An Interview with Seth Derner, Founder of Lincoln-Based (sort of) Vivayic
In a phone interview with Seth Derner, the founder of Vivayic, I discovered something that is truly out of the ordinary. It wasn’t the fact that Vivayic was ranked exactly number 5000 on the Inc. 5000 list for 2019. It wasn’t that a rancher’s kid from Wheeler County, Nebraska had started a customized skill assessment/training…
In a phone interview with Seth Derner, the founder of Vivayic, I discovered something that is truly out of the ordinary.
It wasn’t the fact that Vivayic was ranked exactly number 5000 on the Inc. 5000 list for 2019. It wasn’t that a rancher’s kid from Wheeler County, Nebraska had started a customized skill assessment/training technology firm. It wasn’t the fact that in order to build the right company culture sometimes you have to tell terrible clients to take their money elsewhere. In fact, it wasn’t any of these things.
The out of the ordinary head scratching detail that quite frankly stopped my pen from writing mid-sentence was that Derner had built a successful business with an incredible culture that made the Inc. 5000 that was completely virtual.
Wait, what? I needed to rehear what I just heard.
“We don’t have a home base of operations. Our headquarters location on google maps is my house in Lincoln,” said Derner. “When we started the company in 2006, my business partner Doug (Keuker) lived in Missouri. Rather than move my family down there or his up here, we just operated online.”
All of my prepared questions about making the leap as an entrepreneur, company formation, early mentors, early struggles, and why he loathes networking events seemed less important now because I had found an expert on building a virtual office culture. They have over 30 employees now.
“Most of our employees work remotely form home. We have been particularly lucky to find excellent employees in smaller rural markets,” Derner added. “It keeps costs down and reduces waste. We have employees in 14 states. If you want to make life difficult for your bookkeeper, then hire employees from 14 different states.”
Running a completely virtual business in 2019 is difficult, but technology advances have made it significantly easier than it was 13 years ago. Regardless, technology doesn’t answer the question of how Vivayic has been able to maintain a strong positive culture.
“It starts with hiring the right people, keeping culture front of mind, a willingness to have the tough conversations when we see something, and not allowing clients to mistreat our employees either,” said Derner. “We like to hire people we have worked with – either as interns with us or as independent contractors. We look for responsiveness, curiosity, and initiative. This allows us to road test to see if they are a good fit or not.”
So how does a virtual office culture founder maintain the social relationships so necessary to build a great company culture?
“We meet in-person 3 times a year. In November, we usually meet in Lincoln. During the 1st quarter its always somewhere warm. Then we try to plan a meeting during the summer in the local communities of one of our employees,” said Derner. “What we found through trial and error is going 6 months without in person meetings is hard. People feel isolated. And meeting more than 4 times a year is also hard because people are busy. Three seems to be the right balance.” The meetings include topics related to company business, but according to Derner, the focus a good majority of the time is on building social ties.
It was clear from the tenor and topic of the conversation that Seth Derner is a steward of meaningful relationships and of authenticity. He describes himself as an introvert and an educator by trade and training. I asked him if he thought of himself as an entrepreneur because he fits the definition – someone that has built a company. His response was an understated “Yes”. He admitted to not fitting into the startup scene when attending networking events in the early days. He doesn’t like glad handing.
He has found his tribe now in a group known as the Small Giants Community – a national group of purpose driven business leaders. He recommends you read the book Small Giants by Bo Burlingham and Rework by Jason Fried & Mike Chamberlain. “Both books have helped guide us in the company building process – our mantra if you will,” Derner stated. I asked him who else he leaned on for sage advice early in the process. He responded “Our Banker. I had no financial background or business training. Banks are always willing to help especially when you owe them money.”
Vivayic is 13 years old now and continues to grow in the learning solution business most of which Derner humbly attributed to luck and strong client relationships. They have been listed on the Inc 5000 now for 4 years. When asked about the plans for future growth he stated that they just hired a new COO because the former one is now serving in DC for the US Department of Education. “The focus going forward will be on providing more structure around operations which is what our employees want,” said Derner.
To learn more about Vivayic visit their website: https://www.vivayic.com.
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