Brent Lightner of Taoti Creative in Washington, DC joins the podcast to talk about how he became an accidental — but quite successful — agency owner.
At the dawn of the Netscape era, Brent took on a web development challenge in search of scholarship funds. Two decades later, he leads an award-winning creative firm.
“When I went to college, I was a chemistry and biology major, and I ended up getting accepted to Tulane medical school. And so this whole thing was supposed to come out with me being a doctor on the other end, and the websites were just kind of a means to an end to pay for school the whole way through the process,” Brent told Chip.
It turned out that wasn’t the path Brent followed. Instead, his work drew the attention of news outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Der Spiegel.
As a young web designer, Brent had the kind of life that many 20-somethings would envy. “I’m hanging out by the pool all day with my laptop and my bathing suit,” he explained.
Later, he gave up poolside work and set up his team at his house. “First, it was my second bedroom. And then we moved to the dining room. Then we moved to the basement, and I had to buy a new house just to get the bigger basement. And I was basically running a sweatshop out of my basement at that point.”
Today, Taoti makes its home in its own building in the nation’s capital.
As a marketing agency leader, Brent made an observation that will resonate with many of his peers. “The clients pay us, but it’s their audience that we actually work for.”
Brent isn’t content to rest on his hard-won success. Instead, he is looking to what the future holds.
“I think there’s a lot of new stuff that’s going to be coming out, between virtual and augmented reality, and all these other different ways that you bridge that gap. That’s where I think there’s just a huge amount of potential for innovation. That’s what excites me,” Brent said.
Chip: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Chats With Chip podcast. I’m your host Chip Griffin, and my guest today is Brent Lightner from Taoti Creative in Washington, DC. Welcome to the show, Brent.
Brent: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here, Chip.
Chip: It is great to have you, and I’m particularly – and you know this because we’ve talked prior to this recording, but I’m particularly fascinated by how you got your start. Because in all of my conversations over the years with countless agency owners, I this is, this is a first for me as far as how someone got into the consulting and agency business. So why don’t we start with your story?
Brent: Sure. It’s definitely a bit unique. Back in 1996, and mind you, this is really the dawn of the internet here. We were still working with gopher and FTP. And I remember life before web browsers. And that dates me.
Chip: Those were the good old days. I remember when I used to access the internet by using a BBS to dial in to then access the text based internet from there so…
Brent: I used to run a BBS, I’m quite familiar. Those were the good old days though, that’s back when you could you know, just FTP into a server, change a file, 20 seconds later, it was good to go. Geez, now trying to push something live to production is one more deal. But I digress.
Chip: Indeed, indeed.
Brent: So anyway, back in ’96, I was just graduating high school and there was this new – it was an inaugural year of a new scholarship competition called ThinkQuest, this wonderful man by the name of Al Weiss made a lot of money building the kind of the groundwork of the internet really, ended up selling it to America Online and took his earnings and started up a lot of philanthropy. And one of his programs was called ThinkQuest. And what it was it was essentially a scholarship competition to encourage high school students to learn how to build websites for educational purposes. And so long story short, I put together a team and we we entered this ThinkQuest competition, there were a bunch of different categories. And we went for the arts and literature, I forget the exact category name, but we figured it was the least nerdy if you will, and so we’d have the least competition, and it turned out to work pretty well. So we entered this competition, we figured out how to build websites, and we created a site called the interactive music emporium. It was essentially a very animated GIF heavy website, that explained how musical instruments work. And so, lo and behold, much to our surprise, we actually ended up winning. I think we came in second place in our category, but it was really a big deal for us because the scholarship money was up to $25,000 per student. There were two other students on our team. And they brought us all down to DC for the award ceremony – I was in Central Pennsylvania at the time. And it was a star studded event, Sinbad was the emcee. And Ron Howard actually was the presenter of our awards, I got to meet him. And he’s the one that actually handed our cool trophies to us. And so it was really a big deal for us. And more importantly, we got a lot of money out of the deal, a lot of scholarship money. And so, you know, shortly after that, I went to college, also in Central Pennsylvania, great little school called Juniata College. And I basically kept building websites on the side, and I got some really good press from this, from this ThinkQuest event. Der Spiegel reached out, the Wall Street Journal reached out. And before, you know it, I had, like camera crews coming down to campus to do these professional photo shoots. It was, you know, I went to a small school. So this was a pretty big deal. It was a lot of fun. We had a good time doing it. And you know, all this press lead to people coming out of the woodwork calling me and asking if I could build them a website because people barely knew what websites were back then. So sure, why not. And we kept building websites, or I kept building websites. And I remember one of the very first ones that I actually did under the Taoti name was for a company called Emmler’s Poultry who are still thriving today, they transport chicken, and poultry, and there’s a lot more to them than that these days. But, you know, I think it was a $400 web project. And, you know, to give you an ideal today, or biggest projects, you know, get upwards of seven, eight figures sometimes. And so there’s – we’ve come a long way from the the $400 poultry websites to where we are today.
