“Be Open”, With Curt Cuscino of HypeLife Brands

Be direct and forthright, while being honest, not shielding of the facts, challenges, or problems that lay head. I think no matter the team member’s position or “level” in your organization, all excellent team members appreciate a leader who is honest about what they’re dealing with and working to solve…this helps them know your head […]

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Be direct and forthright, while being honest, not shielding of the facts, challenges, or problems that lay head. I think no matter the team member’s position or “level” in your organization, all excellent team members appreciate a leader who is honest about what they’re dealing with and working to solve…this helps them know your head is always in the game, even when you’re quiet (because as leaders know, this is when we’re thinking it all through and laying down a strategy, but non-leaders don’t necessarily know or assume that).

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Curt Cuscino.

Curt Cuscino is the Founder & CEO of HypeLife Brands, a progressive brand development & startup marketing agency specializing in building, launching, and growing Millennial-tuned, B2C lifestyle startups for visionary founders and entrepreneurs.

Since HypeLife Brands’ inception in 2001, Curt’s carefully-curated senior team has consistently employed a highly progressive approach to creating powerful, engaging brands and fundable startups in the ever-changing “universe of brand and marketing,” while employing a heavy focus on precision marketing, keenly focused on building customer traction and long-term ROI.

His highly-awarded agency team’s ability to navigate and master change quickly for HypeLife’s select roster of clients — a necessity in the digital age — sets HypeLife apart from your typical agency, enabling them to be far more nimble in tight spaces than many of their larger (and slower-moving) agency competitors. This unique agility makes HypeLife a highly valuable asset for their clients and those who are truly ready to elevate their brand to the next level.

Curt is a brand & marketing guru in his own right, as well as a thought leader when it comes to the challenges of future-proofing brands & early-stage startups to fully harness the power within the Millennial Generation through effective Millennial Marketing. He has been featured on a number of radio shows, and including an NPR interview on the subject for a national Marketplace feature on “Millennials, Retail, and the Future of Everything.”

“People obsess over sports, royal weddings, etc., because they want to be part of an adventure…I’ve built my own, and helped many other entrepreneurs build theirs.”

Curt is, and always has been, a bonafide cultural sponge. As a child of the 80s, for decades his passion for culture has helped him remained in-tune with both above- and underground trends in pop culture, music, film, social media, branding, marketing and technology. He has worked tirelessly to cultivate that same attention to culture within his agency, building a life where interests and industry intersect. For Curt, his team’s work and his passion overlap daily in pursuit of the next big thing for HypeLife’s clients.

Because of the key strategic role HypeLife Brands plays in its clients’ growth, HypeLife’s collective eye is always on the future, and at the forefront of that Vision is Curt, channeling one-of-a-kind experiences and knowledge to fuel his brand strategy, creative, and technology teams, all while constantly educating clients in the constantly-evolving “ecosystem of Brand”.

Outside of his day-to-day running HypeLife Brands, Curt is also a published author, startup advisor at Cal State-Fullerton’s Irvine Incubator, speaker, father, husband, audiophile, technophile, music producer, DJ and host + creator of the nationally-syndicated, weekly radio specialty show Future/Sound.

As you may have guessed, the Future/Sound airs to primarily a Gen Z + Millennial listener-base on college campuses across the U.S. and is heard in over 100 countries, as well as has garnered a 1.5M+ FM radio listener reach in the U.S. via a growing network of affiliate stations carrying the show.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Thanks for having me, I’m happy to be here!

As for a little backstory on me: I’m originally from the midwest (Kansas City, Missouri to be exact), and have always had the entrepreneurial spirit baked into my DNA, starting fledging businesses since before I could drive a car (greeting cards, mowing, a record label, etc). I grew up an only child, so I had a lot of time on my hands thanks to not having to fight siblings day-to-day, so my space to create was large, and I definitely utilized it in many different media.

I have always had a keen interest in the cross-sections of brand, entrepreneurship, design/creativity, art/music and technology, so where I started from, and where I’ve arrived at — now 19 years later running HypeLife Brands — has been a very interesting, exciting, challenging, and non-linear, evolving journey for me…but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

From the early days of what has become HypeLife Brands today, we were originally focused more so on brand and tech/web/digital, but have constantly evolved and expanded our services offering to better help our clients (especially in the startup space), as the “universe of brand and marketing” as I like to call it has been growing constantly since the beginning.

