When Arthur Wu first sat down next to Kelsey Miller on the bus to prospective student day at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, he thought he was making a friend. He never would have guessed that seven years later, they would end up as business partners.
Now, with both going into their final undergraduate year at the University of Virginia, Miller, a commerce and studio art major, and Wu, a commerce and statistics major, have been working together for rADical Advertising and Promotions LLC, a design and strategy consultancy they founded immediately following their first year at UVA. rADical – based in HackCville, the student-run entrepreneurship clubhouse on Elliewood Avenue – works with companies to develop branding and marketing campaigns by designing websites, logos and advertisements, as well as handling social media, general marketing plans and other print and digital outputs.
“At our core, we are storytellers,” Wu said. “Every organization has a story it must advance, whether it be a message surrounding a new product, initiative or the organization at large. rADical works with startups, nonprofits and larger corporations to produce better storytelling, whether that be through print or digital means.”
Miller and Wu said their motivation for starting the company came from a desire to initiate something radically different from any student organization at UVA
“From the moment we stepped on Grounds, we felt a strong need to create something innovative and genuinely impactful,” Wu said. “Ultimately, I think we both embraced the culture of entrepreneurship in college. This is one of the only times where we can start and pursue ideas without the fear of failure.”
Throughout his first year, Wu, a graphic designer, found that while there was no dearth of demand for high-quality design for posters and flyers – mainly from student organizations on Grounds – there was little room for his own creative contributions.
“Many would ask me to design for a vision that they had already conceived, with little room for my own input or ideas, often for free,” he said.
Miller, herself a visual artist with some experience in marketing, saw this demand as both an opportunity to provide an unprecedented service to the University community and as a chance to build their credibility in the hope of working for larger companies outside of the University.
Having ruled out starting an official University-recognized student organization – a move that may have deterred external clients – Wu and Miller sat down toward the end of their first year to address the possibility of starting their own entrepreneurial venture.
“As a group of 18- and 19-year-olds, of course we were skeptical of our ability to create a successful business.” Miller said.
Miller and Wu sought guidance from relevant experts, first from McIntire School of Commerce entrepreneurship professors Brendan Richardson and Eric Martin, who helped with the process of incorporating rADical; then from Sherri Moore, professor of business law at the McIntire School of Commerce, who helped craft a partnership agreement to file with the bank and to create client contracts; and finally with HackCville founder Spencer Ingram, who provided a physical office space and advice on rADical’s mission and future plans.
After its launch in 2013, rADical began taking on clients – first student organizations looking to expand their reach on Grounds, and then larger and larger firms. In the fall of their second year, they signed a contract with Alternative Spring Break, a student-run service organization and their largest client at the time.
“They were finding that they were struggling in reaching out to males and first-year students,” Miller said. “rADical helped ASB receive double the applications in half the time from the previous year.”
rADical then went on to head a large campaign – consisting of dozens of flyer designs, guerrilla chalk murals and social media marketing – to advertise the rollout of a new website for The Course Forum, an online course review site specific to UVA. Wu says the key factor was a reinvention of The Course Forum’s key message.
“Traditionally, the Course Forum encouraged students to review courses in order to ‘give back to the University,’” Wu said. “We reframed the message to become ‘speak to the masses,’ as hundreds of University students may look at a course review in order to make a decision.”
As they accumulated wins with student organizations, they began to acquire contracts with larger companies, including Lewis & Clark Leadership, a Richmond non-profit that provides service-oriented trip planning to middle- and high-schoolers; Penny Plate, a national aluminum packaging company; and Absolute Plastics, a manufacturer of disposable containers.
More recently, they were approached by Jeff Tennery, founder of Moonlighting, a mobile payments startup, and an industry veteran from Verizon and Millennial Media.
“We were usually accustomed to working with less experienced entrepreneurs.” Wu said. “We felt out of our element, to say the least.”
Tennery, on the other hand, said rADical was instrumental in the visual component of the debut of Moonlighting, which included a video introduction and guerilla chalk advertising around Grounds, as well as other online and print advertising.
“They brought a maturity and experience that you wouldn’t think would come from someone that young,” said Tennery. “Kelsey and Arthur for sure have skills well beyond their years.”
rADical currently has a team of 19 students across years and majors handling strategy, design, digital, and production work for clients. Many recent clients have been other Charlottesville entrepreneurs and early stage ventures in the local area.
With their own graduation just a year around the corner, Wu and Miller plan to seek full-time jobs at other companies, meaning that younger members of the rADical team will need to step up to fill their shoes.
“Within the next year, our primary goal is to make rADical fully sustainable by training the next generation to become better project managers,” Wu said. “Training and mentorship are extremely underrated in many student-run organizations and fortunately, we’ve been focusing a lot more on that recently.”
This spring, rADical launched its “Space Camp,” a program aimed at recruiting talented students, training them in the essential skills of graphic design and marketing, and giving them hands-on experience working with one or two real clients. Miller said that effort, paired with the free seminars at HackCville, provides students with hands-on learning opportunities they can’t find elsewhere at the University.
“Within rADical and within the University community, Arthur and I hope to foster a student-to-student learning environment,” Miller said. “I believe rADical’s greatest function is its ability for students to gain hands-on marketing and graphic design experience.”