Chip: And I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of changes along the way. My guess is that back then you were probably building in straight HTML, right?
Brent: Pure HTML. And of course, this was long before there were you know, HTML for Dummies books and things like that. And so the beauty of the internet from the day one from the first, you know, Netscape browser, you could always right click and view source. And so that’s kind of how I figured out how to build websites, I would just print out the source code and figure it out, if you put a little be bracket around something that made it bold and I’d make my little cheat sheets. And of course it evolve quickly from there. And before, you know, we were writing Perl scripts with CGI, and like I said, creating more advanced animated Gifs at the time. And by the way, my staff’s going love that I’m saying Gifs because I normally say Gifs just to drive them crazy. It’s the huge debate in the office. But anyway…
Chip: So yeah, I’ve always been a Gif guy myself, but, you know, hey, it is what it is.
Brent: Mm hmm.
Chip: So and, of course, you know, today you’ve got more much more advanced tools instead of view source, you’ll do you know, the developer tools within Chrome or something like that, you can see how someone use CSS to stylize something it’s – I, you know, I continue to be a geek at heart. So I, you know, I appreciate being able to sort of see how the, the innards work, if you will.
Brent: Sure. And that’s, you know, especially early on when I did everything myself, that was the beauty of the internet, like everything was so open and accessible, and you could really get into the guts of everything. You know, as we’ve grown, it’s been a lot harder to keep my hands in the, in the weeds with some of these things. It’s, you know, if I had to build a website today, I’d be embarrassed to say, I’m not sure I could do it. Maybe I can log onto a WordPress or a mixed type of platform and get something up and online. But it’s been a while since I’ve actually laid down some code. Back in the day, I think, man, we were coding with Assembly and even played around with machine language for a little bit. I used to be a bona fide computer geek for a while. But I’m a little bit rusty, I have to say.
Chip: So and I you know, I don’t want to take us too far off track here. But I’m just curious. What were you using Assembly for for websites? That seems like perhaps a little bit of overkill?
Brent: Yeah, to be clear, though, Assembly had nothing to do with websites. In fact, it was the other way around, I started to kick it took a Turbo Pascal course in high school. Yeah, it was just kind of a fluke, because candidly, my, my, my education is really in medicine. In fact, when I went to college, I was a chemistry and biology major, I ended up getting accepted to Tulane medical school. And so this whole thing was supposed to come out with, you know, me being a doctor on the other end, and the websites were just kind of a means to an end to pay for school the whole way through the process. And then finally, get around to graduation day. And much to my parents dismay, I decided that I was going to defer my acceptance to Tulane and keep building websites. And at this point, I’d moved from Juniata college to State College just, you know, basically living at Penn State without being a student there. You know, I’m hanging out by the pool all day with my laptop and my bathing suit. And you know, this was my idea of a career and my parents were just not happy about that. But obviously, it worked out okay. And, you know, it wasn’t until probably about two years ago, that they figured out that I have a real job, they still think I play video games for a living. But yeah, it’s it’s been quite a quite a journey to say the least,
Chip: I was gonna say that’s, that is a big journey from going down the path of becoming a doctor to you being a creative agency, digital marketing type guru, I guess, if you will. So that’s that that is certainly a change. You know, I guess, what was it that said to you, Hey, you know, I should give up on becoming a doctor and go this way instead? Is it just because the the business was flowing so well? Or was there something about it that really drew you to it?