All along the way, I’ve seen continual additional needs for our clients, so we’ve evolved and adapted accordingly to be positioned in the most optimal way to help our clients grow across numerous areas of their business, whether it is a startup, a challenger brand, B2B or B2C focused.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

One of the mistakes I made in the early days of my agency was something a mentor I worked with helping me identify and correct at the mid-point of my agency’s growth: Realizing I am running a business, not an orphanage.

There are different types of leaders out there, but I think learning that surrounding yourself with people better than yourself at specific roles (ours in particular being highly specialized roles, due to the amount of terrain we have to cover) — especially when you’re someone like me who can play most positions to a degree — is an absolutely key takeaway that has definitely helped my agency in the long-run.

In the early days, I thought I would have a lot more time to groom new talent that was what one might call “very green,” but I learned that as you have more and more people on your team, your role shifts and you take more of a management and oversight-style role, rather than a hands-on one.

In other words, you need to hire people, at least in our unique agency and how we work with our clients, who can knock it out of the park on the first or second go. In our world, we have to move quickly and with absolute efficiency. It’s not for the masses, and over time, I’ve learned how important “precision strikers” are for our team (though we do still have an occasional intern in the mix here).

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I absolutely agree! There’s definitely two people I am grateful have been a part of my personal and professional journey:

First, my father, who showed me the merits and value of hard work, thoroughness, and what a “finished job” really looks like from a very early age (I was definitely sent back a few times to finish a leaf-raking job or lawn mowing in my younger years).

This is something I feel is becoming a lost art in the modern world, but is a critical element of every day for me and how I manage our team. My father was always a constant student too in his own work as an engineer (I come from a long line of them), often reading books to continuing learning even at night after dinner while not being “on the clock” per se.

Secondly, I definitely am grateful to my mentor, Peleg Top, who ran a successful creative/marketing agency in Los Angeles, and who I had the privilege of working alongside for several years, just prior to expanding my agency’s footprint from Kansas City to a second office in LA.

He taught me so many things, and introduced me to numerous resources that I still utilize to this day…all while never giving specific answers, but rather guiding me through constant, insightful questions.

I always refer to him as my Sensei because of that.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I definitely agree with this philosophy, and employ that daily here, as well as with our clients in helping them find that for themselves, and their business. Starting with Why (not What), is a powerful concept for me, our team, and our clients as we educate them in how to build powerful brands.

Our vision and purpose here in a nutshell is really focused on helping brands truly engage with Millennials — one of the trickiest, most elusive generations ever, compared to past generations — in a way that positively impacts our collective future.

If a potential client isn’t building or envisioning something that will have a positive impact on the Millennial generation in some way, it’s something we most likely won’t take on. Our focus is on high impact work for clients that will help make our future together better for all generations in the end.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Having been in business for over 19 years, we’ve definitely experienced a few challenging times, including a recession, housing market crash, and now the year of COVID-19.

My approach to leading a team, and clients, through uncertain and difficult times boils down to this: staying the course while carefully adapting to challenges and changes in culture.

In other words, not over-correcting or being reactionary, but rather, being so pro-active that cultural or temporary world shifts are more easily adaptable to the plan already in motion.

During COVID-19, I’ve definitely observed a metric ton of over-correction, reactionary behavior on the part of brands small and large, and the long-term, negative consequences of that approach will have more impact than I think people realize.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I’ve never really considered giving up, and I think what I’ve accomplished with HypeLife Brands has stood the test of time, and challenges, for that reason.

I am driven primarily by a constant desire to solve problems and make things better for anyone and everyone around me. I work extremely well under pressure, and in the face of immense challenges. I love that component of what we do, and I think that keeps me driving ahead through tasks big and small, towards the potential outcomes that lead us to the next challenge that follows.

It’s cyclical in our world, and I love that…it definitely keeps me sustained, alongside a steady diet of cultural inspiration from music to film to marketing in the world at large, to the technology that helps drive it all.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

That’s an easy one:Absolute Focus, and tenacity.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

For me, whether the future is “certain” (only perceived, as the future is never certain in my book), or uncertain, I inspire my team through various approaches: providing inspiration, knowledge, continued education, and an insider view into what’s next for us as a team.

