Catholic business leader Christopher Smith (pictured left) first got into business to do some good in the world—and if his successful career path is any indication—he’s doing this good work extremely well. As one of the founders of Dig Media, the parent company of Investment News Network (INN), Smith manages
Catholic business leader Christopher Smith (pictured left) first got into business to do some good in the world—and if his successful career path is any indication—he’s doing this good work extremely well. As one of the founders of Dig Media, the parent company of Investment News Network (INN), Smith managesINN’s client development and client services team. A major online portal for investment news from around the globe, INN provides not only information about the profitability of stocks and commodities to consumers but also an education on what can make investment a powerful force for good in the world.
Working from INN’s headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, Smith helps drive the effort at INN to bring clarity to the investment world, providing a foundation and context for morally responsible investments that he believes will make the investment world—and the world at large—a better place.
A husband and father, this Florida native sees his professional life and his faith life as a two way street. He’s as likely to bring is business skills to his local parish in Vancouver as he is his informed sense of the faith to everyday decisions about how, when and where to make investments.
The Catholic Business Journal spoke with Smith about his entrepreneurial experiences helping to build several businesses from scratch, about how his faith fits into his professional life and how his work at INN is helping the world to see the moral and global implications of investing.
Catholic Business Journal (CBJ): How did you first get involved in business?
Christopher Smith (CS): I started my education by wanting to be a naval architect. I grew up on sailboats in West Palm Beach, FL. However, life took me in a different direction. My family has afforded me an opportunity to go to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, FL. Once there, since I already had an appreciation for the environment and the earth, I studied environmental science.
After graduation I started working as an environmental scientist. But during this time, while the experience was great, I learned that I didn’t appreciate testing for pollutants. I felt I wasn’t making a difference there. I thought, if I could be a businessperson influencing the way things are done, I could do more good in the world. Subsequently, I applied to and was accepted into the University of Florida’s business program where I was able to learn discipline and great business principles.
CBJ: What made you decide that you could change the world through business?
CS: I saw that there weren’t enough business leaders doing good at the time. I knew I could do more good by understanding how capitalism works and how the systems work. I was intrigued by business and liked marketing in particular. I enrolled in classes at University of Florida and learned a great deal about accounting, business law and marketing. I enjoyed it and thrived.
CBJ: What in your background helped prepare you for the business world?
CS: Most important for me was being responsible for one’s self. I often look back on those days and ask what has afforded me the opportunity to be successful. It’s hard work and discipline. You have all the temptations and fun available to you, but you’re there to get an education that’s going to prepare you for the future. Discipline helped me focus steadily on my classes. As a result, I was able to form great relationships. In that way, social intelligence has helped me in business. In particular, learning how to be empathetic as a business leader has enabled me to relate to people. I can’t stress that component enough. Of course, plain old hard work and being able to execute a plan where and when you want are also key to success. I go back to those experiences when I make business decisions: you have every opportunity to go down the wrong path but hard work and discipline keep you on the right path.
CBJ: How did you help to create the Investing News Network?
CS: I initially moved from Florida to San Francisco in 1999. The Dot-Com boom was occurring at that time and I found work in the internet marketing world, with a special focus on audience measurement. But things started to crumble at that point for the Dot-Com boom and I replied to a job ad that [INN co-founder] Nick Smith had for the company he was working for at the time. The job offer was for a sales representative position that had the opportunity for international travel. The job Nick was offering was a commission-only job, no salary, but I took it, and sales really taught me how to sell, especially considering how expensive it was to live in a city such as San Francisco.
Nick taught me the ropes for business publishing too. Being in his organization, I was part of a group that managed to push out a number of thought leadership projects. We also published a magazine called Revenue: The Performance Marketing Standard, which I am proud of, especially after becoming the publisher of the magazine.
I still take a lot of the learning we put into that publication for affiliate marketers to work with big brands, and we’re still using the knowledge we pushed out to the marketplace in the work we do for INN. In summary we planted the seeds of education and found ways to use education as a marketing vehicle. I’ve been selling that with Nick since 1999.
CBJ: How did your career take a turn into writing and publishing?
CS: In a long story short, after our work in San Francisco, Nick and I took separate career paths for a while. He gave me a call one afternoon—I was working for a large internet marketing company at the time. He told me he had an opportunity to work in Vancouver, Canada, for a green venture capital company. I acutely remembered my original decision to go into business: someday I wanted to do some good in the world. I saw this call from Nick as the opportunity to do that. My wife was supportive in the decision and was willing to give this a try.