Brent: I get that question a lot. You know, what, what made me decide to do it, it wasn’t really a kind of a decision I made consciously. A lot of it was just driven by momentum. Like I said by the time I got to my senior year, in fact, and my, my college was wonderful, they really supported, you know, everything that was doing, and they let me do an internship my senior year for my own company, which is, you can imagine, you know, raises some eyebrows. But I got to the point where I barely had time to go to class, because I was too busy building websites. And it got to the point where it was too lucrative to kind of ignore. And they were very understanding with that, and they worked with me, and let me put together this kind of special internship for my own company. And it was under, you know, professor supervision. But nevertheless, I spent most of my senior year wrapping up my requirements, because, you know, they wanted to see me graduate, and my parents certainly wanted to see me graduate. And I, you know, I wanted to graduate as well. But there was a, there was a fleeting moment there where, I thought it was going to have to make a decision between, you know, being a college dropout, or pursuing my business and, you know, Juniata was great at letting me do both. But ever since then, it’s really been kind of a, like I said, a game of momentum, almost, it’s not like, I got to this one point where I said, All right, today’s the day that I decided to forgo my medical career in lieu of, you know, building websites for a living. I guess, really, if there had to be one pivotal moment, like I said, I was accepted into Tulane medical, I deferred for a year, the second enrollment year rolled around, and they basically told me that I either had to matriculate, or they were going to withdraw the offer. So that’s where things got very real very quickly, because that was the point where I had to make a decision and kind of get off the line. And that’s when I decided, you know what? Business is just too good to, to put down right now. And it was interesting, it was it was kind of a cool lifestyle too. Like I said, I was essentially living in what amounted to a country club type of apartment complex and loving life. And, you know, everything was going well, so I figured, let’s, let’s kind of see where, where this takes us. And it was a big risk and a big deal at the time, but obviously, it’s, it’s worked out.
Chip: And I think, I mean, you know, while parts of your story, are atypical, I think the part that is more normal, if you will, is that you’re sort of an accidental agency owner, right. I mean, that’s, that’s very typical of most agency owners, maybe they set out to start doing some consulting in between jobs, or because they were moving or, you know, some life circumstance changed. And then inertia, and success carried them forward. And they said, geez, you know, maybe I should stick with this. And so, you know, while I think probably most agencies haven’t started out of a scholarship competition, I think, you know, the fact that you sort of, didn’t set out initially to build an agency from the ground up is, you know, more the typical experience. As you as you think back, you know, was there a point where you decided, hey, you know, this is this is, you know, more than just a way to give me the lifestyle that’s kind of fun and enjoyable for a 20 something and it sort of turned into, hey, I can I can really make this a business, I need to, I need to start taking the steps to, to move it forward. Was there a specific inflection point? Or was it just that continued momentum?
Brent: That’s a good question. I, you know, I kind of have to really think back through history here. I think what it was, you know, when I was operating out of college, and then out of my apartment in State College, I eventually got to a point where I moved down to Old Town Alexandria, in Virginia and started doing some work with a company there that was kind of on the very cutting edge of some artificial intelligence stuff. And it was, you know, I think, a nine or 10 month fling that I did with them. And it was really good, though, because it got – it gave me a chance to see the real world and the real workplace for a little bit. But again, I’d been doing my Taoti stuff the whole time in the background. And once again, it kind of bubbled over to the point where, you know, there was too much too much business there, too much work to do to try to hold down two full time jobs. And so I, you know, I’d let go of that, that other job and kind of refocused on Taoti for a while. And then, you know, bit of a personal injection here. I, when I was doing my undergrad work, I actually spent a year in northern England at the University of Leeds, and I met my then girlfriend now wife, and she was German. And so she was over in Leeds as well. Long story short, she had to move back to Germany to finish her degrees. And so I can do my job from anywhere, right. So at that point, since I’m still pretty much a one man operation with a couple of contractors and freelancers, I packed up and moved to Germany for a couple years, and I spent two years in Dortmund, basically, running my business out of Germany, and no one here really knew the difference. And then after two years, I moved back to the Washington DC area, right on Capitol Hill, I guess that’s about 2003 now if I’m keeping track, and it