Looking back, it’s relatively easy to see the makings of Keith Fix the entrepreneur. Long before any of his previous ventures — including his latest startup, client and investor favorite Retail Aware, of which he is CEO — his path started with a precocious childhood.
Emboldened by technology, fascinated by the gig economy and not afraid to sink or swim, Fix usually swam.
ENTREPRENEUR AT AGE 10
“I’ve always been a bit of a hustler,” he said. “I sold sports erasers at school and did all sorts of things like that. When I turned 10, I started building websites, which got me $300 on my first website, which was a lot of money then. I also had an internet radio station and sold ads for $5; it was crazy to me that I could get people to buy it.
“We had a computer lab at school with the latest Macs at the time. In first grade, I asked to volunteer in the lab. I remember having a laptop, I was playing Minesweeper and Oregon Trail and I had a setup playing Microsoft simulator. So, I always had a fascination with technology and then I learned there was a whole economy around it.”
At the age of 17, Fix landed a job with what is now Concentrix, a Fortune 500 digital customer relationship management company. This gave him an in-depth understanding not only of the challenges that companies of all sizes face, but how they pivoted to meet those challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing market landscape.
“That experience, little did I know, was my intro to retail data at scale,” he said. “Every customer interaction that came in, I had a front-row seat. I think there’s this misconception that careers start in college; I started at 17. By the time I started my super-long college journey, I just kept adding knowledge both in the classroom and through the work experience I had under my belt.”
JUGGLING SCHOOL AND CAREER
College proved a potent lighter fluid for Fix’s entrepreneurial spark. At University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he would graduate in 2012 with a degree in marketing, management innovation, and entrepreneurship, he juggled his full-time job with class and launching a side business. He didn’t turn any heads with his grades, but every day was an invaluable education for what he really wanted to do.
“I had a unique opportunity because I started a daily deals site for our collegiate entrepreneurs organization. Started it as a fundraiser and basically ripped off Groupon,” he said. “The site grew to 50,000 subscribers and the College of Business Administration turned it into a class that I got to co-lead as an undergrad. They also gave me the Peter Kiewit Entrepreneurial Award for that, which is the highest award in the university system.”
Leveraging all he had learned to that point, Fix launched blabfeed, a digital signage integration company. The venture would attract thousands of deployments worldwide and generate $1 million in annual revenue by the time he sold it. His next startup, Retail
Aware, grew out of the yawning gaps he saw between the massive amount of data being collected and the relatively pedestrian way many retailers harnessed it.
“This is why tech is so powerful; there is validation in data to know what to go after and to know what customers are doing,” he said. “I’m in the business of selling shopper and user insights to brands, providing that visibility into the customer would be equivalent to
Kellogg’s being able to watch you buy and measure exactly how much cereal you eat.
“The reality is, you can use this data to stay one or two steps ahead of customers as you scale. Feedback is fairly quick; clients will churn and unsubscribe if you don’t get things right. We’re constantly looking at metrics like customer acquisition costs and building subscription-based businesses.”
STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE
Few things could have illuminated Fix’s point more brightly than the pandemic. Overnight, national retailers were scrambling to harness relevant data in real time to better manage what was on shelves and how consumer purchasing was being altered by COVID-19. What started out as an inventory tool on steroids was suddenly the lifeline for major retail brands to ensure supply met demand.
With that came investors: Retail Aware raised its first venture round in June 2020 of just over $1 million led by New Stack Ventures, a Chicago-based venture company. That investment served as an endorsement for the company’s business model and has Fix thinking expansion from the current 12-employee operation.
“We have plans to scale as we take on larger accounts,” he said. “We’re pragmatic in how we grow.”
One thing that is not likely to change with growth is the company’s address. Fix said like a lot of upstarts, he flirted with the idea of moving to an area more known for its tech and startup communities.
“Retail Aware is a uniquely Omaha story; this is the power of private investment,” he said. “Think about it; we have food heritage here because of the work of Conagra.
“Our first customer was here, our first investor works in the retail space and controls a very large portion of their market, 54% market share. I got meetings when we started with Nestle and Unilever because my address was 808 Conagra Drive. Everyone was like
‘What is Conagra doing?’ I’m sure they were curious to find out what this data startup was doing on Conagra Drive. This couldn’t happen anywhere else. Besides, I tried San Francisco. I had a studio apartment with a ton of roommates. It was terrible. I lasted a few weeks and came back so that was the end of that. You can scale a company in the Midwest; it doesn’t have to be San Francisco.”
At this, Fix leans back and smiles. It’s been a good ride for the Midlands Business Journal’s 2020 Young Entrepreneur of the Year so far, and he can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
“Everyone has a path; as a kid I would tell my mom when we went to Target, ‘Someday I’m going to have my stuff on that shelf.’ I knew that pretty early on,” he said. “You look at your education and career and you see your journey. It’s like that Steve Jobs quote,
‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward.’”