So I went up to Vancouver in 2007, met with Nick and we worked with the venture capitalist company to help educate the Fortune 500 about how being responsible can also be good for the bottom line. That was the point in my career when I realized that things were coming together and we could do good in business.
CBJ: How did the green venture capital company experience lead you to create INN?
CS: When Nick and I were in Vancouver, the venture capital company ran out of money. Our business unit was the only profitable part of that venture capital company. Then Nick and I, along with our other business partner Mike Rodger, had the foresight from what was happening at that time to enter the resource sector of the market. We saw a huge gap in the marketplace in terms of quality non-advertorial content for investors.
That’s when we started the company Dig Media from scratch. Our backs were against the wall in 2010 when we launched the business as all the financial markets were crashing, and we had nothing but our ideas and hard work. We had to provide absolute value in order to be successful, and this effort started what Investing News Network is now.
CBJ: How did you survive this venture capital company’s failure?
CS: We didn’t get over our skis in terms of what we were spending and earning—we were fiscally responsible in our own business unit within the company. But that was our job as a publishing company, anyway. I don’t blame it all on the management at this venture company. The markets had a big swing during the financial crisis in 2008, which was around the time this company was launching. So there were a number of factors at play. We had the publishing skills. Nick is a great publisher and a great salesman, and we had a great idea at the time. We were able to capitalize on those strengths and execute in a way that allowed us to stay solvent and be profitable with our venture within the larger organization.
CBJ: How did Dig Media become Investment News Network?
CS: It was a strategic decision. At Dig Media, we ran a network of about 50 content sites that were about investing news. The network of sites was addressing everything from gold investing news to lithium and silver investing news. The vision that we had for the company was to continue to grow the model outside the resource sector and get into the technology and life science markets.
In August 2015 we launched InvestingNews.com. We’re operating under that brand as a destination where investors can find education and news and be connected with opportunity in these investing spaces. While still operating Dig Media, we recognized scalability was an issue when running 50 sites and we saw it as prudent to consolidate and go forward with a single brand. That single brand was the Investing News Network.
CBJ: How has your Catholic faith helped form you as a person?
CS: I was born into the faith. My parents were devout Catholics from Michigan. They always went to church and I went to Catholic schools growing up. I hadn’t always been close to the Church in college. However, I gained Type I diabetes as I was leaving my college career.
Type I is one of the most challenging kinds of diabetes. Living with this kind of autoimmune disorder, you become acutely aware of the all the variables of life, from stress to exercise, for example, which affect your blood sugars. You are also aware of everything that affects you in a way you might not otherwise realize, and you’re aware of how beautifully attuned your body really is to its environment.
When I was diagnosed, it was a real test of faith because I began asking, “Why me?” and those type of questions. Then as I began treating the diabetes I started living life like each day might be my last day. That mentality has carried through to this day, and now it’s even stronger through my faith. I’ve been treating the diabetes with an insulin pump, which provides insulin to my body, helping to balance my sugar levels. Still, I wake up every morning thankful for every day I have here on earth and am prepared for that day when I will not be waking up to a new day.
CBJ: Was it the diabetes that brought you back to the faith?
CS: In part it was my diabetes. More importantly, the birth of my daughter was one of those milestones in life where you appreciate how special life is. She also has diabetes, which was a tough thing to discover. That concept of her having to experience this ordeal pained me to recognize that she’s going to have to go through life at an early age, and can’t have the experiences most kids have – she can’t have cake or cookies at will as she once did.
We started attending church here at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Vancouver. My daughter was baptized at St. Francis and the parish community brought us in and welcomed us. I was hesitant at first but really appreciated the support. We send our daughter to the local Catholic school here, too, where she is thriving. I appreciate the values of the school. When you have the responsibility of educating a human in this environment, and given the dire direction in which the world seems to be heading, I think faith really starts to step in. Put simply, because of these experiences and because of my daughter, I have a new insight into the importance of my faith.
CBJ: How does faith play out in your professional life?
CS: The local Church has welcomed me and my family in, and has been a pillar for us as we struggle with diabetes. In terms of my professional life, I’m proud that my company advertises its values on its front door: “Don’t Lie. Ask for Help. Always Create Value. Have Fun.“
In my business life, I’ve always been conscious of trying to be honest and willing to educate people to help them have financial success. I also place a premium on doing things the right way in an industry that typically will not hear a lot about faith, whether investing in natural resources, life sciences or technology.
