Entrepreneur 2 Entrepreneur: The Big Know CEO Don Smithmier On Raising $3m



donsmithmierThank you to Split Rock Partners for underwriting the Entrepreneur 2 Entrepreneur Series so we can hear it from the source!

Don Smithmier is at it again.  This serial tech entrepreneur with a track record of success is now leading The Big Know — a brand driven educational content platform that launched in October.

Yesterday, The Big Know announced a $3m series A funding round with local partners LFE Capital & Steve Shank, the original founder of online university Capella Education Company in 1991. We reached out for more details:

The Big Know…what was the big aha?

We believe there’s a huge opportunity for the world’s best and brightest organizations to step into the role of teacher. Over 29 million people took an online course last year on platforms like Skillshare, Udemy, and Coursera and the world’s top brands are nowhere in the picture. That will change. We want to unlock the knowledge sitting inside the world’s best organizations and do it in a way that creates a different type of engagement with consumers.


How does your business model work?

We’re paid to design and create the courses and we receive license fees for the use of our learning platform.

Is there a difference between “Brand as a Teacher” and sponsored content marketing?

We think that teaching courses is totally superior to sponsored content when it comes to creating an authentic relationship with consumers. People love to learn — especially when the learning is really well-designed and expertly produced, as these courses are.

So how do you balance subjective bias from brand(company)/expert/underwriter with objectivity?

As for bias, if you look at our courses, they’re all being created with and taught by recognized experts. The brands are making it possible, and the consumers get the benefit. It’s not unlike Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” back in the old days. That was a really great and important educational show made possible by a brand.

It seems like healthcare in general is the focus so far, are there other areas you intend to cover?

We have new courses on the way from Cambria in the area of home design and remodeling, which we’re super excited about. We’ll soon be announcing some new courses in the culinary world as well.

How was the $3m figure settled on and what will the funds be used for?

We felt that was the appropriate amount for our current stage and needs. We’ll be using the funds to add a lot of important talent to our team and to continue to develop and enhance our technology platform.

UnitedHealth Care…AARP…any other new customers you’d like to mention?

As I mentioned, Cambria just came aboard as a new client and we’ll be making several other announcements later this quarter.

How many employees do you have now and what’s your projection for 6 months from now?

We have about a dozen employees today and will be roughly doubling that number in the coming year.

The news release says it was a “highly successful launch in October” – can you elaborate on how success is defined?

To date, we’ve already had over 40,000 people sign up for our courses, which is pretty thrilling. They’re highly engaged in the content and with one another in the course discussions. We’re also seeing fantastic satisfaction ratings with the courses and the online experience.

LFE Capital + Steve Shank are interesting partners…why did you choose them and vice versa?

LFE Capital has a really unique focus on investing in companies that help people lead healthier lives. That’s a perfect fit for us. We believe learning — regardless of the topic — has a huge impact on our mental and physical well being. That made LFE a natural fit. As for Steve Shank, you won’t find a more respected entrepreneur or leader in the online education industry, so I’m really thrilled and humbled that he’s involved.

Wait, are you simultaneusly running Go Kart Labs and The Big Know?

Yes, I remain the CEO of GoKart Labs. We promoted Jim Cuene to the role of president of GoKart just over a year ago, and he’s the reason that it’s possible for me to focus on building The Big Know. He’s an outstanding leader and has responsibility for GoKart’s day-to-day operations.

How do you see online learning evolving over the next 5 years?

I could talk about this for hours. Let’s do a separate conversation about that some time, okay?

Deal. What advice do you have for the entrepreneur out there looking to raise an A round?

You need to brace yourself for a long and intense process. I don’t care who you are or how well connected you are, fundraising takes a lot of time. The rule of thumb is if you’re really good at it, it will take you 6 months. I would advise someone to assume it will take a full year. You need to work very hard, have many, many meetings, and never give up. Everyone will be happy to say why your idea won’t work. But only you can decide if they’re right.

What is one solid business idea that you are willing to give away?

Feed the tuna fish mayonnaise. Just think of the efficiencies!

Aha. Okay, lastly, given your appreciation for music…Creed or Nickelback?

Sorry, but I can’t think about that crap when the world just lost David Bowie.

Sad Face.


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