Episode 9: Entrepreneur Seth Derner intersects learning, purpose, next gen economy




Growing up on a ranch in Nebraska, Seth Derner has a deep passion and appreciation for nature, wildlife, agriculture and rural communities. He is also the co-founder and co-CEO of Vivayic, a learning solutions design company that works around the country to help organizations reach their human potential. With a clear sense of purpose for himself, his family and his company, and an explicit admiration for the human brain and the role of technology to unleash it, Seth encapsulates the attributes of the “rural mavericks” Dr. Connie seeks to highlight and learn from on this podcast. He shares actionable insights, advice and lessons learned that entrepreneurs, community leaders and students will certainly appreciate.

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“Communities and organizations should challenge themselves to ask, ‘Who is it that we are called to be?’“
Seth Derner
Co-Founder & Co-CEO, Vivayic

About Seth


Seth has spent his career focusing on important outcomes that lead to measurable success. As a teacher, he more than tripled enrollment in his program within three years. As an education specialist for the National FFA Organization, Seth completed the revision of nine national student programs in two years, and led the design and production of a comprehensive leadership skill curriculum adopted by over 2,000 career and technical teachers.Seth co–authored the book, “Strategies for Great Teaching” with Mark Reardon. The book, like Seth’s approach, is filled with practical strategies for getting better results.

The passion for results, learning and new ideas led Seth to help create Vivayic. Seth believes in leading by example. You’re just as likely to find him designing an elearning course as meeting with a prospective client. He believes deeply that Vivayic is only beginning to realize its potential and that there is a lifetime of great ideas and satisifying successes to pursue.


Show Notes

Hello and welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining me today is Seth Derner. Seth is the co-founder and co-CEO of Vivayic, an amazing company based here in Nebraska, but with presence all over the world. Seth, that’s just a little bio about you, tell us a little bit more about yourself and your company.

Thanks Dr. Connie, I appreciate being a part of the podcast, a big fan. So a little bit about myself, I grew up a ranch in Wheeler County. My parents are still up there. I came down to the University of Nebraska and went back to up to Antelope County, where I was an ag teacher. I have since worked for non-profits, state government, 13 years ago started the company, my wife and I moved back to Lincoln when we started the company, and it’s just been an adventure ever since. So, my wife, and two sons, and I live here in Lincoln, but like you said, we’ve got 20 plus full-time employees, all the way from California to Florida. And, you know, we have a great time doing the work that we do helping other organizations be successful.

Well, dive into that a little bit more. I know you’re a leader of purpose and presence, and do things in very meaningful ways. Tell us a little bit more about Vivayic.

So I always tell people, we’re in the training and development business and immediately people think, oh you do a lot of stand and deliver, like sales trainings, and actually we don’t. (laughs) As much as I used to love being in the front of the classroom, we are the people behind great training and development at other organizations, or great curriculum developed by other organizations. So most of our work is helping with the strategy, the design, and the planning of new training programs for employees, onboarding programs, knowledge dissemination, or curriculum for non-profits, or for we do some work with state governments. So yeah, our folks, we come alongside other companies who have a big idea, or a big need, but they need capacity, they need people who have outside perspective, and who have design skills to make those things happen. And that’s what we help them do is map out the best way forward so that people can really be impacted. We exist to help build the capacity of those organizations that are doing good in the world, and we define that in four areas, organizations that are helping feed sustainably the planet, those who are committed to making education more relevant for young people, organizations that are working in international space to help small, older farmers be more successful, and then the fourth is any organization that is deeply committed to making sure that their employees have opportunities for growth and development. So that purpose helps us get real clear about the work, the kind of clients that we work with, the kind of work that we want to do, it’s been awesome. We recently just updated our vision, and our vision is mostly about the impact that we wanna have. It’s not about how big we wanna be. Like, we don’t really care if we end up being a 200 person company, or if we stay a 25 person company. Like, that isn’t what drives us. What drives us is saying, are we doing the kind of work that we love to do, are we making money doing it, and are we doing it with the kind of people we want to do it with? That’s kind of our guiding principles as we move forward in this adventure that we’re on with Vivayic.

