Would You Let This Kid Save Your Town?
Brendan Ciecko made his name—and a boatload of money—as the music industry’s go-to website designer. Now that he’s finally old enough to buy beer, he’s decided to take on a slightly less sexy project: remaking his hardscrabble hometown.
The Mick Jagger thing, like many things in the charmed life of Brendan Ciecko, just sort of happened. One day a couple of years ago, a record exec called Ciecko to say that the Rolling Stones frontman was in New York and “would love it if you could join us.” So Ciecko [pronounced “see-EH-ko”] sped from his home in western Massachusetts to Manhattan to meet the rock legend.
At the Palace hotel, Ciecko made his way past the black marble pillars and the crystal chandeliers. He strode past the record executives, the hair and makeup people, and the security guys. Finally he entered the inner sanctum of Jagger’s suite, where he stood before the craggy-faced superstar himself and extended a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Brendan,” Jagger said. “I love your work.”
Taking the flattery in stride, Ciecko made chitchat about the websites he’s designed for a roster of A-list performers—Van Morrison, Lenny Kravitz, Katy Perry, New Kids on the Block—and floated some ideas for Jagger’s new website, to be launched for his greatest-hits album. It wasn’t until Ciecko was in the elevator, stealing sidelong glances at Mick and his entourage, that he thought, This is just the craziest thing. Even crazier: Ciecko was only 19 at the time, a month out from living with his parents.
Soon after the meeting, he submitted several options for the new site, mindful of Jagger’s reputation as an impossible-to-please prima donna. His favorite opened with a Flash animation of the singer, lit up cherry-red, his mouth agape, hair askew. It was unexpected and arresting. Jagger took one look and okayed it immediately.
Welcome to the life of the Web Designer to the Stars, or, as one record exec insists on calling him, “Wonderboy.” At 21, Ciecko is the epitome of the Gen-Y wunderkind (complete with regulation shag haircut), earning his way with little more than a computer and an Internet hookup. Unlike other whiz kids, however, Ciecko has forgone the requisite move to one of the country’s creative meccas: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Instead, he’s chosen to stay in his hometown: Holyoke. What may be even more surprising is what he intends to do there.
Ciecko’s particular talents revealed themselves at a young age. When he was four, his grandmother, Alice Shafran, remembers him picking a piece of wood off the ground and fashioning it into a boat, using little sticks to make smokestacks and rigging. “This wasn’t just a kid thing; it looked like a real boat,” she says. “He just saw it.”
Ciecko got into music early, starting a garage band in junior high and spending his time after school on Mp3.com discovering punk bands: Bouncing Souls, Rancid, Bad Religion. He earned enough money mowing lawns and working for a local hockey store that he was able to buy his own computer, a Compaq Presario. While his peers were noodling around with Yahoo! Kids, he was downloading Adobe Flash and creating simple animations.
His interest in music and computers coalesced when his favorite band, Slick Shoes, a pseudo-Christian punk outfit from California, sponsored a competition to make a piece of Flash animation to promote their new album. Ciecko entered and won, receiving a T-shirt, a CD, and backstage tickets. But he wanted more. Though he was just 13 at the time, he talked Slick Shoes’ manager into letting him design the band’s entire website.
As the group began getting attention, so did Ciecko. His big break came when Rich Egan, co-owner of one of the largest independent record labels, Vagrant, saw one of Ciecko’s designs and asked him to make some for the company. “I flipped out,” says Egan. “His design was better, faster, cheaper, and smarter than everyone else’s.” Egan was the one who started calling Ciecko “Wonderboy.” He also started throwing him work, projects for bands that included Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, and the Get Up Kids.
Dubbing his new business Ten Minute Media, Ciecko would come home from school to send off designs to California before hockey practice; by the time he returned, the websites had gone live. Every afternoon he’d board the school bus and ask the driver—his mother—if he had received a package from California, usually a CD or a check. And he got a lot of checks. When he bought a BMW at age 16, one of his friends’ parents assumed he was dealing drugs.
