Education That Can Change Your Life, An Interview With Don Smithmier, Founder & CEO of The Big Know
On October 29, 2015, I had the great pleasure to chat with Don Smithmier, Founder & CEO of the The Big Know (thebigknow.com).
Thousands of education technology companies have launched over the past decade. The phrase, “disruption in education” has been used around the globe with different meaning and understanding. Quite often, this phrase is tossed around with misinterpretation and shallow assumptions. To truly make a change in education using technology, one must have the following:
- A motivated audience who chooses to use the platform
- Information that is relevant to the student
- Content that adds value to the student’s life
- Trusted experts in the field in which they are teaching
- Pedagogy that keeps the pace with technology
- Purpose, meaning and significance
There is no doubt that education is changing as we rapidly move toward a globally connected planet. However, among the chaos of education technology, we must be able to identify the tools and platforms that stand out from the rest. Thus, I am glad to share with you The Big Know. The Big Know stands out as an online education leader in a new and inspiring way. It is a platform that offers free courses, created by world-class organizations and is taught by some of the world’s most trusted leaders.
Don, I am greatly intrigued by The Big Know. Can you tell me a bit about your background first?
Yes. First of all, I am a true history buff, and my intention early in life was to become a history teacher. However, due to a financial aid mix up with the University of Minnesota, my life took another path which turned out to be an accidental gift that led me to where I am today.
While on leave from graduate school, I was fortunate to join Steve Shank, the founder of Capella Education, just a year after the company had launched. I came aboard full time in 1994 and I ended up working for him for the next 14 years before leaving in 2008 to pursue my own entrepreneurial ambitions.
My time working alongside Steve and learning about the business of education has had a massive impact on my career and whole life. Steve has been a mentor for me, not only in how to run a business, but how to rally a team of individuals to execute your vision, as well as the importance of education not only in a formal academic setting, but in our every day lives as well.
Can you tell me about your accomplishments after leaving Capella in 2008?
I left Capella to start my own company in 2008, and my partners and I have launched five companies since that time.
The engine of all of it is GoKart Labs, which is a digital innovation shop specializing in product design and agile development to help companies, including Fortune 50 organizations, disrupt themselves. We are also a startup incubator, and that’s what has enabled us to create the various businesses.
Education is very much ingrained in our roots, and we have helped some of the world’s largest education providers become more digitally savvy. In 2009, we developed and launched Sophia.org, a peer-to-peer online learning platform for teachers and students. We sold that business to Capella in 2012 and are extremely proud of how it has evolved.
This last year has been a tremendous success. Not only were we listed on Inc.’s 5000 as one of the fastest growing private companies in America, one of our spin off companies, BringMeTheNews, was also acquired by Go Media and we launched our latest venture, The Big Know.
Don, The Big Know truly caught my eye because it provides users with detailed, free courses that are highly applicable and even personalized. What triggered this launch and can you tell me more about the The Big Know?
The Big Know was the result of two trends that have grown in the last several years. First, we noticed the quick rise of MOOCs (massively open online courses) which have allowed everyone, everywhere to access free education; Second, there is a growing emphasis on engaging, meaningful content from brands.
We set out to understand the motivations behind people turning to the online classroom. Surprisingly, we discovered people aren’t taking online classes for credit or credentials — they are simply curious and want to learn more about their world. Simultaneously, we recognized that this reality provided an opportunity for brands to enter the space to share their knowledge and experts with the world. Through top-tier content and credible experts, brands are the perfect addition to the online learning world and can satisfy consumer curiosity while engaging with the public in an elevated way.
The Big Know does just this through an online and mobile platform where people anywhere in the world can tap into top experts and content to make their lives better. We launched at the end of October with two online courses sponsored by UnitedHealth Care and AARP’s Life Reimagined, which address health and wellness issues.
Already, we are seeing significant engagement, with more than 20,000 registrations in the first few weeks alone. Feedback from participants is fantastic and we’re really excited to see the engagement for these brands.
We are excited to have several other brands already lined up to launch new courses in the coming months, including Dan Buettner, the best-selling author of “Blue Zones” and a renowned expert on longevity.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I hope they’ll visit the platform and enroll in a course or two!
Don is an online learning pioneer and successful entrepreneur with over 20 years of executive experience building and leading groundbreaking organizations like Capella Education, Sophia Learning, and BringMeTheNews. Don is also the CEO and cofounder of GoKart Labs, the digital innovation consultancy and incubator that conceived and built The Big Know.