Well, and I really appreciate that about you. I mean you’ve had such an instrumental impact on so many things here in Nebraska, not just your company, but the leadership you bring to the table, but also around the nation, around the world, with that extended outreach you have through technology. I love that history of being a ranch kid that now works in the tech space, right? And you were a teacher, so I mean that’s just all this wonderful sort of history and adventure all in one. But what about that name Vivayic?

When we were thinking about starting the company, my partner Doug and I, we’re meeting with some folks who were kind of mentoring us, people who had started their own companies, and we were at dinner one time in Minneapolis meeting with a gentleman who was giving us some advice and his wife happened to be with them. And they were both originally from India. And she was a linguist, both her and her mom were trained linguists in India, and she was listening to the conversation and then she just pipes up all of the sudden and says, “You know what you’re talking about is this thing from an ancient Sanskrit word which loosely sounds like vivayic.” We had no idea what to call the company and we’re like, well that sounds interesting, and the website was available, and that was really all the thought we put into it. (laughs) But the way she described the word was it’s the ability to impart wisdom not through books but through experience. And I think that’s what drives us is this idea about how you help organizations give people meaningful experience so that they can learn and use that learning to apply to be better employees, or better customers, better shareholders, whatever it is that they’re trying to improve upon, how do you give them meaningful experience? You talked about technology, I think that’s the thing like we work with a lot of technology but I have no more idea about coding, and networking, than my dad who’s still on the ranch. But what I learned early in teaching is I was one of the first teachers in the state who taught using the distance classrooms. So this was old school, these were hard wires, 17 classrooms, and I taught in a classroom where I’d see three televisions, and I could see kids in these communities, and they could see my students, and me, and what was eye-opening and awesome to me was the fact that here were students who prior to this technology didn’t have a way to access learning about agriculture. And they lived in communities where agriculture was the life blood of their community but for whatever reason they didn’t have an ag teacher, or an FFA chapter in their community, and all of the sudden technology made that possible. What I learned quickly was just because technology makes something possible, doesn’t make it effective because standing in front of a television teaching it’s just different. You have to think differently to make that a successful experience. And so, that’s kind of been our mantra throughout is technology allows a lot of great things to happen. People have access to information like they’ve never had access before, but learning is more than just being able to access information. It’s giving people an experience, it’s putting them in situations, it’s challenging them to think differently, it’s giving them a chance to get their hands on a real world situation and figure out how to solve the problem, and I think we’re still in the process as a society shifting from this idea that teaching and learning is about getting people the right information. The teaching and learning being about how do we get people the right kind of opportunity to practice, or to learn something new, and then be there to coach and guide as they start to make sense of it on their own and see how it plays out in the world? We love technology because it makes things possible, but we don’t say technology solves the problem, technology gives us the venue to solve the problems.

Well, how do you see that sort of evolving? Right now, I think when we talk about the future and the evolution of humanity and technology, are people gonna be replaced by robots, or AI, will we no longer have a purpose as people? From your perspective how do you see the evolution of technology and humanity together?

That’s a great question. And I don’t know if I have any special insight, I guess I have perspective because we work with lots of different organizations across crops, livestock, high tech, finance, so we get to see lots of different businesses and kind of what they’re doing, and how technology is changing their world. It’s probably, it’s the same question just a different version of the question as was asked for the last 80 years about technology. Over Memorial Day, went and visited the cemetery where my grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great, you know the whole lineage is buried, and you start thinking about we’re dealing with technological change, but the first tractors were introduced like talk about automation.

Right, that’s so true.

That was a gigantic change in society that automated and even the telephone and the ability to communicate, so I don’t know that our challenge is any different than past generations, to say how will technology, it’s gonna supplant some jobs. There’s no doubt about that. But we’re gonna be able to automate some things that currently people are hired to do. But that’s always been the case. What I always remind people, the human brain is so amazing, it is so powerful, especially when we unleash it and we give it permission to learn, and adapt, and create. When we really allow people to figure out how to solve problems and we look at human resources and organizations not as people doing tasks, but of people solving problems for your organization, then you start thinking about well how do we position people to solve the problems we need solved in today’s world with the kind of technology we have versus what we would have been doing 10 years ago? It’s exciting, it’s scary, but I think it’s always been exciting and scary, it’s just a different version of that for communities today.

