May 6, 2022

Episode #33: Ron Brumbarger – Apprentice University

Ron is a life-long Hoosier and a serial entrepreneur. He has started, ran, and sold nine businesses in his career and started or been part of the startup of eight educational endeavors ranging from homeschool tutelages, statewide virtual charter schools, and Apprentice University. Apprentice University was created nine years ago to help solve staffing shortages at the technology firm, Bitwise Solutions, he started in 1991. He sold Bitwise in 2018 to focus his efforts on mentoring and growing tomorrow’s talent at Apprentice University.

Today Ron, along with the amazing team at Apprentice University, focuses on instilling the mindsets of innovation, mentoring, entrepreneurship, and creative problem-solving in their students. Apprentice University prepares students for careers in digital storytelling, marketing, innovation, entrepreneurship, cybersecurity, IT administration, project management, and much more. Students, also known as apprentices, gain high-demand skills through on-the-job training in their apprenticeships with Apprentice University’s elite Corporate Partner network of companies – which they’re always seeking new members.


hello this is coach tim campsall and i’m your host for the self-made is a myth make a difference together show where we’re talking with successful business owners about the stories of their journey to building their business and because we know that achieving success in business is not something that we do on our own we are taking time to recognize the folks who have come alongside of us and helped us to excel i’m excited to have a fellow business owner from indiana with us today my guest has traveled to five continents in fact in april of 2021 he was on three continents in one day and we’re gonna ask him about that because that sounds pretty incredible in his downtime he enjoys writing traveling and mentoring young adults and he is most proud of his family and the accomplishments in his business it’s my pleasure to welcome ron to the show today hello ron good morning thank you so hey let’s start with having you um introduce yourself tell us a little bit of your personal story like where you were born where you live about your family and and some of your hobbies sure absolutely i’m a hoosier boy born in frankfort just up the road a notch and uh went to ball state and apple bounced a couple times didn’t go too far from the tree and then launched my career here in indianapolis in the late 80s i’m married to uh smartest woman in the world cindy 30 years this month and have two boys tanner who’s 26 and married to a lovely young lady hannah they’ve been married almost four years and hudson who’s 24 and engaged to another lovely young lady elaine and they’ll be in married in october so that’s a little bit about my personal background i live in westfield i’ve lived in indianapolis for a very long time and uh call this home wonderful so tell us about the three continents in one day sure so last year i had the really cool opportunity to teach innovation skills something i’m very passionate about and teach innovation skills to an organization called wycliffe ethiopia you might recognize the wycliffe name from the bible translation world and i’ve had a chance now in the last two two consecutive years to go to east africa kenya this spring in ethiopia last spring anyways ethiopia is obviously in the continent of africa and in one day we we left africa and flew to asia and then bounced over to europe and actually then back to asia for uh four days of a little r r post retreat so yeah it’s fun and it’s not actually that impressive once you do it because they’re all pretty close together over there but it sounds cool it sounds cool and it’s still kind of impressive so ron what’s a funny story that your family likes to tell about you that you’d be willing to share with us today all right no one believes me and i really care but my son tanner does we were there we saw it so we have a motor home and we’re camping on one of the little peninsulas mission point up in michigan and uh after dinner we’re taking the trash out to the dumpster and we couldn’t get a parking space we’re sitting in the parking lot uh just gonna hang out there for a little while and it’s dark and we take the trash out and near the dumpster we see these eyes and they’re about six and a half seven feet tall i’m not making this up there’s no tree around there there’s no tree nearby it wasn’t a deer it wasn’t a raccoon hanging from the air levitating it was bigfoot we’re certain we heard and saw bigfoot because then we heard these massive steps running up the hillside crunching trees and crunching limbs and sticks and stuff and when you uh it was bigfoot interesting so needless to say ran sprinted back to the rv i’m i’m driving while the slide outs are still coming in we’re out of here we’re leaving