Soon the major labels began calling. He wasn’t intimidated. “For their acts, I’m part of the demographic they are aggressively working with,” he says. “So it was like, ‘Brendan, what are you listening to?’ ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘And what’s this Twitter tweet thing?'”
Though his own tastes lean toward indie rock and something called “post-hardcore,” Ciecko has shown an uncanny ability to design for a wide range of artists, to visually translate the subtleties of their music. For pop star Katy Perry, he created a pink and topaz backdrop behind Perry in a miniskirt, her bubblegum vocals bombarding the viewer. For silky R&B singer Monica, Ciecko borrowed the look of high-fashion magazines, bathing the screen in sensuous shades of brown. “Brendan is the kind of designer I actually don’t like giving a lot of direction to, because I like seeing what he will come up,” says Walter Gross, senior director of digital strategy at EMI Music North America.
For all Ciecko’s design skill, the part of the website that visitors don’t see—its infrastructure—may be more impressive to clients. For instance, when the original Web designer for New Kids on the Block’s comeback tour didn’t work out, Ciecko was hired and put together a streamlined site with blogs, downloads, streaming videos, and a link to its own social networking platform for fans to share photos, videos, and private jokes. Within a week, the site was getting 100,000 unique hits; when tour dates were announced, there was so much traffic it crashed.
“To be able to get back with all of our fans with a touch of a button was a big part of us coming back together,” says New Kid Joey McIntyre, who credits the website with a lot of the comeback’s success. “We wanted all our fans to be able to get in touch with each other and have a place to have their own parties and groups and catch phrases. But you have to do it with the right vibe. He’s been awesome.”
Everywhere Ciecko looks, he sees what should be there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pop hit, a piece of wood, or his hometown.
He didn’t think much about Holyoke’s past, or future, until he traveled to Europe, first to the south of France with his girlfriend’s family at 17 and later to Hungary and Poland, where he saw in city after depressed city a return to a more lustrous past. So when he came back to Holyoke, he saw it in a new light.
That’s no easy feat. Entering Holyoke from the highway, one passes through a barren canyon of blank or boarded-up windows. The main drag, High Street, is a similarly desolate corridor of bodegas, dive bars, and shuttered storefronts.
And yet these buildings held the promise of what Ciecko had seen in Europe. He began to read up on what had once been in Holyoke, which at one time boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country—paper-mill magnates who spread their lucre like frosting on the local architecture.
Recently, I met Ciecko downtown for a tour of the city. “This building right here was designed by C. B. Atwood, who was one of the main players during the Chicago World’s Fair,” he says, pointing to City Hall, across the street. “There’s another building designed by McKim, Mead, and White,” he adds, referring to a firm famous for designing the Newport mansions, the Boston Public Library, and the American Academy in Rome. Ciecko is an autodidact—he dropped out of Hampshire College after a year—who often displays an autodidact’s eagerness to share everything he’s learned. Within a few minutes, he’s name-dropped Mark Twain, William McKinley, and Frank Sinatra. “I joke that I’m a walking Wikipedia,” he says.
Ciecko was so taken with what he found out about Holyoke that he’s put his money where his mouse is. Last year he spent $260,000 to buy up some 21,000 square feet of downtown office space. (His business brought in $450,000 in 2008, he says, and he expects revenues to exceed $500,000 this year.) For one of his buildings—actually a 15,000-square-foot, three-story commercial block built in the 1870s—Ciecko has planned restorations that will enhance the original maple floors, the pressed-tin ceilings, and, as he notes on his blog, the “charming façade that brings a smile to the faces of passersby.” For the 6,000-square-foot second floor of another building, Ciecko envisions an incubator for like-minded entrepreneurs. His first tenants are a pair of twin brothers who run a highly rated Web-design blog. “My dream initially was to create something like the Factory, but not in New York,” he says.
He has other dreams, too. Ciecko would like to see a Harry Houdini museum in town (Houdini performed his first jailbreak here). Spearheading the effort is Ciecko’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Dobrska, a 20-year-old Polish-American beauty queen and Mount Holyoke College undergrad. She’s partnering with a Holyoke native who owns an impressive collection of Houdini memorabilia. Dobrska is still looking for a suitable location for the museum.