I agree and I think the other thing is we hear so much more about it. I mean, it’s this sort of inundation of information and data and even though we see things changing at this exponential pace, there has always been change. But just like as you said with the telephone, when I go back to my own parents’ house my dad’s house, he still has a wall phone. My kids are eight and 11 and they’re just sort of like this is so cool, because it’s a phone that’s connected to the wall, but I’m also not quite sure how to use it. (laughs)

How do you get on Facebook with this thing?

Right, (laughs) why do you want to connect it to the wall? Of course the cord is just stretched out for miles, because it’s the same phone my family’s had for eons, and I had to take it down to the stairs to have a private conversation in our giant family. So it’s stretched out pretty long. But it is an interesting time in terms of technology, there seems to be a lot of drama in that space. But what I appreciate about what you said, is that human element as well. And I think sometimes that’s forgotten in these sort of futurist perspectives, is that the human brain is amazing, humans are amazing, our emotions are amazing. There’s so much that humans have to offer.

So this is what I know about is with this kind of change is there are companies out there who are very centered on taking care of their people and at the same time looking at automation because they know that in order for the company to sustain they’ve got to continue to be profitable. It’s being two-minded to say, if we don’t make profit, then we can’t exist, and we can’t offer anybody employment opportunities. So we have to automate in order to stay efficient, to stay profitable, but we really care about people. Now, there are some companies that stay profitable and really maybe don’t care about people and that’s a whole other conversation. I’m hoping those kinds of organizations will eventually go away and are replaced by really purpose-driven values-based organizations, where they put their people at the center of everything they do. But those are our role models are those kinds of companies. And those kinds of companies, what they’re saying is there may be a point in time where we have to transition people out of employment. And if there’s an opportunity to transition them to other employment in our organization that looks differently we’re gonna do everything possible to help discover how people can grow their skills to play a role in a different organization. And if they can’t, those organizations are typically helping the people transition to other kinds of roles outside of their organization. And I just think, if more companies were more intentional about talking about that so that if it is automation is gonna change the future, but it’s also we’re committed to helping people be as successful as they can be, or choose to be, and then I think communities as well, we all probably can think of somebody whose job got replaced at some point in our history by something got automated, and it’s like what do we as communities do? Do we just look at them and say, gosh well too bad you don’t have the skills to get something else? Or do we figure out how we collectively think about well what is it that as a community we need to do to lift people up and prepare them for different opportunities in the future? And I think education has a role in that, and I think communities have a role in that. If you wanna be proactive because leaving people behind, I think that’s what creates resentment and that then drives the fear that people have, they’re gonna be one of those that get left behind in the future.

Well, you know, we’ve talked a lot about that here at the Rural Futures Institute, like how do we obviously partner with other organizations to connect our rural areas? But then, also, help our rural people, our rural communities, really thrive in this next generation economy? In some ways people still have that stereotype of rural that, oh it’s all negative not a lot going on, and I’m not saying there’s not challenges because there are. But in so many other ways I think there’s these amazing opportunities in front of rural communities, and specifically there’s more partnership with urban and we start creating different models and different questions that are more positive in nature and bringing on that abundance mindset that I know you talk about a lot. And really thinking about how do we as leaders make sure that we’re positioning ourselves, our communities, to where we want to be and need to be? How do we serve a purpose in this evolution of the world and how can we do better in the future so people are prosperous and thrive wherever they choose to live?