so you asked my son we saw bigfoot now my family nobody believes me okay then it was a that it was a seven foot black bear standing on his hind legs in michigan there you go which is equally a good reason to pack up and get out of there that’s a big blackberry yeah absolutely absolutely so anyway yeah it’s a good joke but who knows what it was it was just kind of crazy wow so ron tell us how the business came about and at what point did you have the confidence that you could run your own business so i started a technology for bitwise solutions back in 1991 and then um for a couple years we’re building some pretty high-end engineering applications and then along came this thing called the world wide web remember we used to call it that yes and i was in san jose at a conference and i kept hearing about the world wide web world wide web but what in the world is all this so we got back and and uh did a little research and in january of 1994 we signed our first contract to build a website with a company out of a new england boston area and fast forward 27 years 25 years later i sold that company four years ago and had a very successful organization very successful teams we did about 3 200 engagements over those 25 years for about 1200 clients on five continents we didn’t do any work on the caps or australia anyway um our challenge was from the beginning of time it in that in the web development business our challenge was finding people we could not find talent and try as we might we would interview relatively new grads coming out of college and think this is the ring or this is the one and just to be disappointed and um no skills no capabilities no no soft skills let alone the hard skills of technology and so after a while we just decided we we’ve got to find another way and so it’s about 10 years ago i decided if we’re going to be successful in finding talent or growing talent we’ve got to build our own we’ve got to start our own university and um so i did we’re nine years old last week so we’re still celebrating our birthday for a while um and so i started a university a private university that’s based in mastery of skills and uh you know necessity be gas innovation and um here we are nine years later rocking and rolling and uh just have a new home for apprentice university just moved new campus and excited so that’s how that’s how i got to where i am today in a minute and a half yeah well ron tell us a little bit more about uh the university and um you know what do you guys do how do you you help folks and and how would folks learn more about it if it’s something that they’re interested in and absolutely absolutely well first let me say that this isn’t to disparage anybody who’s decided to send their uh their their young adult to what we call a legacy university um they are legacy models they’ve been around way long time uh and ripe for disruption and we’re working on that um but we believe we’re we’re adamant that in today’s world we’re dealing in a vuca situation if you’re familiar with the term vuca came out of the military a few years ago and it describes the scenario a situation and vuca stands for volatile uncertain complex and ambiguous that kind of sounds like the united states 2017 to today yeah right very just nothing is like it used to be right and so we believe that in order for a young adult to navigate a career and understand options and opportunities and so forth they have to be prepared to live in this vuca world that you can’t opt out of vuca it’s at it’s coming at you aka 10 inflation okay it is coming at you without your option to exit so we think that preparing young adults to think like a fighter pilot flying through the star wars candy and if you remember that at mach 2 with fully capable fully fully loaded with skills to navigate and and be successful exiting that canyon is what our job is notice i didn’t say we’ll give you a degree in marketing no one who hires anyone in marketing gives a flip about your degree in marketing nobody cares okay nobody hiring programmers cares about your programming degree it doesn’t matter yeah it does not matter so we’re preparing through good old-fashioned apprenticeships the way everybody used to learn until about 1950 we’re preparing young adults through an apprenticeship model meaning you study you work alongside a master of a particular topic you glean and gain the knowledge and skills they have they’re mentoring you they’re pouring into you and you’re getting those skills over time so ours is a three-year program the first year is really about gathering those necessary skills to be that fighter pilot in the vuca world it’s not about sitting in class getting tests and grades and lectures we don’t have tenured professors we believe that that ship sailed sunk and is rusting at the bottom of the ocean it just has in and so our students over the three year period they earn more than the cost of their tuition there’s no debt and we’re not we’re not to beholden to the federal government or any governments in our model we don’t ask for the student loan truck to back up money every month or so that’s not how we roll so very budget friendly yet all about skills so we’re preparing students for those types of careers like marketing like technology career cyber security project management professional sales and i.t administration all the roles that no one can fill these days there’s always openings you know when i speak in public i ask people raise your hand if you have enough people on your staff no one raises their hand and then i ask raise your hand if you have a strategy to solve that problem and no one raises their hand and so we think like starfish we can’t solve them all or save them all but we can save a few yeah and we can work with those students and those corporate partners as we call them to solve their staffing and needs and talent needs it gives students tangible marketable skills to launch into their careers that’s what we’re doing we do it from our campus on the west side we’re at the 71st and 465 area on the west side just inside the loop across from eagle creek we have a 9 500 square foot new to us campus it’s a building’s been around a little while but it’s new to us and it’s a beautiful place and it’s a vibrant bright uh environment to gain real practical skills as a young adult fantastic and you said earlier you you’re celebrating your nine year anniversary we are we’re nine years old now when we first started out we were like any startup you’re you’re the first iterations we teach design thinking and innovation by the way the first few iterations were really rough and ragged yeah we still made a difference in many young adults lives but not like today not that this is high octane this is jet fuel octane mindset um and so yeah we’re on the west side and i’ve been doing this now nine years we’ve actually managed and organized i think the counters up to about 210 or so apprenticeships now in nine years wow so that means that means young tim is going on his apprenticeship and that’s going to last about six months by the way we do a lot of podcasting related work at apprentice university that apprenticeship is going to last about six months at a time so we’ve done 210 of those or so over the last nine years wow that’s we know a thing or two about apprenticeship based learning yeah that’s fantastic you know in in our classes if i could just add this yeah please her classes are radically different than what you and i might remember from a typical college class as i mentioned one we don’t have tenured professors we haven’t we have facilitators practicing professionals who are teaching our class they’re coming in they get paid not time but it’s it’s you know it’s per class hour it’s competitive with other organizations so our professionals come in and they’re facilitating the conversation in those classes so a socratic model so you prep read answer questions read books watch videos whatever the case is before class and then when you come in the the instructor the facilitator is just there to ask those probing questions yeah to get you to engage there are no tests when was the last time you took a test tim besides coping right they don’t do it right they’re no test we don’t memorize things we have this thing called a smartphone that enables us to get to whatever answer we need pdq and we don’t do grades we don’t think grades are you know grades are a great academic exercise from a legacy long time ago that is no longer germane or relevant right