was at that point where things start to get a little bit more seriously or a little bit more serious. My girlfriend back with me, we moved in together, you know, now, it’s kind of like we’re not students anymore. The degrees have been had, we’re out of school, we bought house, it’s like, you know, things are starting to get a little bit real. And so, you know, I started focusing more time on, on the business and started trying to grow it in a way that’s a little bit less Brent, the freelancer contractor one man show and a little bit more operating like a real business. And that was definitely a work in progress, because I worked from home and you know, I got tied up in some of the real estate stuff going on in the early 2000s. And in a good way, but it did distract me a little bit from my business. And when things cooled down there, and I really refocused, probably somewhere around 2007, 2008, I started to hire my first actual W2 employees. Then we set up shop and first, it was my kind of the second bedroom. And then we moved to the dining room. Then we moved to the basement, and I had to buy a new house just to get the bigger basement. And I was basically running a sweatshop out of my basement at that point, I think I had, I don’t know, 12, 13 people full time in my basement. These are Capitol Hill homes, not very big. And so it was until we were completely bursting at the seams. I remember we had days where you know, we didn’t have any space inside. So we had a patio out back that we had a – you know, just a patio table on and that was our conference room. And if it rained, we couldn’t hold meetings because we had no place to meet. And so finally, we outgrew that and we moved in some real class A space in Dupont Circle in DC. And it wasn’t till about, I guess almost three, three and a half years ago, where we moved out of that place. We bought our own building here on Capitol Hill and Barrett’s roads, really a great place old, very old 1800 something historic rowhouse that we keep learning all kinds of history about. But we’ve turned this into our space now, we actually just last week signed some new space to build on the empty lot next to us. And we’re up to about, I think about 55 people now, I lose track sometimes. But uh, yeah, it’s definitely come a long way.
Chip: And that’s, that’s quite the journey. I mean, if you think back to, to that first employee, what was your first hire? What was the what was that person’s role?
Brent: I believe it was a developer, because fundamentally, you know, I find a lot of agency owners either lean creative, or lean technical. I lean creative. I’m definitely a much more of an artist than I am a software engineer. And so for the first decade or so of our agency life, probably more than that, I was the art department, I was a creative director, I did all the designs myself. But that means I needed help on the actual production side in terms of developing and coding. And so my first several employees were definitely more on the technical developer side before I started hiring art people, because when you’re a one man art department, and you bring in your first outside opinion. That’s time, I feel I feel bad for my first designers to have to have put up with me, that had to be brutal.
Chip: Yeah, I mean, I think it is tough whenever you’ve got people who have any, any particular expertise, but I think, you know, particularly creatively, you know, for example, I’ve done a lot of ghost writing over the years. And for me, hiring writers is always a challenge, right? Because everybody’s got a little bit of their own style. And I think, you know, graphic designers are the same way, right? You know, quite often, in fact, you can take a look at a website and say, Oh, this, this sort of has the sensibilities of this firm, because, you know, they’ve got, you know, a particular design aesthetic that they tend to go for. So, you know, it’s – it is, I think, tough to be in that situation where you’ve got a creative working for another creative.
Brent: Well, the thing that we figured out, and really, this is within, you know, much more recent history is that you gotta, you know, once you take the egos out, you take the opinions out and the personal biases, and you get down to what is the business objective? And, you know, that’s we’re always trying to get to the center core of why and figuring out, what are we doing? Why are we doing it, how’s it going to, like, we like to say, move the needle for our clients? If you can’t draw a line between something that you’re doing from a design point of view, or a UX point of view, or whatever, to the fundamental why of project, then you’re really, you know, you might create something beautiful, but it may very well be missing the point. And so that, you know, really, that’s one of the reasons why we have evolved from being a web dev shop. And we definitely grew up as a web dev shop. But these days, we’re full service creative, because we can’t, you know, very rarely does just reenvisioning a website or rebuilding a website, fix your company’s business objectives or your problems or whatever, there’s, there’s always so much more to it than that. And by approaching things from a much more kind of holistic point of view, where we’re getting into real business issues for clients, and not just the web stuff, but the thing behind the web stuff. That’s, that’s what makes things tick.
