I am holed up in a local juice bar in Dunedin, Florida. It’s another sweltering sunny day. The kind that melts the acai puree in my breakfast bowl faster than I can say “Purna Virji”, when suddenly: Ping! A Skype message from Brent Csutoras. “Ready?”
Brent sat down with me so I could get his perspective on his odds-defying, self-educated career path. Why failure has never stopped him. “However difficult things get, it’s all about your resilience and perseverance to keep doing your best,” he says.
“Do what you have to do. Then dust yourself off and keep going.”
The early days
Before Brent Csutoras became an accomplished marketer and industry influencer, he was a child of an Air Force military firefighter who moved frequently around the world.
He recalled vivid memories of school gang fights on the football field, and being laid out on the concrete his first day of middle school in Virginia. Being subjected to extreme violence early in life seems to have had a profound effect on his current outlook: “Things are going to happen, and there’s not much you can do. You have to buck up and do the best you can in any situation. Then dust yourself off and keep going.”
He is a Jiu-Jitsu fighter and dad to two boys.
I find that entrepreneurs’ first jobs tend to be banal, micro-humiliations. Endless coffee runs and braindead paper shredding in a soulless office. But Brent Csutoras first tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit at a very young age, before he would ever get near a copier.
He didn’t get an allowance in elementary school, so he would buy candy at 7-Eleven, and resell it out of his backpack to kids at school. “If you put your mind to it, there’s nothing you can’t overcome,“ Brent reminisces.
At the age of 15, Brent left Virginia to move to a small suburban area outside of St.Louis. On his first day of school, he skipped out of class to go to his first rave.
“It was a big part of me learning how to love, take risks, and opened up my willingness to accept everything.”
At the time, this was the peak of the rave scene. It was where creative outcasts and misfits created their own society. I can see that it was a landmark period for Brent; that for the first time, he felt he was home. “It was a big part of me learning how to love, take risks, and opened up my willingness to accept everything. It was huge for me of making me who I am today. It was one of the most impactful times in my life.”
Soon, Brent was helping to put on club nights and raves. But in 1996, MTV brought electronic music mainstream. Brent’s once beloved, peaceful and niche society was no longer. So, he went in the opposite direction.
When one door closes
After getting an extremely high score on the ASVAB test, Brent joined the military to become a meteorologist. In his spare time, Brent would teach himself how to code making his own websites on Geocities and AngelFire.
Eventually, Brent travels brought him back to the U.S. where he applied for a web developer job with a startup.
He studied long nights to learn the ins and outs of web development and even taught himself a few buzzwords about SEO.
I could tell by the tone in his voice, as he relived this time in his life, that he had been determined to do whatever it took to get the job. “I nailed it,” Brent told friends after the interview.
He didn’t get the job. It was devastating.
But Brent dusted himself off, and soon after he received an offer to be a store manager for Boston Market. It wasn’t exciting, but it was a solid opportunity with advancement potential.
The day before he was to sign the employment agreement, an agency called. They wanted to hire him as their lead SEO Manager. Brent immediately accepted. Brent admits with amusement, “I accepted a job in SEO, and I really had no idea what SEO was.”
Brent immediately went online to get a crash course in SEO. He stumbled across Webmaster Radio. He tried to consume as much information as he could while on his 40 minute morning commute. “What’s 301?” “What’s cloaking?”
Before long, he was managing SEO strategy for 100+ websites.
“It crashed the server. And, now 4 months into the industry I’m being asked to speak at Pubcon.”
Soon Brent was rubbing elbows with industry notables like Neil Patel, Cameron Olthuis, and Todd Malicoat. The way Brent describes their friendships reminds me of a supergroup of marketers, like a Rat Pack of SEO.
At one conference, Todd told Brent if he could get an article from Pubcon on the first page of Digg, the hottest social bookmarking site at the time, Brent would be asked to speak at the next Pubcon.
Challenge accepted. In three hours, Brent’s article hit the first page of Digg. He tells me it was the most traffic Pubcon had ever received from an article at the time. “It crashed the server. And now I’m being asked to speak at Pubcon, four months into the industry. I was blown away.”
