An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Chris Chuang, the co-founder and CEO of Republic Wireless, which was honored in our:
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Raleigh
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Raleigh
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Raleigh
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in North Carolina
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in Raleigh
Tell us the origin story of Republic Wireless – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
Republic Wireless began with the bold thesis that we could use WiFi to save consumers money on their cell phone bills. We wondered why people (including our own families) should be paying over $100/ month for access to the big cell phone towers outside when their calls, texts, and megabytes could flow over the “mini tower” they (or their office, coffee shop, etc.) were already paying for and could use for no additional cost (aka, WiFi).
Most industry experts told us we were crazy and could never make this work (as larger companies had tried and failed to deliver a high quality experience over WiFi). With our small but talented team of mostly folks from outside of wireless, we were just naive and crazy enough to believe we could solve this “impossible” technical challenge and disrupt the US wireless markets with this innovation. That belief led us to launch what we thought would be just a couple of hundred user beta trial in late 2011 to test our thesis with a then unheard of $19 unlimited plan. Instead, news of our stealthy efforts went viral, and we ended up with over 100,000 interested consumers overwhelming our website, leading to us selling out of our “year’s worth” of inventory in about 3 hours (starting at midnight when we opened our ecomm store). Based on the market’s response that night, we had resounding validation we were working on the right problem, and that has continued to prove out as we’ve since then scaled Republic to serve hundreds of thousands of consumers all across the country, saving them over $500M off their wireless bills cumulatively over the years.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
We’ve faced so many hurdles, it’s hard to recount them, with all of them serving as important learnings on this journey. I’d say the biggest among the many hurdles we’ve encountered were:
The technical hurdle of becoming the first company in the US to solve the difficult technology challenge of seamlessly blending the best of cell and WiFi networks for the benefit of consumers. With Republic’s service, not only were prices lower, but calls no longer had to be dropped when you stepped into a part of your home or office with WiFi but bad cell coverage.
The marketing hurdle of finding a way to convince consumers to trust a startup brand (vs decades-old giant incumbent companies like Verizon) with arguably the most important electronic device in their lives. We found that the best (and perhaps only) way to overcome this trust hurdle was to lean directly on our growing base of passionate and happy customers, and make them the center of our brand, with their referrals and testimonials being our primary & best “ads”.
What does the future hold for Republic Wireless?
The future of Republic Wireless is driven by the same mission that has always been our focus: deliver remarkably simple and affordable ways for people to stay in touch.
The strategy and activities by which we pursue this mission has expanded over time, from our roots in saving consumers money off their cell phone bills using WiFi, to now including other innovations like Relay (www.relaygo.com), a screen-free device we’ve created which provides a smarter, safer, and more affordable way for kids, seniors, and active essential workers to connect. We’ve discovered in our journey as a smartphone service provider that the smartphone device itself is not always the right solution for every need (i.e. smartphones have safety issues for younger kids, simplicity/usability issues for some seniors, and is a costly distraction for workers who need their eyes and hands focused on their work and customers). Thus, we launched Relay and embarked on a new chapter of our journey to solve these unmet needs. Going forward, we’re excited to continue scaling Relay and the rest of our services and one day serve millions of customers all across the globe.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Raleigh?
My professional career began in Silicon Valley as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company and then as a venture capitalist at Technology Crossover Ventures, so, I’ve lived in the heart of arguably the “hottest” startup scene in the world. Raleigh’s startup scene has not yet reached that level in terms of the abundance of funding sources, M&A buyers, and volume of entrepreneurs. With that said, the gap is steadily closing on those metrics, and I would argue the Raleigh startup scene already has some foundational advantages vs. the Silicon Valley including: lower cost of living (which enables attracting and retaining talent from all across the country), a strong density of top universities to partner with (good for recruiting and R&D), and I would argue a healthier culture in general (i.e. a more collaborative environment between companies and greater focus on sustainable work-life balance)
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Find a co-founder/business partner you trust. The entrepreneur’s journey is a lonely one, full of tribulations and victories. It is invaluable to have a partner you can transparently share both kinds of tears with (agony and joy), and who will hold you accountable to the culture and values you aspire to and must set a good example of as a company leader. I’ve been blessed with multiple such partners in my journey with Republic Wireless, including David Morken and John Murdock (my former colleagues at Bandwidth, the company we spun out of) and Jim Mulcahy (President of Republic Wireless).