Chip: Right. I mean, it, you know, back in the late 90s, early 2000s, I had a web dev shop, and we, you know, it was really more at that time about sort of just the website was almost the the end in itself, as opposed to a means to the end. And there has been that evolution where people have started to understand, you know, you know, it’s not just let’s throw something up there, have a presence, have it look good. It’s really, you know, how do we use it to achieve the business goals and objectives that we have? Right. And I think as an agency, one of the challenges is always to remember that the agent part of agency, right, in other words, when you’re creating something, you’re creating it, not only to achieve the objectives of the client, but also you’re creating it in their image. So I’ve had times over the years where I’ve, you know, worked with clients, and you know, I have a particular way that maybe I want to write something or design a website or whatever, but I need to remember that, you know, it’s, it’s doing it for them, and I need to be speaking in their voice and then creating a look and feel that they would appreciate not necessarily something that is – not that I would dislike it, obviously, but you know what I mean, it’s it, you really have to keep that in mind.
Brent: But really, it’s it’s one step further, it’s not keeping the client happy, it’s keeping their clients or their user base, or their audience happy. And so really, the clients pay us, but it’s their, their audience that we actually work for. And most of our clients get that. And when they do, we can do some really cool stuff, because that’s when we do get to go back to you know, let’s look at the data. Let’s look at the do some user testing and focus groups. Occasionally, you do get the client that thinks that our job is to keep them happy. And, you know, that’s, that’s where we start getting misaligned expectations. It’s always about the end user, not about the organization that’s effectively hiring us.
Chip: You know, we’ve spent a lot of times we’re looking in the rearview mirror here. But before we run out of time, I would like to take an opportunity to sort of peer around the corner, if you will, you know, what do you see, you know, trends for agency like yours, but agencies like yours, or for your agency in particular, you know, what do you what do you see the next few years holding? You know, what are you most excited about?
Brent: Well, there’s a lot of different ways I could take that question.
Chip: I like to leave it open ended. So you can take it wherever you’d like.
Brent: The thing that, you know, I’ve, excuse me, I’ve kind of talked about the idea that we’ve evolved from web dev into full service creative. And the reason is not because we’re trying to expand profit lines or different service lines or things like that. But what’s really exciting about focusing on the creative is that we get to create things, we get to have the big ideas and the concepts that actually accomplish things. And when you’re strictly executional, or whether it’s web development, or really any other purely executional type of role, you’re executing someone else’s blueprints, we want to be the people creating those blueprints, because that’s where the magic happens. That’s where the decisions are made. That’s where the strategy is developed. And that’s where the different tactics come into play. And those will always have value. The means by which we execute those, the tools we use, whether it’s web development, or copywriting or designing, you know, any number of disciplines. But those are, those are the means to the end. And so when we focus on the end, and not those means we figure out that how we get there, it’s still important, execution is still obviously very critical to any successful project. But I want to be focused as an agency on those big ideas, I want to come up with the innovative concepts, the the strategies that are going to make a difference. And in particular, in terms of where I see things going…we’re a big, big fan of that really interesting space between the digital and the physical realms. So we’ve set up a bit of our own little maker lab in our basement. And you know, we’ve got a bit of an r&d budget that we’re using to experiment, experiment with new types of projects that transcend that digital and physical run with Internet of Things. And we play with smart, we know Raspberry Pi’s. And recently, just a cool project with this big touchscreen and multi displays. For presentations, I think there’s a lot of new stuff that’s going to be coming out, you know, between virtual and augmented reality, and all these other different ways that you bridge that gap that, you know, that’s where I think there’s just a huge amount of potential for innovation. That’s what excites me.
Chip: And it’s interesting, you know, I think there are very few agencies that are are playing in that space. So I think, you know, that that presents an interesting opportunity. And I would agree with you that there is, you know, that a lot of us who are geeks, or digitally fascinated or whatever you want to call it, you know, we tend to overlook some of the, the real world things, but you know, particularly today, I mean, I, you know, I sit around, look around my house, I’ve got, you know, Alexa all over my house, right? So and in fact, I shouldn’t have said that, because now, not now she’s listening, Alexa, stop. So, you know, it’s it’s one of those challenges to think about, okay, you know, as we’re, as we’re coming up with these things that are web based, how do we think of things that interact with people’s individual lives? Because I think that, that is a real opportunity for a lot of agencies, a lot of clients, if you’re thinking creatively.
