Founded over 20 years ago, Taoti Creative is a DC-based, full-service creative agency that truly does it all—web development, content creation, marketing, branding, user experience design, and virtual event production. With a nimble team and plenty of imagination, Taoti has managed to find new ways to expand their services and excel at addressing their clients’ needs. We spoke with CEO and Founder Brent Lightner about his team’s agility, some quarantine observations, and what’s next for Taoti!
Washington DC Economic Partnership: How was the transition to working fully remote for the Taoti team? Have you seen any major shifts in your day-to-day operations?
Brent Lightner: Since a third of our company is remote full time (and even the rest do a lot of teleworking), we were already set up well to go remote with very little extra effort. The hardest part was making sure we kept the culture strong and took the time to come up with virtual versions of some of the in-person traditions we had (like the “birthday dartboard” and the Monday morning standup meeting).
It’s fair to say we’re more productive when we’re fully remote. While we do save a lot of time with meetings being online instead of across town (or country), it’s not all about productivity. There are things we miss—like white-board fueled brainstorming sessions or the impromptu chats on the roof deck. Yes, we have ways and means to recreate some of that, but it’s not the same. Sometimes that interpersonal communication and relationship–building is more important than pure productivity. But we’re managing… we’re making lemonade.
WDCEP: Have you noticed a difference in how people are engaging? How has the dynamic with clients shifted?
BL: Things have shifted a bit in terms of how people are communicating. Everyone got a lot more casual and forgiving of things that would’ve been considered inappropriate pre-COVID (like Zoom calls with the cat walking in front of the camera, or cameos from the kids).
Our sales team still dresses up for pitch meetings, and it usually wins us some points. The bigger consideration is making time for the casual small talk that used to happen while people were standing around waiting to get the projector set up, or while getting coffee, etc. That unscheduled, unofficial time (be it internal or with clients) is often where the relationship is built, and that can make all the difference.
Not that we have specific policies around it, but we do try to make time for some of that stuff during meetings. We generally leave video on to keep things personal during internal meetings and one-on-one check-ins. It was awkward at first but goes a long way in making sure we maintain our culture and relationships.
WDCEP: How has the nature of Taoti’s worked changed? What are some projects that your team has been working on during the pandemic that you’re particularly excited about?
BL: We’re in the business of making people stand out online. That’s something everyone needs right now, so we’ve been one of the fortunate sectors to thrive during the pandemic. Of course, some opportunities dried up and some clients had to put things on hold, but others have taken the opportunity to level up their online presence… meaning good business for us.
Since almost two thirds of our business involves associations and non-profits (all rely heavily on convening), we’ve also built a new ‘virtual event platform’ from the ground up to support our clients. When clients realized that they needed something beyond a bunch of Zoom links to run their major events, we tried to help them find the right tools. To our surprise, we couldn’t really find the right thing, so we built our own platform service that leverages existing technical platforms (like Zoom) but layers in custom branding and functionality in a unique user experience that we’ve not seen anyone else quite replicate. We talk about it as a hybrid between an event micro site and a Zoom conference.
Our new platform has been used internationally with presence including Pete Buttigieg, Stacey Abrams, and the German Defense Minister. We’re working on our second iteration of the platform right now, so we’re very excited about this offering! Software as a Service model is new territory for Taoti… but so far, so good!
WDCEP: We heard your building a new office space- tell us more about how construction is going and what you anticipate next for the space?
BL: Yes! We were bursting at the seams in our current office (located on historic Barracks Row). So last year, we began building new space in what used to be a parking lot next door. The plan is to combine the buildings and double our square footage. We were on track to move in right about now… then the pandemic hit, and we went remote. So, we don’t really have a need for all this space right now.
Regardless, construction continues (albeit at a slower pace), and we plan to be in our expanded space by Q3. While 99% of our staff is now remote, there are a few of us that still come to the office and have formed our own work bubble. Since I don’t think the team will be coming back to the office any time this year, it looks like the very few of us here are about to get a LOT of space!
We’re eager for things to get back to normal. Even though the remote thing works for Taoti, we miss the rooftop happy hours, hosting meetups, and other events. We miss the company popcorn machine (well, I don’t—I visit it daily, but others do) and the receptionist (a 4-foot stuffed Minion armed with a nerf gun). Most of all, we miss each other and our clients. We can operate how we are for as long as we need to, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t yearn for the time when we can get together again and enjoy our new space as a team.
Brent Lightner CEO + Founder, Taoti Creative