In a way, especially during COVID-19, it almost feels like “over-communication”, but I’ve learned that over-communication helps key team feel more involved, and like they’ve got the inside track on where we’re heading next and what challenges lie ahead that we’re all eager to conquer.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

We haven’t had to do it often, but I think transparency is the best way to communicate any sort of “difficult” news. Or news of any kind really. Being honest, up-front, and direct always wins over sugar-coating and/or elusiveness.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Yes, absolutely…I think times like these actually are one of the best times to take a step back, and plan ahead for the future, as negative times are always temporary. As they say, “this too shall pass.”

Thanks to this approach, I can say we’ve moved numerous mountains and had many successes during COVID-19 that will pave the way for the months ahead…all because of a pro-active, unwavering focus on a positive future.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

For sure! Staying the course and not being reactive, but rather proactive, wins every time.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

From this COVID-19 period that we’re in, I’ve observed a lot of lack of transparency, self-loathing, over-correcting, and over-reaction as some of the most common mistakes. I’ve also seen several startups come along designed strictly, or almost entirely on, capitalizing on this particular period in time, which I think is another big mistake. As this time will pass, 99% of the time this is not a stable and long-standing business model to build on, or around.

You’ve gotta build for the long-haul, not the short-term.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Building a nimble team that can do more with less (resources, team members, etc) I think is key, and that’s how I’ve built the team here at HypeLife Brands. This gives you a far more nimble ability, rather than getting overly top-heavy too soon. This way, you’re prepared to weather any storms that come your way, and can adapt/evolve.

I’ve watched a lot of businesses sadly have to shed employees during this time, which has a lot of negative trickle-down effects. In our case, I haven’t had to let any team members go, and have even worked diligently to pay our team ahead of schedule to help them during these challenging times, even if it means sacrifice on my part (though that’s not something I’ve really mentioned or touted to them).

How a leader behaves, and LEADS, during the most challenging times defines and confirms how they will lead in the “good” times.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

1.) Be Open.

Be open with your team, rather than shutting them off from the decisions that are being made, or being elusive/indefinite as much as possible

2) Be Clear.

Be clear with the challenges that lay ahead, and how you intend to utilize them to help solve these challengers. Again, communication, if not over-communication is key, to your team’s and business’s collective success.

3) Be Honest.

Be direct and forthright, while being honest, not shielding of the facts, challenges, or problems that lay head. I think no matter the team member’s position or “level” in your organization, all excellent team members appreciate a leader who is honest about what they’re dealing with and working to solve…this helps them know your head is always in the game, even when you’re quiet (because as leaders know, this is when we’re thinking it all through and laying down a strategy, but non-leaders don’t necessarily know or assume that).

Help prevent them questioning by being honest about the outcome you’re driving towards.

4) Be Pro-active, not Reactive.

Again, a big one I’ve seen play out mostly negatively during COVID-19 and all its many challenges. Being reactive can do irreparable damage to your business, your team, and your customers’ faith in your business, and your leadership.

5) Really Lead.

In my Amazon bestselling book that I was a co-author for (released at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic no less, thanks to being proactive), “Money Matters: World’s Leading Entrepreneurs Reveal Their Top Tips to Success (Business Leaders Vol. 3)”, I really unpacked what Leadership, and Leaders, look like. In the end, true Leaders take the reins and lead the way…and other real Leaders recognize that, especially during these times. Now, more than ever, I believe true Leaders are clear, and the rest will fall by the wayside in the end as a casualty of challenging times like these. Don’t be that story…be a true Leader, and really Lead.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where this no path and leave a trail.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is ultra-relevant to me, my journey, the history of HypeLife Brands, and how we lead our startup clients in so many ways…too many to name.

Ultimately, it sums up to me as the ideal way to build a life, a brand, a startup, or whatever it is you want to create; because being a follower and being a leader are two very different things, with two very different outcomes. It’s not for everyone, and not for the faint of heart for sure, but forging your own path is by far more rewarding…especially as success is relative, and different for everyone.

As far as business is concerned, as a leader and/or a creator, it’s important to remember too: Your business should not be the end of you, it should be a vehicle to help get you to where you want to go.

It is a far more exciting and powerful path — which really encapsulates my life’s work — to create something never seen before, that will help others…and inspire others to forge their own path where one wasn’t created before.

And that’s what I’m all about.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Learn more about HypeLife Brands and follow along at:


As well as connect with me directly here:

LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/curtcuscino/

Twitter — https://twitter.com/CurtCuscino

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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