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“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry”, with Katie Wilson of TapOnIt

Speak up and don’t be afraid to lead a conversation with people that have accomplished more than you. When you are in a room full of smart, interesting people and someone asks a question, don’t be afraid to answer it and share your opinion! When you share things you’ve read, found interesting, or just enjoyed, […]


Speak up and don’t be afraid to lead a conversation with people that have accomplished more than you. When you are in a room full of smart, interesting people and someone asks a question, don’t be afraid to answer it and share your opinion! When you share things you’ve read, found interesting, or just enjoyed, people begin to think of you as a resource for information and give you the authority of a thought leader.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Wilson, Founder of TapOnIt. Katie Wilson is the Founder and CEO of TapOnIt. Katie and her co-founder/sister, Sara Castillo, launched TapOnIt in 2015 from their home state of Iowa. TapOnIt Technology provides a software platform that uses personalized MMS and an interactive mobile experience to help brands engage, grow and further monetize their consumer databases via text. Prior to founding TapOnIt, Katie was the Digital Advertising Director for a media company, where she helped 1000’s of businesses across many different industries craft digital strategies. As TapOnIt continues to grow, Katie is passionate around using its platform to help preserve local- business culture in cities across America. TapOnIt operates out of the Quad Cities (Davenport, Iowa) where Katie lives with her two kids and dog:) Katie was also the recipient of the DMN 40 Under 40 in 2019.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Prior to starting TapOnIt, I worked in the newspaper industry where I had the opportunity to work with many different businesses, everything from mom and pop shops to nonprofits and universities. I was the digital advertising director at a time when digital was emerging beyond banners, social media was growing, Google was gaining traffic, Groupon launched and traditional media was changing. It was a confusing time for small businesses — with limited resources and expertise and I loved helping them build campaigns that would increase their revenue. Texting was starting to become more mainstream and I saw a huge opportunity in the messaging space. Texting has been around for 25 years and is now such a routine part of our lives, yet up until recently, there has not been a whole lot of change. Brands were communicating to consumers in black and white text that did not include pictures of the dress, shoes or purse they were trying to sell me. Most people are visual, your brain processes images faster than words. Putting creative graphics in texts that people have agreed to receive just made sense. So it was back in 2015 that I left six-figure corporate job to start TapOnIt, ready to help fix what was broken in the text messaging space.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

My time in digital advertising gave me perspective in thinking differently than the normal digital advertiser, and I began to become well versed in the industry. When I started TapOnIt, I changed the game with text based advertising and thinking differently than everyone else in the same space. Over time, I’ve been asked to speak at numerous events and give my opinion on a variety of topics. This created a movement around text messaging based advertising and people see it as the future of mobile advertising. I’ve been a thought leader in mobile advertising for a couple of years now, so I have experience on what it’s like sharing your thoughts and creating a movement around your ideas.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In August of 2017 I received several calls from some female business colleagues of mine. They said I just had to come to our local annual Chamber of Commerce dinner to see the keynote speaker. Busy with our startup adventure, my sister (Co-Founder) and I hadn’t planned on attending that year, but their plea was compelling so we put our black dresses on and went.

From the minute the Keynote speaker took the stage, we felt like he was talking directly to us and understood exactly what we were trying to accomplish. That speaker was Bonin Bough, former Marketing Executive for Mondelz and author of the book Text Me.

After so many people telling me that no one would sign up to be texted pictures of ads, there Bonin was speaking about the importance of messaging and brands reaching consumers in a more personal way. Those colleagues that prodded me to go to the dinner kept saying see Katie — we knew you had to be here tonight. But it was what I did after dinner that changed so much for me personally and the life of our startup. Bonin will say I chased him down like a crazy person, but like any professional, I waited for my turn in the Q&A session, and I asked him if I could get 15 minutes of his time because we are a text messaging company in the Quad Cities doing exactly what he was talking about.

Bonin and I spent the next two hours talking, and ever since then, he has been a massive supporter of TapOnIt. Bonin now includes us in events all over the world that open doors and make connections. He is now a close friend and someone who has a major impact on me personally. It’s crazy to think that if would have stayed home that night and not gone to the Chamber’s dinner, I would have never met him. It taught me a valuable lesson: never be afraid to ask for what you want because the worst someone can say is no.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well I have learned a ton of lessons and have made a lot of mistakes. Growing up in the midwest made me a very trusting sole. I hired this guy to sell for us and thought he was going to be great. About two weeks after he started he stopped showing up. Unfortunately I had given him a key to the office and a laptop computer. Finally after a few days of trying to hunt him down, I had to fess up and call our landlord who was also an investor. I explained what had happened and we both agreed we needed to change the locks. What I didn’t realize is that I had given him the master key to all of our landlord’s buildings and offices. We laugh about it now but every single building, every apartment and business he owned had to be rekeyed.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

