How will businesses pivot when things get “back to normal?” Becca Apfelstadt, the co-founder of creative and marketing agency treetree, has a couple of ideas. In this episode, we discuss how the firm got started at a time of change, how they are pivoting in this time of change, and the importance of culture and the role of the office in the impending new normal.


Full transcript:

Tim Fulton  00:13
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. We are a weekly Columbus centric podcast focusing on the civics, lifestyle, entertainment, and people of our city. I’m your host, Tim Fulton. This week, I spoke with Becca Apfel stat, the co founder of Columbus based creative and marketing agency tree tree. We discussed how they got started at a time of change, how they are pivoting in this time of change, where marketing agency models are going, the importance of culture and the role of the office when things go back to normal. Her passion for empowering women through mentorship, closing the pay gap, and parental leave policies, and why we need to take the karma off of Columbus. You can get more information on what we discussed today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cast calm. Also, the confluence cast is on Patreon. Find out how to support this podcast on our website, the confluence cast calm [email protected] slash Confluence. Enjoy the interview. Sitting down here virtually talking with Becca Apple stat, the co founder and CEO of Columbus based agency tree tree. Becca, how are you?

Becca Apfelstadt  01:39
I’m doing well. Thanks, Tim, for having me.

Tim Fulton  01:42
No, absolutely. So first of all, tell us what tree tree is how to tree tree get started? Well, we

Becca Apfelstadt  01:49
got started in the middle of the recession. So we’re an agency that helps support what we call b2b giants, when they need creative firepower. And it wasn’t always that we started as a small dining room duo. It was myself and a co founder. And we really took an opportunity to leave a situation where the agency we were at before where we met didn’t make it through the recession, unfortunately, and debate just for context. This is the recession of 2008. Yes, yeah. Yeah, we started in March of 2009. When no one was, no one was hiring marketing folks. And so we just looked at each other and said, Well, if we’re not going to go get a job, most likely, let’s try this on our own. Let’s see if we can take all the great things, we learned that the place that we worked before, and carry those forward into a new culture and see if we can make it and I was 27 and had no clue what I was doing. And it was really scary. And she had two young kids and her husband had just started his own business and bought into a business about a year prior. So, you know, financially, it was scary, but we looked at each other and made the leap. And tree tree has has grown wonderfully and beautifully over the last 12 years. And we just in the last six months through COVID had the opportunity to kind of pause and take a look at where do we go next? And what where agency headed, and what’s the right next step for us. And so we’re really going all in on the target audience of b2b giants, we have a real knack for serving large, complex organizations where the subject matters complicated, their structure is hard to navigate. And that’s us, you know, excited to be able to go in and help marketing and sales teams shine and the times where it’s what we call go time, they might help with a pitch, they have an opportunity to launch a new product or service, they need to rally the sales team or associates around something and get everybody together for a great experience. And we’re able to put that extra oomph and force behind what those initiatives are and take things off their plate, move them forward and elevate the whole experience and have fun doing it together.

Tim Fulton  04:18
And you’re specializing more within the business business space. Prior to COVID. You certainly service business to business, but you also did stuff outside of that, but it tended to be special project space. Yeah. Do you are the UN this may be getting a little bit too into the weeds of agency stuff. But is it still campaign based primarily the work that you’re doing around individual projects and initiatives? Yeah,

Becca Apfelstadt  04:44
that’s really where the industry is going. I mean, more clients want to engage on a project basis. It’s not abnormal. The classic AR model is you know, it’s been contested for years that that’s going by the way And, and so fewer and fewer of those contracts are up for grabs. We never lived in that world, we started with that different model from the very beginning. So we’re just we’re focused less on general special projects for anyone and really kind of doing for ourselves what we have always recommended clients do and focusing more. And working as the agency of special projects got us here. And we’re very grateful for that journey, and gave us a lot of varied experience. But we’ve found really our sweet spot and what gets us excited and where we can add the most value and have decided to go all in on that.

Tim Fulton  05:37
How many folks work for tree tree, either full time or contract?

