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Digital Design Leader: Carl Smith


It’s always a treat to talk to Carl– Co-Founder and now Chief Keeper-Upper of NGen Works. A ton of great experiences has made him a smart, funny and enlightened gentleman. Most of what Carl says is counterintuitive and right on the money. If you’re wondering how to create an exit strategy for yourself without selling your company to a big agency then lean for this conversation.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed:

Ethan Smith-Gillespie: One of The Smartest & Most Down-to-Earth Agency Leaders Around

Peter Kang: Young Blood With A Vision

Tracey Halvorsen: Infectious Passion For World Class Work & Doing What’s Right

Jason VanLue: Made The Leap From Design Agency Leader To Product Owner


Carl: I’m Carl Smith. I’m currently the advisor at NGen Works although I don’t really do much there except for a couple of hours a month. I guess I’m becoming a professional speaking.

Richard: Wow.

Carl: It’s weird.

Richard: You’re an advisor to a company that you started. How did you go from being the guy who started the company to a guy who’s just advising to that company?

Carl: Basically I hired people I could trust and overtime, I gave them all of my responsibilities until I realized, one day, that I was the problem. There was nothing for me to do. I was messing them up eight hours a day.

Richard: How did you find out that you could trust the people?

Carl: It took two years. Over that two year period, you just watch people make mistakes and recover. Over time, you learn to take care and control and slowly move both of them away until you realize that they’re fine.

Richard: You’re a father as well.

Carl: Yes.

Richard: It’s a little like raising children in a way?

Carl: It’s very much like raising children. My dad was a child psychologist. The piece of advice he gave me was, “If you raise independent children, don’t get upset when they don’t listen to you.” I’m at that point now with my 12-year-old daughter where she doesn’t listen to me. My 10-year-old never listened to me. It’s very similar to the company. I recently offered to help on a project, and they thanked me very nicely and then moved along without me, beautiful actually.

Richard: You’re saying it’s a good thing, it’s positive. It’s always felt like that. When we first met you, there was some scariness.

Carl: Absolutely. If you don’t have form around it, if you don’t have structure and expectations, it’ll become a bloody mess really quick. You’ll have different groups, you’ll have different expectations. You we had a younger group who was very aggressive about changing things and a seasoned group who very much wanted to have a traditional structure. It actually split the company in two in a lot of ways. Until one day, I came back in and I said, “Look guys, somebody’s got to have the power to Vito.” We didn’t realize that, but it’s going to be me right now. I’m going to Vito all this silliness and let’s just get together and come together with a plan we can all agree on.” Then over about three or four months, we started figuring out the ground work that we could live with.

Richard: The other complexity that you dealt with is that your team is almost entirely distributed.

Carl: That’s right.

Richard: There are a couple of folks that work in an office together, but for the rest, the team is all over the show.

Carl: Right. Right now it’s over three countries and five time zones.

Richard: Wow.

Carl: Yeah.

Richard: Tell us a little bit about putting that team together and then managing that team. That can’t be easy.

Carl: OK. Putting the team together in terms of the current company?

Richard: Yeah.

Carl: The team actually hired the team. One of the things that I’m really happiest about is we realized early on that if you want people to have a sense of loyalty, what you have to do make sure that the people they’re working with or the people who wanted them. The core team actually seeks out other people that they want to work with and invite them in to work on a project. That’s the on boarding process. You actually join the team that wanted you on a project. Overtime, if it works out, they hire you. The team hires the team. Now the flip side is the team fires the team. It’s very much like Survivor. If it gets to a point where you’re just not doing well, you will get voted off the island. They’ve jokingly started referring to me being voted off the island. I’m fine with it.

Richard: Not even the million dollars as prize money?

Carl: No. The gift they’re giving me right now, I could not worry about. As a result of that, it was an organic growth. Sometimes the people in Seattle knew about somebody in London. They’d either write a post they did or saw them speak and they were like, “We should consider this person.” It creates a bond, because they know that somebody sought them out that wanted to work with them. When they get in, they don’t want to let that person down.

Richard: Even on a day-to-day basis you’re not managing them, they’re managing each other or, at least, guiding each other.

Carl: Yeah, absolutely. It literally may be two hours a month. There’s a new business meeting that I’ll sit on which is 20 minutes. The reason that they call me advisor now is because I know the history of the company. I’m actually a historian in a lot of ways. They’ll go after a new healthcare product, and I’ll be able to, “Oh, well we worked with this hospital, we worked with their pharmaceutical.” I can help them round out the experience that they may not be aware of. It’s bullshit for the client though I’m thinking about it, because none of those people are there anymore. Well we’ll edit that out and post.

