"Start doing right now" and other advice from innovators

Dec. 22, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

Three men in identical t-shirts standing around a small black robot in the foreground with a grain bin in the background.
Risk taking, persistence and learning from failure have helped Grain Weevil founders (L-R) Ben Johnson, Zane Zents and Chad Johnson develop a robot farmers could use in grain bins. (Image by Justin Cheney, Nebraska Public Media)

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"What If..." is a Nebraska Public Media series on innovation and creativity. Watch stories, shows and Innovator Insights segments at nebraskapublicmedia.org/WhatIf
Man in white short-sleeve shirt with white glasses sitting in front of four bookcases with various decorations on them.
Keith Fix (Image by Tiffany Johanson, Nebraska Public Media)
Woman in a t-shirt standing in a field holding a white bee hotel with taller grasses and short grass behind her.
Katy Ayers with one of her mycelium bee hotels. (Image by Justin Cheney, Nebraska Public Media)

Passion, risk taking, persistence, learning from failure. Things Nebraska innovators say they’ve needed to be successful. As part of Nebraska Public Media’s “What If…” series, we share stories and advice from different creators.

Keith Fix is an entrepreneur who is founder and CEO of Retail Aware, an Omaha start-up creating sensors and software to provide products and companies with information about how shoppers shop. “Think of the four P's: product, place, price, promotion. We really solve for the place aspect of that,” Fix says. WATCH our "What If..." story about Keith Fix and Retail Aware

As a Central Community College student, Katy Ayers discovered a passion for making things out of mycelium, the unseen, vegetative body of a fungus that forms mushrooms. First she made a full-size canoe. Now she’s developing mycelium hotels for bees in an effort to reverse declining pollinator populations. “I want people to experiment and realize that there's so much that mushrooms can do,” says Ayers, who is now a student at Washington State University. WATCH our "What If..." story about Katy Ayers and her mycelium creations

Aurora-based Grain Weevil is creating a robot farm workers can put inside grain bins to settle grain, so a farmer doesn’t have to go inside and do the same work with a shovel. Grain bin accidents kill about 20 U.S. farmworkers yearly. “This is a safety mission. Keeping farmers out of the bin will keep them safe,” says Chad Johnson, an educator who launched the start-up with two UNL engineering grads: his son Ben Johnson and Ben’s friend Zane Zents. WATCH our "What If..." story about the Grain Weevil robot and team

What they make is very different. But these Nebraska creators have entrepreneurial spirit and experience in common. For our “What If…” project we asked them to share some of this.

Importance of risk taking

Zane Zents: “Without taking risks, you're not going to be able to try something new. There's a lot of value in practicing old things and learning from the past. And it's really scary to try new things, but as soon as you take a step out of your comfort zone and try something new, that's when you enter a zone where you can innovate.”

Keith Fix: “A lot of people have the assumption that entrepreneurs are risk-takers. I would argue that a lot of us are risk-adverse. The reality is that nothing is permanent, and there is a risk in even keeping your job. So I think the biggest risk is actually not taking a chance at all and pursuing your dream or pursuing that passion or whatever the case may be.”

Learning from failure

Katy Ayers: “Failure is actually probably the best way to learn anything, because I can't think of a single thing I did perfectly that I learned something from. So failure gives you a direction to move and something to work toward. So I actually like it when I fail, so I can make a really big improvement the next time.”

Zane Zents: “Failure is a really scary concept, but it's also the greatest teacher. We've had lots of moments in our process where we failed and it looked really grim, but we take those as lessons and learn from them and we've just gotten better with each failure.”

Importance of persistence

Ben Johnson: “Persistence is key for any large task or project or schoolwork. For me right now, we're working on this problem that we've had on the robot for about three months. And persistence is the only way that we're going to be able to solve it. Small steps towards the end goal to make the project work.”

Importance of passion

Katy Ayers: “The importance of following my passion is actually to find happiness. And happiness equates to success. So following your passion, when you're lucky enough to find that thing that gets you really excited, I suggest to follow it head, feet first as fast as you can.”

Importance of curiosity

Keith Fix: “Never, never, never stop asking why. One of the best things that I've learned throughout the years is asking that very simple question, always, always leads to some remarkable conversations. Why are things the way that they are? Why does something happen? That level of curiosity, don't ever lose it.”

What would you tell your kid self now

Chad Johnson: “Keep following your dreams. At some point you're going to build robots. I always wanted to do that when I was a kid. I just didn't think it would take until I was almost 50.”

Katy Ayers: “Stop caring what other people think of me, because it really doesn't matter. And it doesn't affect how you view yourself and what you can accomplish.”

Best advice for other innovators

Katy Ayers: “Question everything. Don't assume anything. Question your assumptions. Question your teachers. Don't accept things just because you're told. Really find out for yourself.”

Ben Johnson: “Stay involved as much as you can in what you're interested in. For me, that was a robotics program that my dad set up. Just get involved as much as you can and find out those passions that you have deep down.”

Chad Johnson: “Do things, and when we talk about doing things, I'm talking about building and tearing apart and making circuits and testing things. It's the skills that you actually build while you're tinkering that become extremely important when you want to become an innovator.”

Keith Fix: “My best advice is to absolutely do. Do it right now. There is nothing holding you back from testing whether you want to try selling something. Or you want to throw some videos out on social media and see if folks follow you. You are a creator. You are a salesperson. You are exactly what you need right now. And so don't wait. Don't wait for someone else to give you permission. Don't wait until you're old. You might be too late. But go out and start doing right now. That's one of the coolest things about entrepreneurship is the fact that sometimes it works, which is awesome. And a lot of times, it doesn’t. But at the end of the day, you want to be okay with the fact that you went and you did it.”

A new episode of the Nebraska Public Media series "What If..." features stories about Katy Ayers, Retail Aware and Grain Weevil. Watch this episode when it premieres Thursday, Jan. 6 at 7:30 pm CT on Nebraska Public Media.