Becca Apfelstadt  05:43
Right now we have about 15 full time. And then we have anywhere probably about five FTA equivalents at any given time that we’re working on contract basis and got it kind of a bench of extended talent that we can tap into, to flex in and out as needed.

Tim Fulton  06:02
What did for agency, this is basically office life, like, what did office life? How’s it looked over the course of the past year? Where is it now? I’m diving right into it. And where does it go? Where is it going to be in three months, six months, at least in terms of your visioning as a business leader? Yeah, this

Becca Apfelstadt  06:23
is really interesting, because I was always of the mindset that we’re together we are we are in person, we are all over, we used to call ourselves puppies, we were like on top of each other we had, we just love to be collaborating and in the same room and always around each other. And it was really not we were not set up for remote work. years ago, you know, we had this this beautiful office, and we still do you have a beautiful office, but the office was the center of a lot of things. And we use it as part of our selling process. And it was really a part of our brand. And we had

Tim Fulton  06:59
during the battleship building right

Becca Apfelstadt  07:00
on the battleship building, first floor right next door to the north market, wonderful base, we were there for just over five years. And then we designed and built out a new space above north star in the short north. And we got through that construction process, which took a whole year to make it exactly how we wanted. And then what happened then, and we got the pictures on the wall, and we got you know, everything situated and everybody organized. And we were there for six weeks, and the governor shut down the state. And we told everybody to go pack up and go home. And we haven’t really been back since in any regular cadence. People have used it, you know, here and there. But we’ll be going back in mid June. And I had to think really hard about the role of the office and let go of some things as as a leader because, you know, you can easily send signals to your team that you trust or don’t trust them at this moment in time based on how you fund in the post COVID kind of situation, and what return to office will look like. So I did a survey with my team and and got information from everybody about how they were feeling, what their ideal state would be, you know, describe even if it’s completely impractical, where would you work? How often would you be at the office? What would your schedule be like? What equipment do we have? What tools software? What would the structure of your day be like, dream with me? and lay it all out? and looked at all of those answers? And what’s best for us? And what’s best for you? And how do you see this impacting clients and work and pros and cons and we went through this whole thing. And I really sat with all that data, I looked at tons of information that’s out there and studies that have been completed and identified that, yes, we spent a ton of money building out this beautiful new office space. And I could just force everybody to go in there and use it because it’s the sunk cost otherwise. But I would have really hurt some team members feeling good about the culture and tree tree. And our culture is so important and having this opportunity to make their favorite place they ever worked. And the client’s favorite agency they ever hired is really my purpose for wanting to be in business for myself. That’s, that’s gets me excited to be able to do that for folks. So I came up instead with an alternative where we’re going to do work in the office two days a week of their choice from 11 to three only because they came up as such an issue that people really just hate the commute and don’t want to do the back and forth that hour a day of going you know through the traffic was just such a stressful point. And I heard so many great stories about what people are doing with that time instead x Or sizing, getting more sleep time with family eating, actually eating breakfast with their kids that they had never been able to before. We had people say that they’re, you know, their lab results, their doctors are telling them, I’m healthier than I’ve been in years. And I should, you know, keep doing whatever I’m doing. And a lot of that came down to making sure that they were using that time appropriately. So it’s like, how do you What’s the benefit of forcing us back in away from that if this is working, because we’ve had productivity and we’ve, we’ve been able to wow clients, and we’ve hung on to our culture. And we’ve gotten through this together, so the reward is, and the bright spot is, we figured out a new way to work that balances and creates this hybrid, and allows people to find that fit between autonomy and accountability. To really have everybody be accountable to their role and their tasks, and work independently, and be relied upon, in order to have that autonomy.

Tim Fulton  11:05
Yeah. And when you say, trust, I’m gonna attempt to translate it that if you were to force all 15 of those folks, hey, it’s time to go back, it’s time to go back to 40 hours a week, that may feel to them as though you don’t trust them, right beginning to be getting the work done,

Becca Apfelstadt  11:24
because they just did it all from home for over a year. And they got the right. And so while all of a sudden, you know, what’s what, but what is, you know, the the interpretation a few layers down, if they read between the lines, I think it sends that signal. And I mean, I’ve read studies that there’s employees who are I think it’s 41% of the workforce globally, according to something that came out through Microsoft recently, is considering a switch in jobs and looking COVID has forced everybody to rethink their life, and style. And people have found that this hybrid environment works for them. And some people want all remote work. And if their employer that they’re currently with doesn’t offer it, they’re gonna go find it somewhere else.