very cool yes so um you mentioned um design thinking and innovation earlier so i can definite i i’ve got background in that from from my marketing day so can definitely see how everything you just talked through and you you bit by bit you looked at how what’s a better and different and and you unique way to do this that makes the experience and the outcome significantly better than the old version yeah you know don’t don’t tell our students don’t share this but we fervently believe every student is an exercise in design thinking think about it a minute a student walks in and says i want to be a programmer or i want to be in marketing and we’ve had this happen i’ve been a really bright young lady number years ago i want to be in marketing came in had her first apprenticeship in marketing about 75 days into it said 45 days came to us and said i hate marketing this is horrible but you know that’s what all her peers were saying in marketing um so we believe that then her next iteration led her to project management roles and led her to engagements that were far beyond the capabilities of a typical 20 year old the typical our students are leading and running initiatives leading and running departments within organizations acting as the ceo of spin outs of some of our companies uh so these are these are very highly skilled students who’ve said yeah i could go sit in class and get grades and take tests and memorize stuff and you know remember we used to joke about yeah i took the test but that was an hour ago i don’t remember what it was right that’s not funny that’s not funny my alma mater my alma mater ball state charges for your freshman year 27 26 825 to go there and live on campus for a year and take classes 27 000 to memorize stuff yeah yeah when i was there we had to memorize the periodic chart and it was on the wall it was on the wall yeah so i had a physics class we had to memorize a periodic chart it was on the wall and the test was turn your desk around and recreate the periodic chart and it’s right there it’s right there i didn’t understand it when i was 20 and i sure don’t get it when i’m 57. i’ve often thought about writing to ball state saying i want my money back for that class yeah right there’s got to be a statute of limitations that doesn’t run out of warranties so ron share a story where someone pushed you or inspired you that you could do it when maybe you thought you couldn’t and what the impact that person had on you wow that is a great question uh well starting apprentice university was that and that’s who starts a university at 50 years old yeah it’s an audacious activity we’re not a coding academy we’re much broader than just a narrow focused set of skills um but nobody told me i couldn’t uh some folks at indiana university said i couldn’t but that’s another conversation for another day the inspiration really came from my family my wife cindy uh we’ve both tag-teamed several different educational endeavors over the years but i had some you know i had some practice maybe this is a different lens on that question

