5 Minutes With... | November 19, 2018
Don Smithmier, CEO of GoKart Labs & Founder/Executive Chairman of The Big Know
Don is one of the most well-respected and well liked entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities. He currently holds tandem roles as CEO of GoKart Labs and Founder/Executive Chairman of The Big Know - both award winning brands. But that only tells part of the story. Don has an uncanny Midas touch he brings to ventures that reflect his wide range of interests. In addition to his businesses, he has created Rumble Music a successful music studio, has been a leader in innovative online education platforms (Capella, Sophia) and he’s also lead singer in a Billboard ranking country-pop rock band. How all of this is possible in one individual made Scouts curious to learn more…
If you could try a different job for a day, what would you choose?
I think I’d try teaching high school Social Studies. I’m a huge history geek and my original career plan was to become a teacher.
What advice would you give someone starting out in your industry?
Working in the world of digital transformation, I see just how fast the world is changing every day. So my advice to those starting out is to commit to non-stop learning and curiosity. It’s very likely that a young professional today will hold a lot of different jobs over a 40-year career, so being able to stay fresh and keep learning is everything.
What is your mantra?
“Thoughts become things.” I believe in the power of optimism paired with great planning.
How do you get yourself out of a slump?
Great question, because slumps happen! I try to get through them by working on other aspects of myself beyond work. For me, music, exercise, family and prayer are really important to staying resilient.
What companies or leaders do you admire?
I have great admiration for Steve Shank, the founder of Capella Education. Steve was my first boss and is still a mentor and advisor. I feel so fortunate to have begun my career working for such a visionary entrepreneur and someone who led with such great integrity and personal values. He’s an exceptional leader and person.
What has been the biggest shift you’ve noticed in your industry in the last decade?
In the category of digital, there’s almost nothing that hasn’t shifted. But what I’m seeing now is that major enterprises are finally beginning to go “all in” on digital transformation, which goes way beyond the technology. They’re recognizing the need to transform their talent, structure and culture along with their technology. It’s a huge shift! But it’s what will be required for businesses to succeed in the next stage.
Who has been most instrumental in your career?
My wife, Annie. It’s not easy to have an entrepreneur as a partner because there’s so much uncertainty. Nevertheless, she’s always been unwavering in her support, patience, and confidence and it’s made all the difference.
What is your go-to celebration meal, drink or tradition?
I’m more of an introvert, so my idea of celebrating big milestones and wins is actually to retreat with my family or close friends somewhere. Preferably my cabin in northern Wisconsin. That’s my total Happy Place.