Tim Fulton  12:11
Right. And so does the because the the big at least I found in my work, the detriment has been communication with working fully remote, you have to wait for a stand up or project update meeting to learn what’s happening rather than finding out at the watercooler or, or just being able to like pop down to somebody’s office or somebody doesn’t want to compose a three paragraph slack message about the most recent phone call they had with a client and how things are pivoting and changing. So they just sit on it 48 hours later, it may not be worthwhile, and the people who never knew about it, were still moving forward with a design or copywriting or something didn’t need to be doing that. And if everybody had been in the office at the same time, you would have known and so is that the virtue of those 11 to three days of like this, this is when we will be communicating.

Becca Apfelstadt  13:10
Well, we’re still going to have our company stand ups, you know, our status, virtually on Monday morning and Friday morning, which we’ve been doing through COVID. And on Wednesday, we’re going to come together, which could be somebody whose day that they choose to be the office or not, we’re going to try to come together for a team lunch just for that camaraderie and culture. Everybody just having some fun together, getting a chance to chat. But we’ve been in the business of over communicating this entire year. So I don’t feel like we’ve really missed an In fact, I feel that people almost seem to be more informed than they were before when we were all scattered. We’ve used slack we’ve used video updates. We’ve I’ve recorded myself talking through kudos for someone or something that happened and sent out a video to the team for them to watch when they have time. Then in the moment on that day, you know, we maybe we couldn’t find time in the schedule to get everyone rounded up and do it live. So a video at least they get my my face and the expressions and the enthusiasm, communicate in the way that they would have live. So we’ve found other methods it’s forced us to have to be more creative and and to think through who needs this information now and we’ve really encouraged people to not like if there’s something that you need to say stop on this project. Call them on slack. Right. Don’t wait for their green lights. Come on. We’ve got cell phones, we all know how to reach each other. Get much of them, raise your hand get the flagwaving

Tim Fulton  14:50
right. Some agency work is set up through billable hours. And you guys are you transitioning away from tracking those hours. Most Agencies

Becca Apfelstadt  15:00
track what they call timesheets, where you know, every hour, whether it’s a project fee, or it’s a time and materials or a bank of ours retainer, whatever you want to call it. And that’s all being tracked, we were in that same camp, and we had utilization targets for each person. And then we were sending this communication to everybody to say, you know, design your day, however, works best for you and do the things you need to do get out for a walk, don’t sit on zoom all day. And they’re like, but I got this utilization target. And so it was this competing message of go out, and, you know, design it however you want, and get your stuff done. As long as you get it done. We don’t care, but that we didn’t take away the target. And so there was this pushback and feeling of I don’t, I don’t know, which is true, like, wish they knew I care about here more, right. So I thought about that, and realize that in order for the return to work to work the way that we want, we had to lift the timesheet handcuffs, and people to just do their work and have that accountability. And trust that they’re getting it done. And they’re being mindful. And then we have really smart people. My old boss used to say, we hired adults, and now we’re going to treat them like adults. And so this is one of the only thing we still track is if we are charging the client on an hourly basis. So I have a handful of clients that work with us in that kind of manner. And so we still track that. But it’s been really freeing for the team. I mean, the the feedback has been incredible. People feel like it’s a big lift in their day, a huge lift to not have to do that and go back. And the other thing with timesheets is often it’s, it’s inaccurate. I’ve read people who’ve actually tried to study this and break it down. And it’s like you’re you’re reconstructing your day, often after the fact. And our stories are very fallible.

Tim Fulton  17:06
We know and we have a an incentive to fluff it a bit.