way back when mitch daniels in his first term took office i got a call from one of his lieutenants a couple months into his his uh tournament in they said hey ron we want to start indiana’s first statewide virtual charter school and we want you to do this like first okay that’s not going to be easy statewide that’s big virtual okay i get technology i own a technology company in charter school what in the world does all that mean so i literally had to go to school to get it to understand all the moving parts uh three years later we launched what was then what then became hoosier academies and we were serving i think at the peak just under 4 000 students uh so the encouragement came from our former governor when he called me to ask so are you in

what knuckleheads gonna tell mitch daniels no all right got it but boy did i learn a lot i learned so much and i learned that i think most critically for that particular endeavor and i’m still running bitwise it’s time by the way this was just a this is a side thing that i take that i took on this is before apprentice university but i learned tim that that education was was so messed up this is 15 years ago 14 years ago so messed up then in in in not repairable irreparable state not even a fixer-upper it’s a burner downer it’s not even a fixer-upper and look forward to today the chaos that we have going on in our schools from little kids to talk about florida right from little bitty kids all the way up through college these days it’s really messed up and don’t forget to learn don’t forget to learn or memorize so that that virtual charter experience caused me to be a hyper absorptive sponge about education and i took in knowledge i had the opportunity to travel around the state meet some really cool folks around indiana had a really good time doing it learned a lot got into a really intriguing conversation with one parent because virtual charter school students learn from wherever they wanted to be learning sure you could be in your motor home in grand canyon you could be sitting at home at your living room you could be wherever you wanted to be and i came across the family that a mom is enraged she’s angry as can be and i said this is after my talk why are you i said why are you so upset with me she said well it’s the government’s job to take care of my kid between eight and four and you’re telling me to be in your school i have to be part of that and they’re with me from eight to four

and i just looked at her thinking surely she’s kidding you know clearly she’s kidding and i said well uh no parent should relegate responsibility for their kid to any government for any reason whatsoever period yeah case closed door welded shut ever ever ever they’re your kid yeah it’s second of all yeah that’s our model and if it’s not for you then okay good luck but that’s not how we work yeah hey ron what’s your biggest learning as a business owner biggest learning

