…as a company we are striving to set an example of diversity and celebration of all cultures, races, religions, genders and sexuality. This is something we do internally from our hiring and recruiting methods to eliminating the gender pay gap. We also work externally to help highlight and celebrate diversity and the success of all entrepreneurs. One initiative we’re running now is Think in Color to celebrate World Day for Cultural Diversity. Think in Color is an online summit designed to celebrate, connect and educate underrepresented women who are thriving as entrepreneurs and online business owners. The idea is to empower women to break down barriers for improved diversity and inclusion in the digital entrepreneurship space. Our hope is to serve as a platform for women to share their message, cultivate successful online businesses, and thrive in any space they occupy. My personal dream is that in 15 years when my daughter applies for her first job the impact of our company has been so great that there’s less of a pay gap, less of a glass ceiling, and less discrimination.
As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Smith, co-creator of Thinkific. Greg Smith’s original career path was not trending towards entrepreneurship. With a law degree and a promising career at one of the largest law firms in Canada, quitting to start something new seemed a little crazy. However, when Greg’s side gig of tutoring students on how to successfully take the LSAT turned into a successful online course that started generating more revenue than his legal career, Greg cut the golden handcuffs and took the leap into full-time entrepreneurship. He created Thinkific with his brother Matt in response to the demands of people who wanted to create their own online courses. Thinkific now powers tens of thousands of education websites, educating millions of learners worldwide and allowing entrepreneurs and businesses with a passion, skill or expertise to share it with the world. You can create your own online course or membership site for free at https://www.thinkific.com/
Thank you so much for doing this with us Greg! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The entrepreneurial bug bit me at 10 years old. My best friend and I created a series of race tracks for marbles down a hill in a park. The tracks had jumps, hazards, dead ends and loops. Local kids would come out to race marbles and cheer them on. We sold candy and other toys off the side of the hill and had a ton of fun doing it. I was hooked. Over the next 26 years I started a few dozen other businesses, but it wasn’t until I started teaching that I really found my passion. I just love the impact you can have by helping someone else achieve their dreams and to me that’s what teaching is. When I took my course online and went from reaching 10 people a month to thousands and started getting emails from students in other countries thanking me for changing their life I knew I’d hit my dream job. From there all I wanted to do was help others experience that feeling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the coolest moments for me was finding out that someone else had built a whole business on our business. There was this guy in our Facebook group, Rob Galvin, and he was offering help to our customers to set up their course sites. He was so prolific in the group that I eventually reached out to him to chat and found out he’d hired a team of six people and all they did was help our clients. He’d even named his company, Themeific, as an hommage to ours. That was a huge moment and made us realize that our impact was going beyond even what we knew about to help create and support others’ dreams of building a business.
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?
We always do team retreats to get away and have some fun together. One of the first members of our team had to miss one of these retreats and he called me up to explain why, he was dealing with a difficult personal matter. At the end of the call he said something to me and I misheard him and thought he told me he loved me. I replied “I love you too.” He immediately called me out saying, “Thank you Greg but that’s not what I said.” We laughed hard about that then and he still teases me about it today. As awkward as it was in the moment I think it took a tough situation and made it a little better. Humor tends to do that. I’ve made a few of these faux pas over the years and the team never fails to remind me of them for a laugh.
Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?
Thinkific gives back in a myriad of ways, we have supported Imagine1Day (now part of WE) for education in Ethiopia; Learning Curve — A Thinkific team member created a program for local student mentoring; Thinkific hosts and supporting events for Ladies Learning Code and other organizations; team members volunteering to cook for and feed Vancouver’s homeless; sponsoring families at Christmas; we even built community support into our product creating the ability for a global network of entrepreneurs to contribute a share of profits to charity
Additionally, as a company we are striving to set an example of diversity and celebration of all cultures, races, religions, genders and sexuality. This is something we do internally from our hiring and recruiting methods to eliminating the gender pay gap. We also work externally to help highlight and celebrate diversity and the success of all entrepreneurs. One initiative we’re running now is Think in Color to celebrate World Day for Cultural Diversity. Think in Color is an online summit designed to celebrate, connect and educate underrepresented women who are thriving as entrepreneurs and online business owners. The idea is to empower women to break down barriers for improved diversity and inclusion in the digital entrepreneurship space. Our hope is to serve as a platform for women to share their message, cultivate successful online businesses, and thrive in any space they occupy.
My personal dream is that in 15 years when my daughter applies for her first job the impact of our company has been so great that there’s less of a pay gap, less of a glass ceiling, and less discrimination.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?
On the hiring side, one of our key senior team members, didn’t apply for the job because she only met 80% of the “requirements” in our job posting. Meanwhile we had men applying that only met 50% of the “requirements” Luckily we found out about her from a friend and talked her into applying. She absolutely crushed the interview process and was by far the best candidate for the job, and continues to crush it today. We learned very quickly that among other things, how you write your job postings can significantly impact the diversity of candidates applying. We’ve fixed this now and have also established guidelines for recruiters that work with us to ensure a diverse applicant pool. Another thing we’ve found is by having women in key leadership roles (we’re over 50% women in leadership) job candidates see a real opportunity for them and proof of our commitment to that opportunity. It’s a competitive advantage in the difficult tech job market.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I believe that that greatest force for positive change in the world is education. And the greatest fuel for change is business. When you combine the two you get change powered by rocket fuel. That’s why we do what we do.