“Without these people giving me an opportunity, I would have nothing”
Soon Danny Sullivan asked Brent to speak at their first SMX Social conference. Brent credits his success to these industry vets that helped him get started. “I would never have what I have today if it wasn’t for people like [them]. Without these people giving me an opportunity, I would have nothing.” The best advice Brent can give to any marketing newcomer: build your industry connections.
Soon Brent left his job, taking a client with him. In describing his journey, “I’ve always had that attitude of ‘what’s the worst that could happen’? I didn’t know enough to be afraid.“ But he was ready to succeed — he could taste it.
In 2009, Brent and Todd decided to launch Alpha Brand Media, a men’s lifestyle media company. Kevin Henrikson and Chris Winfield joined as co-founders. Later, Loren Baker, Jenise Henrikson and a few others got on board.
At the same time, a separate company was formed to merge agency offerings. The group, made up of some of the same individuals plus a few more industry influencers, chose to call the new company “Blueglass Interactive.”
While the merging of these seasoned SEO experts appeared to be the ultimate SEO agency consolidation play, it turned out to be far from that. In 2013, there was a lot of controversy around the Tampa offices of Blueglass, and Brent ended up separating from the company within the first year, stating “My viewpoints were not seen at the same level as others. We had disagreements about a lot of different things.”
He seemed humbled by the disappointment of such a public failing. But as I tried to pry into more of the history, to allow Brent to talk about his side of the story, or to at least dissect the “coulda shoulda wouldas”, he didn’t take the bait. It doesn’t seem to be his MO. The world owes him nothing.
And so, his next move was to start his own content marketing agency, Kairay Media. Brent wanted to create content that authentically engaged users without fake profiles or black hat tactics. He understood what content performed best and on which platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc).
Brent’s friends know he also has a futurist bent, which led him to find another gap in the industry. He realized people were creating infographics for strictly SEO purposes, to drive links with low-quality art and data. That wasn’t Brent’s style. “I focused on creating stuff that was high-quality. I was about earning the links.” This was when Brent’s second agency came into being: Pixel Road Designs.
Brent built a Pixel Road Designs team of bright and talented illustrators, an amazing project manager, and a well-known creative director who had worked on big brands like Coca-Cola.
But the launch was bumpy. The first project meeting with his first client, The State of New York and Wine Enthusiasts Magazine, didn’t like the creative direction Pixel Road Designs had shown them. I’m sure all marketers and freelancers know that gut wrenching feeling when your client says in a nutshell “you/your services are failing”. What did Brent do?
“I [deliberately] let my team fail once, so they could learn from the experience. It’s when you get into the practice of failing that it becomes an issue,” he said. Any outsider can see how much Brent invests in his team. To quote the great Muhammad Ali, “Me, We.”
After this disastrous first meeting, Brent declared “we cannot half-ass our approach at quality,” and he brought in creative director Nemanja Darijevi. Nemanja met with the clients and was able to salvage the relationship and the project by making a strong case for the creative direction they had chosen. The client walked away happy and their infographic campaign was a success.
Following this formula, Brent was then able to attract brands like Adage, iHeart Radio, and O.Berk.
Resilience pays off
Fast forward four years. Today, Pixel Road Designs has managed to merge a designer’s aesthetic with a marketer’s ability to read data to create high quality infographics, branding campaigns, web and app designs, interactive presentations.
Brent’s passion to visually tell a brand’s story in a way that hasn’t been done before speaks to his future-forward approach with Pixel Road Designs.
With the explosion of interest in AI and virtual reality, the company is already experimenting with these new media as marketing channels. “Virtual reality and augmented reality are the next big thing for us.”
Brent envisions infographics to transcend from the computer screen to the walls of a room. “The data will be [seamlessly] designed into the application you’re using. Visuals will never go away. They will be displayed into a new format. VR changes the way we digest content and interact with the world.”
Need a design that actually performs?
This article was sponsored by Pixel Road Designs.