To me thought leadership is believing in something so strongly that your passion and knowledge makes it easy for other people believe. I want my children to believe that anything is possible, including building a tech company from our hometown of Bettendorf, IA. I want businesses to believe that sending the right offer to consumers who have signed up to receive them via text will bring new customers in their door. I want my team to believe that the mission of saving local businesses is important. Without them our communities are not unique and thriving. Giving people reasons to shop locally benefits the community in so many ways — jobs, schools, safety, basically our way of life. Preserving local business is something we should all get behind. The curated offers we send people help them to discover those local breakfast spots, boutiques and other things to do, see, eat and buy in their community.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

The main benefit of being a thought leader is that you potentially have the ability to help influence people’s ideas and get people to think in a different direction. Anyone who starts a company or is a leader in their industry is there because they want to make a difference. They want to change the world, even if it starts in a small area. Being a leader usually takes a lot of passion, and making sure you’re a thought leader in your industry is a great way to spread that passion too.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Thought leaders have the ability to turn their ideas into reality and that can be lucrative — usually after years of hard work. It also takes a ton of persistence, building relationships, and believing in yourself and your ideas. Once the idea has been proven out it leads to other possibilities like investors, partnerships, speaking opportunities and more ideas. I have met some thought leaders that inspired me along the way and those moments have led me on an amazing journey.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Dedicate yourself to learning and growing your knowledge base and share it with talented people around you. Whether you are aspiring to be a leader, or just starting out, surround yourself with people that can teach you things. My team teaches me things everyday and it makes me a better leader.
  2. Ask for things you want. This sounds like an obvious point, but people help you when you ask them to. It allows you to be a better networker and opens doors that can be the difference between succeeding and failing
  3. Speak up and don’t be afraid to lead a conversation with people that have accomplished more than you. When you are in a room full of smart, interesting people and someone asks a question, don’t be afraid to answer it and share your opinion! When you share things you’ve read, found interesting, or just enjoyed, people begin to think of you as a resource for information and give you the authority of a thought leader.
  4. Be involved in your own community and industry networks. Join groups, keep in touch with interesting people and get your ideas out there. A key component of becoming a thought leader is networking and sharing your thoughts. Get on stage and share your story!
  5. Love what you do and spread your passion to others. If you believe, others will believe, and pretty soon you are the thought leader everyone turns to.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?

I think Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most impressive thought leaders. She has done many incredible things for Facebook, considering she’s helping to create something that impacts billions of people around the world. Through that, she’s had some major struggles. Yet she’s taken all of these experiences and worked to create a movement through her book Lean In. Her movement preaches that everyone, women and men, need to lean in to the fact that women deserve a seat at the table.

Sandberg shows that you can’t let the hard times define you and keep you from being your best self. People need to learn how to grow through these hard times. The heart of Sandberg’s movement is honesty. Teaching us how important it is be honest and to connect with your movement.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I don’t think that the term “thought leader” is at all overused, and I would say instead that the word “expert” can sometimes be overused. Anybody can claim to be an expert in an industry. Read enough books and they can call themselves an expert with no experience or proof of legitimacy. As soon as they read enough books, write enough blogs, or write a white paper, someone can claim to be an expert in an industry. But a thought leader has to prove their worth by changing people’s ways of thinking and creating a movement around their ideas. The people that follow a thought leader legitimize them, and an expert doesn’t have to have that. So I’d say it’s far more valuable to be a thought leader than it is to be an expert.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Build a community of other leaders who have experienced the same things you are going through. There are hard times, there are good times, and you need to be around similar people who know what it’s like to experience those moments. It helps fight the loneliness that oftentimes comes with being at the top. Building relationships and having trusted sounding boards has helped me come to better solutions and decisions.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My company is already trying to inspire a movement. It may not be stated that way, but we are trying to inspire people to spend money in their communities and focus on local businesses. I know there are a lot of other companies that do this, like American Express and their shop local campaign, but it’s something that needs to happen all the time, not just around the holidays. Spending money in your communities is what creates jobs, and those people getting paid is what helps to feed the economy, and the taxes collected get put right back into the community. Shopping local is what keeps the whole ecosystem moving, and it would be devastating to lose such an important part of the American economy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote comes from Dolly Parton, who said that, “If your actions can create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, than you are an excellent leader.” I’ve had great leaders in my life who have pushed and inspired me to become the best version of myself, so I know how true this quote is. They helped me take the leap and start my own company and realize that I could be a great single mom to my kids. I try to keep this quote in mind every day, because I want to be like the many leaders in my life who influenced me. It’s a daily reminder to aspire to be your best self, and push others to find their best selves.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a conversation with Ashton Kutcher, mainly because he’s from Iowa and has a lot of influence in the tech world. As a female-founded tech company in his home state, I think that he’d see us as the type of company he’d want to invest in after he sees what we’re doing. Go Hawks!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @ktwilson82

You can also find me on Facebook and LinkedIn just by searching Katie Wilson TapOnIt!

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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