Do you have any tips about starting your own company during college?

"First: Use what you have. You're a student. You have phenomenal resources everywhere around you. USE ALL OF THEM. Go talk to every professor you can, and, key, apply for every startup competition you can. Get free stuff while you're in school — it doesn't come nearly as easy after.

Second: Don't pressure yourself too much. Don't be an asshole entrepreneur and feel better than everyone else cause your starting your own thing. ALWAYS be open, interested in what everyone else is doing, and don't be secretive or unapproachable. Finding a co-founder or co-founders is critical for most people and you don't want to put out the wrong vibe. It's pretty hard starting something while in classes, etc. So, back to point 1, I'd use your project for as many classes as possible.

Third: Realize that you should probably stick with what you know. You know about school, eating, drinking, friends, etc. Use your skills (and the skills you learn through Radify!) to do things with and for people in your target audience (college students). When starting something big, you want to enter 'hives' of people that share and discuss things frequently — there isn't a much bigger one for you than your college classmates. It's a golden opportunity.

Fourth: Before you have to go get a big job for real money, try to do something for your community or the bigger world. It's the perfect time to try things that are really, really hard — they usually need people that are able to really spend the time, are passionate, and have an open mind about really helping people. Stick to that kind of stuff."

I was wondering how the transition from Branch Basics to HackCville went? (they seem like totally different types of companies)

"Great question re Branch Basics → HackCville. Part of the entrepreneurial journey is figuring out what you're good at. I'm pretty good at learning quickly, understanding a situation, and being able to figure out strategies that can work. That's a lot of the whole shebang. So, that's what you do. Note that before Branch Basics, I was co-founder of an Indian renewable energy company (check it out — it's still growing really awesomely). Talk about a transition — that was from MBA student → rural Indian village startup that was scaling in a huge way. It was insane.

All these have had major ups and downs — one of the things I do badly is deal with the stress of it. I work too much, take on too much, and work through stress, etc. That's not long term. They always say it's a marathon, not a sprint … it's more like a 5k or a half-marathon with the startup thing. But it always seems like you're supposed to sprint and forget everything else in your life. I've learned that's just a terrible way to go — why build something if you're miserable? If you're not careful, you become jaded and don't enjoy anything — so even if you make good money (or help a ton of people) you're leaving yourself the hollow shell of the person you started as. NO FUN."

What is the most common myth about running a non-profit? What do you wish more people knew/understood?

"Good question about non-profit/for-profit. The big difference is funding sources. I prefer for-profits, personally, as you have better access to capital and don't feel like you're begging people. Why do the non-profit, then? Well, for me, it's not that different if you're making a product or service that brings in large amounts of programmatic revenue (vs donations). That's what we're trying to do at HackCville. I think it's super fun to run the non-profit like a for profit but not have investors breathing down our necks all the time. But, you also give up a lot on the upside if your non-profit really goes bonkers. I feel like both paths are really important and that one should be thinking more about 'what structure lets me make the impact that I want to make?'"

I'm really interested in freelancing during college and I was wondering if you had any advice on that as well?

"Great question. I would absolutely freelance as much as you can. You will get much, much better at your skill if you're required to perform for pay. You'll get used to communicating on a business-level, and you'll get invaluable experience marketing yourself and your services. All those skills are exactly what employers (if you choose to go that route) are looking for.

Another big reason to do freelancing — you have to get used to advocating for yourself, asking for things, and getting iteratively better at whatever you're trying to do. Those are perfect life skills to pick up as early as you can."

Can you share some good resources for learning about Entrepreneurship?

"Definitely check out any of the writings of Paul Graham (founder of Y Combinator) and there are tons of resources on the US web. If you want a fun thing or two to read to see if you really want to pursue entrepreneurship, try The Monk and The Riddle by Randy Komisar and/or Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston. Both are awesome."

What is the best way to advertise for a nonprofit or get people interested in your company?

"No idea. But I'd say word of mouth is the best way to start. If people love what you do, they'll tell their friends.

Also, find the groups of people that are involved or tangentially involved in whatever you're looking to sell/market. The interwebs are incredible in terms of aggregating groups of people around topics (from beanie babies to Fortnite). Go seek out those hives of people and talk to them like they like being talked to. Use their language and try to understand what they need. Tell their stories back to them and see how they respond. Also, writing a lot about your journey works wonders. Think of yourself as an author of ideas for people that think the way you think."


What do you like most about your current job and what do you find most challenging?

"Getting to work with so many fun, passionate people that are trying to find meaningful work and change the world is awesome. I feel like the current college generation REALLY is THE lynchpin for the future of our planet, our economic lives, or morals, and our various ways of life. Helping those people find meaning, find work that's important, and starting ventures that can bring down shitty constraints to human flourishing is a great way to spend your day.

The most challenging part … trying not to do EVERYTHING. There are so many problems to solve (one of the questions you should ask yourself about entrepreneurship is "What sucks? And what am I gonna do about it?") and we feel like our little operation and people like Radify are trying to tackle some big issues. But I get caught up trying to do 8 different things semi-well instead of 2 or 3 phenomenally well. I'd love to have more focus and more time to really ponder what we're doing. But that's the entrepreneurial life for you."
OCTOBER, 23 / 2018