Brent Lightner – Founder & CEO, Taoti Creative

Brent Lightner is the founder and CEO of Taoti Creative, a Washington, DC-based creative/technology agency. Brent started Taoti from a college dorm (Juniata College) in 1996, where he started building websites to pay for his tuition. When business took off, Brent let go of his medical aspirations to devote his full attention to Taoti. From bedroom to dorm room to basement to their current headquarters on Capitol Hill in DC, Brent has worn every hat and served every role at Taoti. As Taoti passes the fifty-employee headcount in 2018, Taoti’s client roster includes Discovery Education, The World Bank, USAID, Cornell, and over 700 other clients across all sectors and verticals. Brent resides just a few blocks from his office on Capitol Hill with his wife and two young boys. His side hustles include real estate investing and selling his patent-pending wooden pig cooker. When Brent grows up, he wants to build ‘cool stuff’ in his basement with the cameras rolling so that he can put it on YouTube and become an “influencer.”

How did the concept for Taoti Creative come about?
It’s a long story, but in short, I needed money for college, so I found a scholarship competition to build educational websites. This was 1995. Prize money was up to $25,000, so I taught myself web design, built “The Interactive Music Emporium”, a site that used animated gifs—which were totally cool back then, I promise—to illustrate how musical instruments work. I ended up winning 2nd place in my category in this competition called ThinkQuest. The organizers brought me to DC, where Sinbad hosted the award ceremony and Ron Howard personally-presented my team with our award.

That prize garnered some great PR from the Wall Street JournalDer Spiegel, etc. The calls started coming into my dorm room, so I spent much of my college career building websites to pay for school. My school even featured me on the cover of their magazine. I was a med/biochem major, but building websites was starting to look like a career for me, so I struck a deal with my college in which I agreed to get accepted to med school (they were a small school and every acceptance really mattered for their stats) in exchange for getting to do a full credit internship for my own company. I did both, graduated, and while I consider Taoti to have been established in 1996 (when I built my first site for pay), I incorporated in VA in 2001 and moved to Old Town to focus on Taoti full-time. We moved our incorporation to DC in 2004, and the rest is history.

How was the first year in business?
Well, like I said, I was a college kid taking a full load. It didn’t feel like a real business at all back then. Just something I did between classes.

What was your marketing strategy?
A marketing strategy is my 2019 goal (yes, seriously).

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
I was basically a one-man show from 1996 to 2008. But then things started to take off. By 2014, we were on fire with year-over-year growth, well north of 50%. We make the Inc. 5000 list, three years in a row (probably will this year too).

How do you define success?
For me, it’s all about creating the right lifestyle. I could grow faster if I wanted to, but I like to have fun at work. I like to go home at 5:00 PM. I don’t like to work nights and weekends. Family and fun are major parts of what I consider success to be.

What is the key to success?
Of course, there is no single key. But in my case, since I run a professional services firm, the key to success is in the right people. People are all I’ve got. So the right mix of talent, leadership, and attitude are what enable Taoti to grow and enable me to make time for that ‘family and fun’ stuff that I value so dearly.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
For so many issues, there is no right or wrong. It’s just a matter of priority. When I pull one lever to ‘fix’ a problem, I create another one. Finding just the right balance for each lever, and making peace with the fact that ‘perfection’ is a silly concept, let’s me roll with the punches.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Fake it till you make it.” We’re big on innovation, and by definition, that means we try a lot of things that have never been done before. One needs to be able to articulate with confidence our path forward, even if the reality is far less clear.

And of course, as an agile shop, I’m a big fan of the “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress” cliché.

What are some of your favorite books?
In Jason Fried’s Rework, there are a lot of great nuggets (it used to be required reading at the firm, but I’ve let that lapse). There’s some bullshit too, but he describes a notion of the biggest needs and best ideas continuing to resurface naturally without a bunch of lists or reminders. I find that to be very true.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Because I’m in the people business, most of my tough days involve people (though that means my best days involve people too). Sometimes, you just really want someone to “get there,” and when they don’t, it can disappoint at a very visceral level. I’ve had to part ways with some good people who, in my opinion, just didn’t have the right raw ingredients to get to that proverbial next level. My turnover rate is high, but not because I don’t know how to keep people. I can usually keep the ones I want to. But I’m constantly looking for the best team I can assemble, so I’m fairly quick to let go of employees who are good, but not great. It frustrates a lot of people around me (though to be fair, my best people usually respond well to the idea that I’m trying to stack the deck in our favor).

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I’m level. I don’t have super high highs or low lows. So I just keep pushing through and don’t let any one thing get me too down. I’m more of a big picture guy, so I focus on trends over specific data points. And when I do that, I can see that we must be doing something right.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
A quote my dad used all the time: “Your attitude will determine your aptitude.” That’s so true. I’ll hire a great attitude with mediocre skills over a PITA guru any day. Culture is so important, and that starts with the right mindset, which all starts with the right attitude. People with good attitudes are well-rewarded here, and in life.



This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.

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