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Four-way entrepreneur Don Smithmier: they told him to "focus," and luckily, he didn't listen

Don Smithmier, the managing partner of Matter Worldwide, is a busy guy. In the last three months alone, he announced two new business ventures and flew to Cancun to perform with his country music band.

Smithmier is a founder or equity partner in four very different companies that operate under one roof in the Warehouse District. The first is Rumble, a company that creates commercial jingles for clients like Target Corp. The second is GoKart Labs, a digital innovation and web design firm. The news aggregator BringMeTheNews joined the office to rent space and acquire help with its business plan. Launching in March is Sophia, a free online educator targeted at students trying to Google their way through classes. Matter Worldwide is the new umbrella company that encompasses all of these startups.

"I joke a lot that this office has become the physical manifestation of my weird brain," Smithmier said. "I love music, I love journalism, I love education, I love marketing and technology. … I can walk around this space, and it's a giant playground for me."

Taking the Leap

When Smithmier studied for his MBA, instructors drilled him on the importance of picking a career path with a strong focus.

"I've done the opposite of that," Smithmier said. "The difference between entrepreneurs and somebody with a good idea is that at some point the entrepreneur just takes the leap."

Smithmier's first big leap required leaving a good job as vice president at Capella University, a fast-growing company where he worked since the website went live in the mid '90s.

"I wanted to get back into music and get back into my creative side," he said.

Smithmier had always written songs and performed in bands, but he took a nine-year hiatus when Capella started taking off and his first child was born. He was thrilled to find office space a block off the new Twins stadium. He stashed a keyboard in the office, knocked out a window so he could see the stadium, and kept a timer on the window ledge that counted down the days to the Twins opener. He founded Rumble with a couple of partners, and within a few months the company landed work on soap opera spoofs for a Minnesota State Lottery campaign and commercials that introduced Target stores to Alaska. Rumble opened a second office in L.A. last February, and it provided the sound design for one of YouTube's top 10 videos of 2010—a DC Shoes infomercial featuring race car stunts.

From Rumble to GoKart and Beyond

As soon as Rumble got off the ground, GoKart Labs wasn't far behind.

"We realized we could launch a sister company that would expand the business that we're in, get us some diversification and meet a need," Smithmier said.

The two ventures have turned a profit each year they were open—which isn't long. They're under four years old. But the experience was enough to lend a hand to BringMeTheNews, the brainchild of former KARE Television reporter Rick Kupchella.

"Starting a business is hard. … There are real practical issues that can be speed bumps," said Smithmier, noting issues like where to find office space, how to handle payroll, and how to provide health insurance. He said Kupchella was grappling with the basics of how to start a business after working in journalism for 20 years.

"We basically said to him, 'We could help incubate your business. GoKart can build your site and help you with your branding and your business model. But we can also give you a space, and I can help you with the fundamentals of starting a business,'" Smithmier said.

BringMeTheNews moved in, the office expanded once again, and now Smithmier wouldn't have it any other way.

"You get a real practical benefit for all four companies," Smithmier said. "It's cheaper to be here now because we're sharing the cost of having an office manager and supplies and coffee and all those little things."

Daniel Forbes, a professor at the Carlson School of Management, said this type of "portfolio entrepreneurship" is relatively common, and it's often used as a way to diversify risk and experiment with different opportunities.

"The relationship among these businesses may not be apparent at first, and so they can seem like a mish-mash," Forbes said. "But often there is a thread of connectedness, which may have to do with the managerial expertise involved in running those businesses, rather than any obvious similarities in terms of the products. With Matter Worldwide, for example, there is a thread of commonality having to do with the management of businesses at the intersection of technology and media."

Studying, Social-Media Style

Smithmier's newest venture, Sophia, might prove to be the biggest to date. Offshore workers keep the site under construction 24 hours a day. Fourteen hundred users are already rating the lessons, and academics have double-checked the material to give it academically sound ratings.

The idea for Sophia came out of a chat between Smithmier and GoKart partner A.J. Meyer, who agreed that online education started to flat-line just as social networking took off. On Sophia, users can read an instructor's Facebook-style profile, follow the lessons on Twitter, and search tags to find content.

The content is aimed at students most at risk of falling behind in their coursework--those in the first two years of college and last two years of high school.

"Students without question today immediately go to Google if they're lost," Smithmier said. "There are something like three million searches a month just on topics like geometry and algebra and chemistry."

Bite-sized lessons cover about a day's worth of material each, using everything from screen casts to streaming videos. One college student created an algebra lesson using sidewalk chalk on her parents' driveway. Another high school senior used a "love story" to explain ionic bonds. Smithmier's hope is that all users will find a teaching style that works for them.

"The idea now is that we have this mission of flipping the student-teacher ratio. We want to have 30 teachers for every student, instead of 30 students for every teacher," Smithmier said.

The content is free, but Smithmier expects to introduce a licensable version as well.

And the Beat Goes On

In the midst of all the business development, Smithmier has somehow found time to form Rocket Club, a band that has sent two songs to the Billboard country charts. Its latest release, "One Thing Beautiful," is on the radio in 30 states, and the band is playing to 100,000 people this summer at the country music festival WE Fest. The pressure to tour is growing, but Smithmier said the band mainly sticks to gigs in the Upper Midwest.

"We're old guys--I'm a father and a business guy--so we're in a really nice position that we get to do what we want to do," Smithmier said. "It's hard to go out and drive to Colorado for a weekend, especially if there is no financial opportunity there. It's one thing to do it at 22; it's a totally different thing now."

Smithmier insists that he has plenty of time to play a role inside four new companies, raise three young daughters, and head to band practice after work.

"You can make room for things that interest you, you really can," he said.

Nevertheless, Sophia marks a momentary pause in his new ventures.

"We're done for a while," Smithmier said. "We have a lot of ideas, but we need to digest."

Michelle Bruch's most recent article for The Line was a profile of the hot ad shop mono, in our December 16, 2010 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Don Smithmier, taking a break from his usual feverish entrepreneurial pace

GoKart Labs in action

Matt Kirkwold of Rumble works on tunes.

Shareable transportation: Matter Worldwide's "Community Bike"

Smithmier in digital work mode

All photos by Bill Kelley

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