uh well my daily prayer as a business owner is god give me patience right now and i think that’s the biggest key is is patience things always take longer than you think yeah hitting those goals always take longer than you think yeah getting your stride getting momentum always takes longer than you think that’s a big deal and i think maybe more important than that but certainly right on par is hire people who are a whole lot smarter than you yeah a whole lot smarter not not just a little uh you should know as a business owner when you walk into a meeting with your staff you are the caboose when it comes to smarts you should know straight up i got a little room of really smart people and my job is to make sure that they’re happy doing what they’re doing yeah i love it i think that’s a big key is you hire some super smart people yes i’ve been really blessed really blessed an apprentice to have an amazing team angie and colleen and anna and maggie just a phenomenal staff that they get it they get innovation we use design thinking in all of our meetings uh we practice what we preach so you just gotta have smart people yeah i love that um so some people can be intimidated by hiring people smarter than them and and then they just hold themselves back right i love that perspective of you know let let people let people do what they’re educated to do or experience to do and don’t you know get out of their way and let them perform absolutely absolutely so ron we know as bit that business success doesn’t happen in isolation so what’s a challenge that you had over the years and who who’s a maybe a fellow business owner that came alongside you and helped you get through that um challenges now there’s always uh not not as much as it used to be perhaps but there’s always the challenge of of drama in a business right and i like to say that the drama club for apprentice university meets in fargo north dakota on the fifth tuesday of every january so go have a good time uh knock yourself out and when you’re done with your drama club meeting come on back because we’re not having it you know i guess i guess just helping having having professionals around my dear friend robert scott is an attorney here in town and i’ve confided in robert from everything a to z and he’s been with me we’ve worked together now for 30 some years uh one of my best friends my friend scott whitlock at flexware innovation is another great sounding board in the middle of the night you get a phone call from scott hey man i need to talk okay great let me grab some coffee and let’s chat and vice versa guys that you can call another friend nearby here bruce osborne guys you can call it doesn’t matter what time of day it is and they’re going to stop whatever they’re doing and say yeah give me give me five minutes i’ll call you right back and they’re and they’re in the room so i don’t know if i have one specific person my business partner at bitwise way back scott workman and i were you know super confident together just people that you can trust i hear a lot um from folks that it can be lonely at the top and and you know it’s people don’t want to take that that stress and burden home with them and so they just deal with it on their own so i love your message that you’ve got a network of people that you can reach out to and and confide in and be able to talk through stuff because the running a business is hard and right there’s a lot of things that we we shouldn’t be trying to figure out on our own and and need to have that outlet of of folks to talk to yeah you know i’m i’m very fortunate infinitely fortunate um so my my top lieutenant at apprentice university her name is angie merle and uh my wife cindy and angie and gary her husband we’re super close friends i mean vacation together hanging out together kind of thing so i’m i’m beyond blessed i get to work with my best friend it’s really cool and all the guys out there that are going you’re a guy and you have a woman who’s your best friend yeah get over it get over it right man up okay deal with it um but anyway i i i am blessed i get to angie’s a phenomenal sounding board you know like to the whole point of this in this interview right you can’t do it alone she’s a phenomenal sounding board we don’t always see eye to eye now she quickly realized i’m usually right and then things are better sometimes it takes her longer than normal to get there but you know that’s okay she’ll figure that out someday she’ll just shortcut yeah ron’s right i should remember that but in all seriousness uh i’m really fortunate that i get to work with somebody that smart that that quick that understanding and i think more i think equally important um that resilient in our relationship that we cannot see eye to eye we can we can go at it and we do we have but our mutual our mutual respect and admiration for one another in our chief goal of what we’re trying to accomplish trumps all that yeah that’s awesome so ron as you think about the next three to five years what are the biggest challenges that you see that you’ll face in reaching your goals and who are the types of people that you’ll need to resolve those that’s a phenomenal question thank you angie went on a podcast last month the national syndicated podcast and leaked the story of apprentice university leaked the secret of what we’ve been doing here for the last several years and all of a sudden literally in the last 30 days we’ve been fielding dozens and dozens and dozens of inquiries of students from around the country so our single largest situation right now is housing for students we don’t have dorms i frankly don’t want dorms that just spells trouble backwards and forwards so right now it’s housing for students what are we going to do with all these students that are inquiring and wanting to stay here and then second second our challenge is how do we stay ahead of the demand and how how might we find the right companies that understand our ecosystem and want to bolt onto that and we’re working really hard we if you heard our pitch about being a corporate partner i’ll give you the really quick skinny of that we’re working really hard to blur the lines between what your business does and what we do at apprentice university we want it to be completely and entirely integrated into a shared ecosystem and we’re getting there we’re actually making some really cool progress got a ways to go but we’re making some really cool progress so what are we going to need to get there why need trustworthy families who might have that spare bedroom a kid moved out or a house bigger than they need or whatever the case may be i need families willing to say hey you know what i’ll put my hat in the ring we want to do a background check of course

make sure there’s nothing weird there so we need families willing to say hey you know i’m open to bringing a student or two in and giving them a safe place to live and helping them get started our society needs that we don’t have a model for an 18 year old to be financially self-sustaining and living on their own uh before they get the skills to be that vuca buca ready fighter pilot coming at us so we need those families that are really willing to step in and help us with housing with students and then the second one is the corporate partners that that get what we’re doing and embrace what we’re doing many of our corporate partners have completely sunset their internship programs it said we’re not it’s a waste of our time we spend so much time finding interns and they come in here and the work isn’t meaningful for anybody right and then they leave and we don’t hear from them again and we spend all that energy for nothing and so our many of our corporate partners have said we’re exclusively focused on engagement with apprentice apprentice university and their apprentices that’s awesome uh jim rohn one of my favorite authors his quote we become the average of the five people we spend the most time with is uh something that i find inspiring as you think about that ron is that exciting is it nervous make you nervous what’s your thoughts from a business standpoint i could not agree more i i wholeheartedly believe that quote i’ve thought about that often i i echo back to angie and my wife cindy who’s the smartest woman she married me so she’s got to be smart