I am proud of what we’ve done here at INN from a business standpoint. We take Jesus’s teachings to heart and try to do good for people. For example, we’re rolling out plans to have a social dividend for our earnings. We’ve been fortunate enough to be successful in financial quarters. So we’ll take a portion of our earnings and give back to a cause that the team votes on. We’ll afford our team time off to execute on that social dividend as well.
CBJ: What sorts of outreach are you looking at with these dividends?
CS: Some of the causes we are currently considering include local women’s shelters or donating food to the homeless community here in Vancouver. Our office is in an area where we see the plight and effects of drugs and homelessness. It’s a constant reminder that we can do more. We’re blessed to have this opportunity to be in a position to give back.
CBJ: Conversely, how are you using your professional skills for the good of the Church?
CS: I’m using my business acumen at the parish to help the parish finance team come up to speed on how the parish can use more efficient means of collection, or look at ways that we can raise more money to help the local communities. There’s a nice blend of business and faith in my life.
CBJ: What do you want people to know about investments or investing?
CS: There are three things:
· First, never assume—verify before you act. It’s important to get into the details with something. It’s one of the things I’ve learned in this industry. Be sure to read the quarterly reports, because there is a lot of information in there that is sometimes hard to get at through other media. There is good information in public company reports, in the year-end summaries and quarterlies that you don’t always get access to on the website or in press release.
· Second, since emotions get in the way, learn when to sell. I learned this the hard way. Everyone can buy, but knowing when to get out is important. People get an emotional attachment to a stock or sector, and they can ride it all the way down to the stock price going to zero. You’ll find that you need to be cold in your decisions with even your favorite stocks. Know what you need to know and get out. Don’t be afraid to be calculating and know when it’s time to sell if things are not going the right way with the company. As humans we tend to buy what we like. There can be a lot of marketing out there to lure you in—a lot of good pitches. Once you become invested, sometimes you continue to be invested because you bought into the story. You have to be careful and watch the climate out there. I’ve learned sometimes the hard way: geopolitical situations can sometimes influence the success of markets and cycles. You have to be acutely aware of these factors.
· Third, understand your management. The track record of management is something every investor should have a keen understanding of: who is at the helm? Knowing the answer to that question will allow you to see if a manager can raise money and has a track record of successful execution. Has the manager had success before and is the manager good at communicating with the market? Can the manager execute a plan or project? Often you can see a good idea or good project run to the ground with poor management.
CBJ: How do you learn from your mistakes?
CS: Making mistakes is important because it teaches us to try new things. You’re learning if you’re making mistakes. I try to bring that philosophy into the company. It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we can learn from it and alter our course for the good.
In that sense, sometimes I learn more from my daughter about business than I do from executives. After school, I’ll ask my daughter, ‘Did you make any mistakes today?’ Then I’ll encourage her that making mistakes is OK because ultimately if you make a mistake you have the knowledge of why and how that one situation went wrong. It’s a positive thing in that sense. It’s how we learn and how we become better.
CBJ: What sort of challenges have you faced in morally unsound investments that might come across your desk? For example, given the history of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—and the free-for-all among its neighbors and other nations around the world, exploiting the Congo’s natural resources, how do you deal with this information from an investor news perspective?
CS: What INN’s journalists are uncovering in regards to geopolitical influence and activity within the resource sector is fascinating to watch. Referring to the Congo, we’re often educating folks on the events that occur with money and conflict minerals. There are certainly a lot folks that are using the Congo’s resources to fund bad activities. We report on that aspect of investments—and a lot of companies are realizing that because consumers are starting to vote with their wallets. They’re beginning to realize that we can’t buy cobalt from the DRC, for example, because the various militias in that area are selling the region’s cobalt for arms—the same cobalt that is being used in our iPhones.
In general, when I have a tough decision to make regarding the morality of an investment, I go back to the values of our company and look for that guidance: are we creating value to be honest with ourselves and our audience? If I can’t make the decision internally, I look for help from my peers, colleagues, family and even my faith.
CBJ: How do you balance bottom line and a sense of mission?
CS: If you have your mission properly understood, bottom line and mission feed into one another. Having a clear mission statement with everyone on board and in synchronicity will help you to meet your goals and raise the money needed to further that goal.
What wisdom can you share about the moral implications of investing? Are there challenges you face as a Catholic business leader, in either the corporate world or as an entrepreneur which force you to consider things from the perspective of faith? Feel free to let us know in the Comments section (you must register first to prevent spam), or on our FaceBook page.
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Joseph O’Brien is a Catholic Business Journal correspondent. He may be reached at [email protected]