I truly believe that’s what makes us human to compare and to try and compete. I mean that’s the natural order. But what make humans unique is the ability to imagine what would it look like if we collaborated, cooperated, and helped each other out? I continue to hold this belief that it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. That there isn’t enough for everybody, and if there’s not enough for everybody, then I’ve gotta make sure that I get mine first, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure I get what I think I need, and if other people don’t, well that’s their problem. I’m all about free markets because our company wouldn’t exist without a free market that said, here’s a niche nobody’s doing this well, and if we do it better than other people, then we should be able to grow and enjoy the opportunities that provides. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that when you look at the world and think that there’s scarcity, that there’s a very small pie and I have to compete to get as much as I can, that leads you to think about everything in one way. You think about the people that you hire, you think about your competitors, you think about opportunities, it’s all based on this scarcity mindset. In the long-term it leads to a lot of negative behaviors and it leads to a really toxic culture, I think bad decision making, and sometimes I think people aren’t intentional about that, that’s just how we’re wired. Like when we started the company, we’d go to these networking things and the first question out of people’s mouth is how many employees, what’s your revenue, how fast are you growing? Which are all legitimate questions, but they’re questions I don’t really care about. To me it’s well, are we making enough profit that we can do the things we want to do as a company? So if our revenue is 100 million, or one million, if I was generating the margins necessary to do what I want to do, how big doesn’t matter it’s are you doing the thing that you are set out to do? And that means you have to define success in your own way and that you believe that just you being successful doesn’t prevent anyone else from being successful. So when somebody who’s maybe in your space doing similar work to you has a success, you don’t gnash your teeth and get angry and envious, you say gosh that’s awesome. Like look what they did, what can we learn from them that might be able to help us drive to the success that we want? You talk about next generation economy to me that’s the next, next generation economy is how do we build an economy full of businesses which say this is our purpose, this is what we want to do, and we’re gonna measure our success based on what we believe is important? That may mean we only have two employees, but we’re doing good work in the world, meaningful work, and that work is having impact. Or it might mean you have 10,000 employees because that’s what it takes in order to fulfill your purpose. We have organizations that are purpose driven, that are people-centered, and where we celebrate everybody’s success, we don’t always worry about if we’re coming out on top. But I think that same message applies to communities. You know, how many times a small town, you’re in a small town they complain because another town got a new store, or a new mill, or a new ethanol plant, and they didn’t. It’s like, well, what do you want your community to be? Be intentional about your purpose, and your character, and lean into that, and then when another town has a success celebrate that and then learn to say, well what did they do that we can learn from that could help us be who we want to be? I think a lot of organizations, towns, or companies, non-profits, they don’t have real clarity about what their purpose is, why did they exist, and what are they shooting toward? Because I think once you get that, then it becomes a lot easier, and it becomes a lot more fun to work towards something and to call people to be part of something as opposed to just worrying about some of the things are out of your control, market conditions, prices, those kinds of things.

I agree and I think it just generates that natural flow. As I’ve done a lot of executive and leadership coaching, even if they seem externally successful, internally they’re not always very happy because they’ve lost that sense of purpose or weren’t very clear on it from the beginning. And I think in so many ways, especially in the U.S. we’re very socialized to win everything, to be first at this, to go out for every sport, to be this and that just like you were talking about with the revenues and employees we have so devalued small businesses, or solopreneurs, kind of this negative mom and pop store, like that’s a bad thing. And, you know, it’s unfortunate that we’ve sort of characterized things in that way. I mean I think that’s changing a little bit, but to really value the purpose individuals bring that can then spring into what does that mean for an organization or a community? I think it’s so important and I think this starts when people are very young and very little. Just as you said, with many communities I think part of what’s happening in the rural landscape is you know a lot of those communities were established for railroads and other purposes, they had a purpose, when they were first founded. Well, when that purpose went away the struggle has been very real. And so, it’s really important to redefine that purpose so that people want to be engaged in that community and people are attracted to whatever that purpose is especially as people can live, work, play all of of that wherever they want to go.

