You can usually find Ryan DeRose, founder of the digital creative agency Vibethink, standing in front of one of the giant white boards in the company’s Downtown Mall office space, mapping ideas with a dry erase marker. The 27-year-old Western Albemarle High School graduate normally works 80-plus hours a week, all seven days. To say his work is his passion is getting it backwards. His passion is his work and his goals are so big they sound naive.
“What I’m passionate about is creating impactful ideas that move us as a human race forward, from an evolutionary perspective and also just from the innovation standpoint of making life better,” DeRose said. “Whether that’s helping other people realize their dreams or giving people a work environment that doesn’t kill their passion but gives them the stability that most people need to thrive.”
Less than a year ago, he started his company without a space, a single paid employee, or a major client. Today, he has eight employees and he’s built websites for two weekly newspapers (including ours), the International Bluegrass Music Association, and high-profile local businesses like Mudhouse.
How does a self-taught programmer with a background in outdoor education build a company in a year? That’s complicated. Rather, complex, a word DeRose prefers to describe the particularly ecological space his firm occupies in the business world. His answer is basically that he has spent his life to this point formulating and solving problems in a range of environments and then one day he realized he had a grasp on the complexity of the new nexus between web design, marketing, and social media.
DeRose grew in Free Union on 25-acres on the side of Fox Mountain in Peavine Hollow. “As a kid, you weren’t going to get out of those woods. You could walk all day,” he said. His grandmother, mother, and sister are all UVA engineers. His grandfather was an art director at a Madison Avenue ad agency, his father a master stonemason, and his brother a ceramics artist. The principles of ecology, design, and engineering are in his DNA.
But DeRose traces the beginning of his entrepreneurial success story to his decision to transfer to the University of Hawaii at Hilo during his sophomore year in college. He studied marine science and biology, worked at the W.M. Keck Observatory at the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano, surfed every morning, rode his skateboard around town, and generally learned how not to be a haole.
After a stint gathering teaching credentials and running an experimental outdoor education program for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California near Lake Tahoe, DeRose came home to start a similar program for the Triple C camp. He’d already begun tinkering with business ideas and web design. He formed a baby food company called Keiki Food, which was a marketing and technology innovation to flash pasteurize and vacuum seal whole fruits and vegetables so parents could make their own in bulk without the risk of salmonella and e. coli. It never went anywhere, but it was a sign of things to come.
He also created his first website, teaching himself enough flash to promote the educational idea of spontaneous evolution at Spontevo.com.
“The website was the way I could add credibility to a company as a sales tool on a low budget. I didn’t have money but I was young and I had time to build these things,” he said.
DeRose began tinkering with WordPress platforms in 2008, and, along the way, people started asking him to build websites. Lawyers, real estate agents, bands, friends. You know how it goes.
“People were just finding me through the grapevine and I was building my chops,” DeRose said. “But the whole time, the way I was able to do it was to talk to them about what was going to drive their business forward in the design process. And then I’d go home and try to figure out how to do it.”
Bluegrassnation.com and c-ville.com were his first big projects, but more have followed and now he has a whole team of marketers, designers, and developers who participate in his design-based processes. Which brings us back to the whiteboard, his palette. For DeRose, web design and digital marketing aren’t that different from his grandfather’s job on Madison Avenue, just more complex.
“The tech is just the tool. It’s the paintbrush and there are lots of canvases we can go paint. But when it gets right down to it, it’s two main things,” he said. “It’s the ability to solve complex problems through design-based thinking, and the ability to empathize, to understand what makes people do the things they do. From there everything else is just technical skill bases you’re using to affect change.”
Lucky for us, DeRose is also passionate about the place he chose to build his dream and about the type of people he wants on his team.
“Why not go to Silicon Valley? Or Seattle or Austin or New York?” he mused. “Charlottesville’s still under the radar. It’s still way cheaper to live here. I’m confident that if I needed to get a meeting with the mayor I could get it. That investor that’s untouchable in Silicon Valley because hundreds of people are trying to get to them is a phone call away. For whatever it doesn’t offer, it has all the opportunities you need.”