Brent: Sure. And I make, at the end of the day, say whatever you want to say about in terms of what we do, but we’re still fundamentally in the communications business. And the more stuff that’s out there, the more even the very innovative, very unique stuff today becomes noise tomorrow. And so always trying to keep one step ahead of all that noise and trying to figure out, you know, how can we how can we get the message through above all that noise to the audience that we’re targeting? And what is that message? And how do we make it resonate with them? That is fundamentally what we get hired to do. And all the different service lines, you know, video content, marketing, you know, development, they’re all just they’re the ways we do it, but they’re not the why that we do it? And so making sure that we always focus on that, why is what keeps it interesting, and what keeps us innovating to come up with the new different things that we can do to make that happen.
Chip: So for my final question, I guess I would ask you, if you if you were thinking back to that kid in the dorm room working on the the project for the scholarship money, is there any advice that you would give him? Is there anything that, you know, you’ve picked up over the years that you think would have been helpful for him to have known 25, 20 or whatever how many years ago it is?
Brent: I actually do a variety of kind of mentoring and coaching to everything from high school students, college students, we have an active internship program here. So I, I get those questions a lot. And the problem is, it’s a little bit like, when when investors talk about their, their unicorn companies, they’re so rare, it’s so hard to predict success by looking back on my particular path. And they- Yes, there were things that I’ve done that I think we’re helpful, there were things I wish I had done that, you know, could have gotten things to where they are now more quickly. But it’s hard to tell, you know, some some kid coming out of high school or college that they should do what I did, because I don’t know that it’s repeatable, in the way that I’ve done it. I will say, though, in terms of more, you know, broad advice, I would say focus is is definitely a big part of it, I, you know, I kind of mentioned earlier that I took my eye off the ball for a while and kind of went down a real estate side hustle. And it was good to this day, real estate’s still my side hustle, but you can literally chart you know, if you look at our revenue and our growth as a company, you can see exactly when I was screwing around with real estate on the side versus when I was, you know, my full attention was at Taoti. And so, you know, you know, even Tulane by forcing me to do one or the other, they forced me to focus on my business. And when I got out of the real estate stuff a bit more, it forced me to focus on my business. And so making sure that you really commit to whatever it is that you’re doing. That’s definitely one of the better things that I could recommend. The other thing is, you know, making sure that you bring on the right people…my my job pretty much is nothing but recruiting and retaining the best employees that I can. At the end of the day, we’re a professional services firm. So it’s professionals that make us who we are. And it’s, you know, it, it’s definitely not easy dealing with people in, you know, in a good and bad way. I’m not, I’m not complaining about but keeping people happy. And the fact that everyone has a different sense of what they’re looking for out of their own personal lives, their work lives, their work life balance that, you know, it’s not like there are any, any one particular way to run a company or any one particular management style that works. And that’s one of the more challenging things is, you know, we’re to a size where it’s not right or wrong, it’s just a matter of where are the priorities? You know, where do I want to focus now, and at what cost is it going to, you know, create pain in other places, but figuring out that balance, as you start to, you know, build, you know, build beyond your own internal skill set and start leveraging other people’s skill set, you know, dealing with that is, is a very important part of being able to grow an actual company.
Chip: Yeah, I think that’s fantastic advice. And the success of most agencies is driven by the both the focus of the owner and the people that the owner surround themselves with. So absolutely. Great advice there. So Brent, this is this has been a great conversation. If people want to learn more about Taoit or more about you, where can they find you online?
Brent: I’m easy to find. And the beautiful thing about Taoti is that we own like the top hundred search engine rankings if you search for Taoti – TAOTI, which by the way, means the art of the internet, it’s an acronym. You know, it’s the number one question we get in sales meetings and it used to be our tagline it, you know, it worked back in ’96. It’s not so cool today. But we’re committed to the brand at this point. And it’s great because the only people we compete with is a green tea company out of China called Tao Tea. And other than those guys, we pretty much own the SEO space for it. So Taoti.com is our website. If you Google me, you will easily find all kinds of contact information for me. I’m definitely not one of those hard to people on the internet.
Chip: Fantastic. Well, I’m glad I found you, Brent. I’m glad you were able to spend some time with my audience here on the show. It’s been a great half hour, and I look forward to talking to you again soon. Again, my guest today has been Brent Lightner of Taoti Creative in Washington, DC.
Brent: Thank you very much, Chip. Great being here.