The one thing that we’re just continuing to see more and more of is people are drawn to authenticity, because we’ve been so inundated with advertising, social media, messaging, messaging, messaging. I think we’re all conditioned to think pretty much everything you hear is a load of BS, like there’s a story behind. (laughs) And so I think when people find something that really feels and smells authentic, like they’re just, it’s almost a relief that that can still exist in the world. And to me, that’s where small businesses, rural communities, have such a leg up over large organizations and large communities. They can choose to quickly lean into their authentic self and their authentic purpose. And again, you might not be for everybody, I tell that to people who call me and want a job every time. It’s more than likely we’re not the organization you’re gonna like hanging out with, ’cause we’re a little zany, we’re a little nerdy, we’re goody two shoes, we work virtually, like you have to work damn hard for us, I mean you don’t miss deadlines, you have to be really nice to customers and clients, even when they’re grumpy with you. Like there’s a lot of people who we’re like, you probably aren’t gonna like it here. But that’s okay, there’s some place that you will love. You just need to find the place where you will love to be and that way the people we have they don’t spend time thinking about the grass being greener on the other side. They know that they’re in the place that aligns to who they want to be. I think communities and organizations should challenge themselves to say, who is it that we are called to be and how do we be okay with not trying to be all things to all people? Because when you try to be all things to all people, you end up being really nothing to no one, so.

Well, that’s so important. I think when you really think about that, that’s why you attract the right employees. And I think this comes from your abundance mindset, right? It may not be right for you, but something else is. So if it’s not this it’s A-okay. And I think that’s where it’s not like a win lose thing all of the time, or if I win you lose. And you know what we can be happy for the success of others, but this also takes a little bit different leadership style than what we’ve seen in the past. We’ve been getting away from the command and control, I need to look good, and if you’re too nice, I get that one a lot (laughs), if you’re too nice you’re not that effective. So I’m really excited that authenticity and being nice actually is starting to be a good thing, rather than a negative thing. Just to build on this a little bit, Seth, I’d love to hear about yourself as a leader. What is sort of your leadership style and philosophy to help support this type of very mindful growth?

It continues to evolve because I think leadership is one of those things that is an abstract concept, it sounds really good until you have to put it into practice. (laughs)

You know it’s true, I think. That’s why learning it from a textbook is hard isn’t it?

Right, yeah, and then it’s like you think you’re good at it but it’s a point in time and then like in six months you’ve got a different situation and you realize, I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m probably screwing things up. And so, it’s like one of those never ending things where you’re always learning. But this is what I would say is, this was some, I don’t remember where I heard it many years ago, but the talk about when your people don’t have clarity about what’s important to you, what your purpose is, what your values are, they won’t be able to choose to engage with you. They’re always going to be guessing. And so, I think that’s probably my biggest leadership philosophy is I know I’m an imperfect person making imperfect decisions every day. And I tell the people on my team, I don’t know that this is the right decision. I’m making a guess, it’s the best guess I have. But I believe that it’s moving us in the right direction and if it’s not we’ll change course. And then, when I make a mistake I own it. So that I think is part of it, is if you want to be an authentic organization, it starts with you as a leader being really honest with yourself about what you care about, where you’re trying to go, what’s important to you, and then being vulnerable enough to share that with the people around you. Our organization’s really unique, because Doug and I are co-founders, we’re co-owners, it’s a 50/50 deal, there are no unilateral decisions at Vivayic. I can’t wake up tomorrow morning decide to hire, fire, or change something, like everything we have to collaborate. And we’ve gotten told multiple times by other entrepreneurs, like you’ve gotta change that. That’s gonna be the thing that keeps you from being successful. And what we continue to find is it’s the thing that keeps us from failing, is because some of the flat sides I have are Doug’s strengths, and some of Doug’s flat sides are my strengths. And when we trust each other enough to believe that we’re both trying to make the best decision for the whole organization, that when we trust each other, and we allow, we give each other permission to move forward on things based on like somebody just strongly believes this is the right thing to do, and then we forgive each other sometimes when it’s not (laughs) that that has made us a very resilient organization. We have survived a lot of ups and downs, and have we missed some opportunities because it takes us a while to make decisions? Probably, but have we kept ourselves from making dumb decisions? Definitely. We have this goal that Vivayic will be around for generations after we’re gone. Not because it’s an ego thing for us, but because we believe that the purpose of Vivayic could have generational impact. And that we need to make decisions that ensure that there’s an opportunity for that to happen for years to come.