Richard: When you started the company, you were the founder, right?

Carl: I was the founder with three friends. It was my idea, but I would consider all four of us to be the founders.

Richard: When you started this, it feels like you’ve gone through quite a bit of enlightenment as to giving up some of that control, being able to trust other people. It’s clearly not been the same throughout. Tell us a little bit about Carl the person and how he’s changed over that time.

Carl: It was interesting, Tuesday night I was at an event and one of the questions somebody said was, “Were you always a really nice person?” I was like, “No. I was actually a real asshole until I was around 29.” I started realizing the company I was did this research that allowed them to see who was considered the most important person and who considered the least important person. I had the distinction of winning both categories.

Richard: Wow.

Carl: I realized I treated people differently. The only way that you can be considered the golden boy and the ultimate asshole is to treat people differently. That opened my eyes a lot. I started learning more about just being nice. There are books on it in different ways. You can read How to Win Friends and Influence People, right? That’s the big book Dale Carnegie. It’s a little bit all manipulation, it’s not necessarily. When you start learning people’s names and you just start to ask them how they’re doing and acknowledge that everybody on this planet has their space and their breath and their purpose, right? Things just get so much better.

Richard: You faked it until you made it. Did you [inaudible 00:06:20]

Carl: Very much. I realized I was in trouble. I was becoming bipolar and I didn’t know it. Then so I just started reading and studying and really abandoned business books and started reading about nature and science and history. That really opened my eyes to a lot of things.

Richard: Along the way, you’ve had guidance or help in the form of other people. What’s [inaudible 00:06:45]?

Carl: I would say to a degree, Melanie Husk who was my original boss, I took a tremendous amount of influence from her. I’ll say I watched her make a lot of mistakes too. A lot of times you can learn just as much from those bad times. Really I didn’t find a lot of people, my wife probably would be one of them, who would from time to time, with a laser focus, say something like, “You’re family’s coming over. You’re about to get really uptight and cranky. Why don’t you just go for a walk and get OK with it.” Overall, I didn’t really have those coaches, I wish I had. I found myself fascinated with things like Buddhism and Daoism, pulling myself into that just to learn how to let go.

Richard: We’ve spoken to a couple of other folks, and some of them have formal mentors and advisors, some of them don’t. It doesn’t seem to be any kind of [inaudible 00:07:34] here. Maybe your advice to somebody else coming up, would it be to seek out that actively?

Carl: It would absolutely be. I mentioned this in my session that Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in the NBA, had a coach. Tiger Woods, greatest golfer, had a coach. Even if you look at say Hemingway, he had an editor. There are people out there helping the people that we think are the best. Why are we trying to do it all on our own? I absolutely would. In fact, I would love to find mine.

Richard: Soon.

Carl: I know. There’s a lot of times, the talks that we’ve had before where I was like, “Oh, man. I’ve got get more Richard in my life.”

Richard: Thank you. If we imagined what Carl’s going to look like in the next 15 or 20 years, is there a way for you to decide now what that might look like?

Carl: It’s going to be really sexy.

Richard: Really sexy!?!

Carl: I can tell you that. That’s a great question. In that time period, my kids will have moved on.

Richard: Hopefully not your wife as well.

Carl: Yeah, hopefully not. I got to be honest, I’m not sure. As soon as the kids are gone, she may say, “Look, I’ve been waiting.” It’s funny when you said that I envisioned myself just traveling and meeting people and trying to embrace as many of those opportunities.

Richard: You’re doing that already.

Carl: I’m doing that right now. Yeah, I am. I would stay at the places longer though. It wouldn’t be these quick hits. I don’t know that it would necessarily be speaking. It would just be being present.

Richard: Good. I like that.

Carl: Yeah, me too. Let’s do it.

Richard: We should do that. My last question is how do you want to be remembered by the people that you have had this connection with?

Carl: When my youngest daughter was six years old, about four years ago, she came out to see me. I was outside and I was working on something. She asked me, she goes, “What do you want people to know about you when you’re dead.” I went, “Creepy 6-year-old girl, thank you for that question.” I thought about it though. I was like, How do I explain to her what it is I want? I told her, “I want people to remember me as a nice person who was successful.” That just sums it up for me.

Richard: That’s good. Carl, thank you.

Carl: Great. Thank you so much, Richard.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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