So when I look for social change I look to businesses to deliver results.
My advice to companies and leaders at companies is to:
- Set Integrity, Ethics and Diversity into your core company values and truly live them. Empower your team to deliver on them even when there’s a financial cost. In the end it will not only create positive social change but serve as a competitive advantage. Plus you’ll have a much happier team.
- Analyze your pay gaps (gender and otherwise) and do what you can to close them. If you have a man and woman making different amounts and no good reason why, close the gap.
- And for the white straight males out there. Be brave and talk about these issues in front of your team. You might say the wrong thing sure, but if your intentions are good they’ll forgive you for it and it takes bravery to effect change. This goes for everyone by the way.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me leadership is caring personally about the wellbeing and success of the people on your team. Someone once told Bill Campbell, the Trillion dollar coach to silicon valley tech titans, “Your title makes you a manager. Your people make you a leader.”
To me this means you care about each person’s well-being at work and in their personal lives. It also means you obsess about how to and create the most success for them and how to empower them to add the most value to the company. When people truly feel this genuine care and support from you and they are setup to deliver value in line with the company’s vision, they will move mountains for you.
I recently had a person who is 3 levels of reporting removed from me pull me aside to give me some tough feedback and criticism of something I’d said and the way I’d said it. The amazing thing to me was that she was so comfortable sharing this with the CEO. I was honored to receive the feedback and told her that and together we figured out a way for me to fix things. It might not have been a big deal if she didn’t share with me, but it’s the little opportunities like this that can either erode a company’s culture or build it up over time.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Use Top Grading when hiring. It’s kind of our little secret so I hate sharing this one, but it’s been instrumental in us building an amazing team. One of the best parts about it is the ability to uncover a diamond in the rough. We hired someone a few years ago that had applied with no success to over a dozen companies. She didn’t interview well. Top grading helped us realize how amazing she was and she’s been an amazing member of the team ever since. You can learn more about it from the books Top Grading or WHO by GH Smart.
- People first. In all things you do. Especially in the innovative fast paced world we live in, there’s nothing more important than the people on your team. Each year we set a cascading set of OKRs or goals across the whole company and the one at the top, the most important, is always people first. If you’re not putting your team first, your competitor who is will beat you.
- Be a Chief Repetition Officer. Set the vision and direction for the company (don’t worry it can and will change especially in the early days) but set it, and then communicate it until your team starts saying it back to you, and then keep communicating it. I failed to do this well until recently. We’d communicate the plan and the vision intermittently and I’d wonder why people were not doing the “right things” and then we created a guide book for the company sharing our vision, values and strategy and printed up beautiful hard copies and put one in every meeting room. This helped, and suddenly people were independently doing the “right things”. I still remember to talk constantly about where we’re going, and why, and how we’re going to get there. You can’t share this enough with your team. People want to add value and see the connection of their work to the direction of the company, but they can’t do this if you don’t share that direction with them.
- Don’t worry about raising money in the early days. When we started we were constantly encouraged to get out and pitch and raise money. Even before we had a business or even a business model we were pitching. It turned out to be a huge distraction. Instead focus on solving a real problem for people and figuring out how you’re going to acquire customers and finding product market fit. When you have those things it’s much easier to raise funds, if you even need them. We did eventually raise millions but it turns out we didn’t need it, our business is built on a much healthier source of funds, revenue. However, the best thing we got out of taking investment was our investors, they’ve been instrumental in helping us grow. It’s okay to have a few investors who just cut a check and don’t care what happens next, but you really don’t want any who will be calling you monthly asking when to expect a return, and ideally ensure that they can really add value beyond just a check.
- Learn to be a good coach. This is one I still struggle with. I’m much more of an advice giver and problem solver. I love to solve problems for people. I get a little dopamine rush when I do. But I also rob the person I’m working with the opportunity to solve that problem and get that rush. It also creates greater dependence on me and keeps them coming back for more advice and solutions. It’s much better to coach them to their own solutions when you can and have them experience the reward and personal growth. I’m still working on this one so if you’ve got any great resources feel free to share!
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 dream is for everyone and every company to share what they are passionate about, what they have special skills or knowledge in, with the world. This one simple thing could really end everything from war to famine. There’s so much amazing knowledge out there and if we get it into the hands of the right people at the right time the results are magical.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I picked this one up in university and it still holds true to me today. Persistence by Calvin Coolidge. I’ll probably get this a bit wrong but the gist of it is:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not, nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.
Genius will not, unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not, the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
The slogan press on has always and will always solve the problems of the human race.”
I recognize the irony of running an education platform company and seeing the “education will not” part of that quote, but it’s still been a huge driver in my life. The times when I’ve persisted through failure, doubt and fear have been the most rewarding of my life. A little education along the way helped too and in fact after 8 years in university I never stopped learning and running a company has forced me to reinvent my skill set constantly so for me learning and growing has been an equally important factor in my achievements so far.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Michelle Obama. She’s an amazing beacon of hope for our future and her support for diversity, equality and education is inspiring.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram — @thinkific and personally @GregariousGames
Facebook Group — https://www.facebook.com/groups/thinkific/
Twitter @thinkific and @GregTravels
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!