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Not only I think do you have a strong purpose in your business, but you’ve really combined that with your life, your wife, and your working so closely together, the kids, everything, but not only you and your immediate family, the families of all of your employees, as well. Can you share with our listeners how you work at that type of culture at Vivayic and some of the things you do to really engage people in their own lives?

We do lots of things, it’s really important to us that people not only believe that we care and that we want them to be successful, but we have to demonstrate that time, and time, and time again. So our leadership team which is Doug and I and both of our wives work full-time for the company, which that just then blows people’s minds. Like wait–

That really does (laughs).

You’re 50/50 partners and both your wives work? And we’re like, yes, that is the leadership team for the company which it’s like having a double marriage but not in a weird way, like in a cool way. (laughs) I always tell people not in a weird way, the great thing is across the four of us we each bring different strengths, but we have a shared commitment of taking care of people, so. We do that at a collective level, we do that at an individual level, so for instance because we’re virtual everyone works from a home office. We have four or five people who are living on a family farm, their spouse is farming full-time, and then we’ve got people in Chicago, so we’ve got people everywhere. We get together three times a year in person to build community. For a small example, we always make sure that no one has to travel on a weekend, so that nothing that you do for Vivayic should require you to sacrifice the time with your family on a weekend. Now, does that mean that our people don’t occasionally work or travel on a weekend? No, ’cause they do, but when we get to choose to make things happen, we’re gonna choose to honor people’s ability to be with their family, or be in their community. So we try to be intentional. The thing is I think that being your own business leader is you know when you need to make an accommodation because somebody’s got something going on in their world, you get the ability to make that decision. For instance, in January one of our team members in California felt compelled that she needed to run for the United States Congress House of Representatives District One. And she called us and the first thing we said is you bet, what do you need? And she needed to cut back hours, she needed flexibility, and we talked about it as leadership team, we felt it was something that we needed to do and also we were really transparent with the team that says these are the decisions we’re making and why we’re making them. I think the reason our team no one complains, in fact they’re all very supportive and excited, a lot of them contributed and helped her campaign. What they know is that, we’ve had people who’ve needed extended maternity leaves, just because of situations, or people who wanted to take an extended mission trip. So they know that we would be that concerned about all of them in the same way we would for Audrey. And does that make things hard? Sure, as a company, yeah, because the easy thing to do is say nope. You signed up, here’s the deal. If you want to leave your job, leave your job, but that’s the easy thing. But we say, we’re flexible enough, we’re adaptable enough, we can work around that. And I just think that is part of what we hope we’re modeling for the people on our team, because you know I have this dream that some people on our team will be inspired and think of an idea of a business they want to start and we can help them be successful and we’ve given them a model and a blueprint of how to be authentic in their own leadership as they start an enterprise. That’s our personal purpose is to try to create an entity that can do this for people and model a different way of having a company that both makes money and does good in the world.

And I think the next generation workplace also requires next generation leadership.

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I’d love to dive in as we close here, any words of wisdom you would like to share with our audience?

The biggest word of wisdom I have is I think collectively as a society and individually we’re all answering the questions of do I matter? And I think the hard part is is that we all think we’re doing it by ourselves, and the companies and the communities that are successful in the future are those who can answer the question with a resounding yes. And I think that’s probably the biggest piece of advice is try and find the like-minded people who are affirming the positive answer to that question. I think we all get stuck in the cycle of listening to the negative voices and believing that things aren’t gonna get better, and that I am just a number, I am just someone who’s a customer to an organization, I’m just somebody who’s target marketed by a political campaign, like I don’t matter, and I don’t believe that. I believe that everybody has within them the ability to discover what it is that they’re intended to do here on Earth. But most of us aren’t given the time, or permission, or encouragement to figure that out. And so that’s my piece of advice is be a person who’s trying to figure it out and when you do have a sense of what yours is, then turn around and try and help others figure out what theirs is as well. Because I think that would make a tremendous difference in the kind of businesses that are created, how we treat each other, and the kind of communities that we could create if there was more of that mindset.