um and and i have two boys that are super bright as well so yeah the the idea i get that math i get the five smartest the people that you’re with the most time that you’re the average of that group again i think i i pull down the average so i’m hopeful they all feel the same way but truly truly that is the case and i’m just blessed and fortunate to have smart people around me well and it sounds like if i can stretch a little bit that your your university model is kind of based on that as well in terms of you know it’s not just the professor teaching but it’s everybody learning from one another and and doing their own research and making sure that we’re raising the the bar for everyone absolutely you know we we practice and fervently believe in cohort based learning so cohort of a dozen students or so are given an assignment this is the assignment it’s not a group project but that that’s that’s a bunch of baloney most of the time but you’re given an assignment to accomplish something and you have to produce a work product in our world you have to demonstrate mastery of a skill in order to advance it’s not take a test and go yeah i did this you got to show you it’s like missouri show me show me your work so that cohort then becomes very very interdependent and they’re influenced by our staff by our instructors by our mentors and corporate partners and so on uh and then they’re learning but i would tell you if you came to apprentice university and ask any one of our students that have been there for a little while what’s the number one phrase you hear at apprentice university it’s figure it out love it that’s real world yeah tim where did you go to college to get your degree in creating podcasts and video casts where did you learn that i did it i figured it out you figured it out right that’s everybody that gets that understands and business owners have to understand that yeah but in the vuca world in the mach 2 vuca world figuring it out is a it’s a it’s a required dna character trait you got to have that yeah it’s funny that you say that because i i coach my clients on when an employee comes with a question don’t give them the answer ask them to come back with a solution right or a couple solutions and then if they’ve done their homework right and giving it some thought then you can engage with it but don’t don’t let them cheat right and come for the answer absolutely absolutely i wholeheartedly agree so um last question here ron if there was something catastrophic that happened in the business who’s the first person you’d call and what would that conversation be um

i think um i’d probably call my mom my mom is one of the most uh and my dad but my mom is is one of the most uh i don’t like the term spiritually deep that sounds so cheesy but legitimately authentically spiritually deep women ever ever i mean she would be a rock star bible times kind of woman yeah um i would call her and say i don’t know what to do um not building had a fire or something like that i’d figure all that out but i’m talking about something but i would certainly seek my mom and my dad’s counsel and then i would go to my go to my key friends some of which i’ve mentioned uh for sure angie for sure my wife cindy we would definitely be talking about things like that and i might even go outside of that group because we fervently believe that when you change how you see a problem you change the problem you see yes and if i’m in an echo chamber with 10 people that see me every day chances are they see the problem the same way i do we’re pretty close yeah so i might break out of that and go to somebody that knows me tangentially or whatever and say what would you do give me some thoughts awesome so you mentioned this already but it sounds like you’ve been blessed with some incredible people in your life who have helped you on your your business journey so if they were all here on the show today what would you want to say to them ah thank you uh and thank you for your patience uh when when the going was tough not gets tough was tough you were there and when the going gets tough in the future i’m sure they’ll still be there so thank you for the past and thank you in advance for the future when things aren’t going as we imagined yeah i think that’s the biggest key and i i think also just the the um trust you know we talk about design thinking and this is a quick side note we talked about design taking and anybody that’s looked at the you know the five circles and the design thinking cycle blah blah blah blah it always starts with empathy at the top i think that’s wrong i think that’s wrong because you aren’t going to let me into your world to gain empathy about whatever circumstances or challenges you’re facing without trust trust me get sympathy you’re not going to come into my world and ask probing questions i might give you the superficial answer right you’re not going to ask those meaningful fruitful questions without trust so to those people i would say thank you for trusting me in the past thank you for trusting me into the future awesome well ron it has been a pleasure speaking with you today thank you so much for being on the show my pleasure thank you for having me and for those who tuned in thanks for listening to the self-made is a myth show with your host coach tim camsell be sure to help spread this movement by liking the show and posting it on your social media to join our movement go to be mad together dot com okay folks that’s a wrap make sure to pay it forward and i’ll see you all next time take care thanks tip