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Innovation, Digital Disruption and Building a Lasting Culture

Q&A with Jim Cuene, President, GoKart Labs

Helping major companies face disruption is not an easy task. Nor is inventing and incubating your own startup companies. But it’s all in a day’s work for Jim Cuene and the team at GoKart Labs, a digital innovation agency based in Minneapolis, MN.

“We place a heavy emphasis on creating the right work environment and taking on the right work to attract the best talent and provide the best service to our clients,” explains Jim. “Innovation is a big part of that, whether we’re creating our own companies or solving a tough problem for one of our clients.” I sat down recently to talk to Jim about his company, the changing digital landscape and how that impacts the way we work.

Tell us a little bit about what GoKart Labs

GoKart Labs is a digital product and service company that helps big companies innovate faster in the market. We focus on three things: The first is human-centered design, which is design thinking and applying those methods to unlock ideas and innovations that our clients need; Second is agile execution, not only in methodology but also in how we work.

Jim Cuene

We focus on time-boxed efforts that are highly iterative and allow us to be responsive to our clients and the changing business environment; Finally, we’re an incubator of our own businesses, which means we build businesses around untapped potential.

From the outside we look like a lot like a digital agency. We have 55 employees spread across invention, user experience, development and marketing. We have an account team that helps our clients determine how to grow. We’ve been in business since 2009 and we’re growing. We take a lot of pride in our culture, our values and entrepreneurial spirit.

Why did you join GoKart Labs?

I was attracted to a lot of things, but I joined mostly because I think GoKart Labs is uniquely positioned in the marketplace. There are a lot of creative agencies, a lot of strategy shops and a lot of dev shops, but no one that ties it together in the way that GoKart does. I think that gives us an advantage when it comes to helping our clients invent and bring to market new businesses or identify new growth opportunities.

I was also attracted to some unique aspects of the business. I like that we start up our own businesses. I like the focus on entrepreneurship. I like that we help leaders in big companies think and act like entrepreneurs. I think we have a unique assembly of talent and we’re a company that wants to be values led and purpose focused. GoKart wants to work on things that matter and will make a difference in people’s lives, and that was important to me.

One of GoKart’s core propositions is that you help big companies “think like a startup”. What does that mean?

Not just think, but act like a startup as well. A lot of times we’re bringing an external perspective that is badly needed in large organizations. We’re bringing experiences, case studies and examples from outside their own industries. We bring ideas and opportunities based on technology not available to a large company.

We use methods and tools not used by large organizations. We focus on new breakthroughs and innovations versus adjacencies to a current business. Oftentimes, large companies approach growth with a list of their assets and strengths and then decide what to do with them. We actually come at growth from a different perspective. We start with identifying where there are real human problems and opportunities and then figure out how to address them. We bring a fresh, clean-sheet approach to solving problems.

How is the digital shift impacting companies that “grew up” in the analog world?

Oh man. How much time do you have? I was just talking with someone about this today. I think it’s kind of glib to say it’s forcing big companies to face disruption. That’s a little too easy and not everyone knows what that means. It’s actually a lot more than that. If you take a big step back, we’re in a pretty big cultural transformation in the way we think, act and live in this world — which also means in how we work. Our job is to help big companies to adjust, given the rise of connectivity, the ease of access to data and the streamlined connections with partners and consumers. We help them address the kinds of economic opportunities that arise as the cost of technical infrastructure has gone down while the ability to create complex tools through software has gone up. So there are a bunch of major shifts happening. But in the very simplest terms: We’re introducing new product opportunities in a way that can bring about new work modes. We are essentially acting as a catalyst for changing the way of working and changing the product set, which leads to culture change. That sounds like a lot of jargon, but we’re brought in to get to new products faster and we’re being held up as an exemplar of the way companies want to work.

An interesting aspect of GoKart’s business model is that you also create startups. Why is that important and what lessons could you share with aspiring entrepreneurs?

It’s critical to us for a couple of reasons. First, our experience launching startups gives us insights and experience that allows us to speak honestly to companies that are getting new ventures off the ground. Second, it creates a peer-to-peer relationship with well funded entrepreneurs and provides for a different basis of partnership with them. Third, it helps us attract great talent who want to be founders, CEOs or members of a start-up team. Fourth, it leads to better work. People are here because they eventually want to do it themselves. I think that brings in a different kind of talent. Lastly, our business model is a combination of professional services and incubation. We think over the long run we have a better business when we’re a high-performing professional services organization and we have some successful businesses we’ve launched.

What I would tell aspiring entrepreneurs is that there’s a lot of value to being part of a professional services organization because it gives you a lot of perspective across a bunch of different industries, challenges, business models, etc. It will only help you be a better leader when it is time to start your own thing.

You recently launched one of your startups called The Big Know. How is that going?

It’s going really well. You always want things to go faster, but the platform is growing. For those that don’t know, The Big Know is a platform for trusted brands to be teachers. Brands provide the course content based on their expertise and consumers like you and me sign up to take the courses. It’s all self guided and the courses are free to anyone.

The good news is that our clients and potential partners understand why the platform and the concept is important to both consumers and businesses. The platform itself is beautiful and the team is working well together. I think we’re proving that there’s a real value in the marketplace for trusted brands to provide education to people and that they find it valuable as well. We’re excited about the idea of brands as teachers.

Your company, has an amazing culture. What does it take to establish that and maintain it as you grow?

Wow. That’s a great question. I feel fortunate to have joined GoKart Labs after they made a commitment to culture being a core differentiator. We organized the whole company around building and maintaining a culture. There’s a very strong commitment from the founding partners and the leadership team to build the values that we think are critical for us. So I think it takes an organizational commitment. It takes discipline to refer to your values and make them a meaningful part of your conversations. It also takes a mindset shift for everyone in the company to be a culture builder versus a culture consumer. And people are buying into that and it’s an easy way for people to buy into something bigger because they are part of something bigger. And finally, we look at it in our performance evaluations: Are you being a net positive contributor to building the culture? It’s that important to us.

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Editors Note: GoKart Labs was purchased by West Monroe Partners in 2019

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