Ciecko and Dobrska now spend their weekends driving around once-industrial cities that have recovered from decay (New London, Providence, Brattleboro) and those that haven’t (Albany, Hartford), trying to gather ideas for Holyoke’s renaissance.
Ciecko believes the town’s revival, and maybe its survival, will depend on young creative types—people like himself, in other words. “Have you been following DJ Steve Porter at all?” he asks. Porter, named the second-best DJ in the country by DJ Times this summer, recently bought a 10,000-square-foot building in Holyoke for a fraction of what he’d pay in Manhattan. He’s struck up a friendship with Ciecko, and is just as committed to Holyoke. “This is hot shit. He plays with everybody, Paul Oakenfold, all the big boys,” Ciecko gushes. “He lives right over there in this mill complex now. He’s this super, super cool dude.”
This idea—that the DJs, Web designers, and artists of the world can be the engine, not just the outcome, of economic vitality—has been around since Ciecko was in elementary school, of course. But it is usually considered as it applies to larger cities, where the “creative class” is simply part of the development puzzle. Ciecko is trying to push that same notion in a city smaller than Pocatello, Idaho, and one that’s among the poorest in the state.
It helps that Ciecko isn’t just any young creative type. Not many shaggy-haired hipsters have appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine as one of the top entrepreneurs under 30, after all. After the story came out last year, Governor Deval Patrick invited Ciecko to participate in a technology roundtable at MIT. The governor was looking for representation from youth, small business, and western Massachusetts; Ciecko was a trifecta.
In October 2008, Ciecko sat down with the governor, MIT president Susan Hockfield, and the CEOs of the biggest technology companies in the state. “We were largely hoping he’d bring the perspective from his own business,” says Greg Bialecki, state secretary of housing and economic development. “But it was clear he had been thinking about how to make Holyoke and the Pioneer Valley a better place for everyone.”
Ciecko’s vision of Holyoke as an incubator for tech-savvy entrepreneurs dovetailed nicely with the thinking of many in the room who were already eyeing the city’s network of canals for cheap, green power. This summer a consortium including MIT, UMass, Cisco, and EMC announced a plan to build a $100 million high-performance computing center in Holyoke, projected to break ground next year. Ciecko seems more awestruck by this news than by any of the rock stars he’s met. “It will be huge,” he says, “just earth-shattering for a place like this.”
He’s working with both state and local agencies to help revitalize downtown and attract businesses to cater to the scores of techies who will descend upon the city. One way to do that, he thinks, is to open the canals to kayaks and paddleboats. This idea is supplemented by something he calls “Holyoksterdam”: cordoning off several blocks downtown with mock Dutch row houses and lining the canals with tulips to create a kitschy miniature Amsterdam for a few weeks. “We’ll have bicycle races, we’ll have a fake red-light district,” he says. “The greatest thing is that there were never ever any Dutch immigrants in Holyoke. It’s like the most ironic thing.”
Ciecko formally proposed the idea to the city, even designing a logo and suggesting a partnership with nearby Bradley International Airport, which offers a direct flight to Amsterdam. But he has yet to hear back from City Hall, he says with obvious frustration. “The mayor’s a lame duck anyway,” he later adds by e-mail.
Holyoke’s mayor, Mike Sullivan, who will leave office this month after 10 years, says Ciecko isn’t the first person to suggest boating on the canals. The problem is that the industrial currents used to generate electricity are too strong to allow for boating, he says.
During his tenure, Sullivan has seen many civic-minded entrepreneurs burn out with frustration when faced with practical obstacles or the city’s lack of resources. “That’s part of the experience that has to be developed in young leaders,” he says. “You can’t come to the mayor or the city council and say, ‘We should have boats on the canals,’ and when we say, ‘There’s a lot to be done to engineer it,’ say we are not being cooperative.”
For all his talent, it seems, Ciecko is quickly learning that drive alone won’t bring his most ambitious ideas to life. Designing a city requires more than a computer and an Internet connection. It takes political calculus and compromise, zoning meetings and environmental impact studies. And it takes the hardest thing for any 21-year-old to learn: patience.