Becca Apfelstadt  17:12
Yeah, right. Yeah. And if there isn’t enough work for them to do to hit that target. That’s my problem. And they’re not in development and sales most likely,

Tim Fulton  17:25
right? As you sort of come into your own and tree tree, I’m thinking specifically about how you’ve placed an importance around mentoring other women entrepreneurs, if you could talk about your passion there and what and why that’s important to you.

Becca Apfelstadt  17:41
Yeah, I really feel like there are so many females who have great ideas and passions and interests, and they talk themselves out of it. And don’t consider how it could get done instead of why you know what the roadblocks are. And I’ve heard too many of those stories and too many of the regrets. And I love the opportunity to help inspire someone to think you know, differently, it doesn’t mean that you have to have funding, and you have to go give up your life savings, I started to retreat with my co founder, we each put $500 into a bank account, and we each brought a laptop. And later, this place is flourishing, you know, and it’s sustained my family for that entire year, and lots of other families. So it’s possible, you know, and just helping people think through, not how, how this can’t happen, but what needs to happen in order for it to happen and getting them connected to resources. That might be helpful. Just, we got to support each other. And it’s not that I don’t, that I don’t support or try to mentor wouldn’t be open to, you know, male co founders or founders who are looking at that, as well. But particularly for women and young women who look at my story and want to pick my brain, I try to make myself available as often as possible, because people did that. For me. It was really cool and meaningful. And, and I can in hindsight, look back at what I wish I would have known and give them some watch outs and some things to consider. And they’ll make maybe different mistakes, because the struggles really do help as well, like somebody ran on LinkedIn the other day, when I mentioned that I was I just spent an hour doing a walk and talk with somebody who was going through considering getting something off the ground. And I said I shared some of the stuff I wish I would have known and she said but would you have done anything different? And I said, question, probably not probably wouldn’t have done anything different. But maybe she can make different mistakes. And maybe that’s helpful, because you know that you at least don’t have to do the same ones I did.

Tim Fulton  19:58
Well it’s additive, right. Like Did those mistakes got made? Yeah. So now I get to make brand new mistakes and solve for that.

Becca Apfelstadt  20:06
still making them every day? Don’t worry, it never ends.

Tim Fulton  20:09
Yeah. And is it is your passion for mentoring other women? Simply? Well, I imagine it’s I don’t certainly don’t want to put words in your mouth here. But it’s multifaceted in that you want people who are like you to succeed. One and two, you there is a, let’s call it a dearth of women in the space of entrepreneurs that like, met, men have been groomed to think I should be successful, and I should I can go and do whatever I want. And it’s maybe, and that’s the gendered part of it.

Becca Apfelstadt  20:47
Yes. Yes. I that fires me up. And it makes me It does. It makes me kind of angry that there’s not more done to inspire and empower women to feel just as competent and capable, because they are. And I said, from the beginning, I mean, one of the big things for me and getting this going, was not, it’s like, yeah, we have some naysayers. And we want to go prove them wrong. But I started tree tree, because I could, and just because, you know, when when you can do something you should. And and I think there’s so many more women out there who have ideas that can do it. And so they should go do that and try it. Because you can always go get another job. You can’t always take that time in that moment to try it. So if it’s in you, and you have this idea, and you have this passion, I mean, what’s to lose, maybe there’s risks, there’s financial risks, there’s but there’s risk of regret to if you don’t?

Tim Fulton  21:51
Well, and just to draw that line, the mentorship that you’re providing is hopefully demonstrating that they can,

Becca Apfelstadt  21:58
yeah, I try to help them identify all their superpowers, and the things that they are not giving themselves enough credit for as to why they can and should do this. Because they’ll come with plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t, and plenty of things that are the barriers and the obstacles. And I try to turn all that on its head and go Okay, well, the house sell for that, or but but over here, look at this. And and what what the what is the world missing, if you don’t do this,

Tim Fulton  22:30
that’s an excellent point. I want to pivot back to as a business leader, you’ve you’ve done your best to demonstrate that treating people well as employees is important. And that’s reflected in how you research that you’re going back to work strategy, and how you did outreach to your current employees to figure that out. You’ve talked in the past also about your passion surrounding closing the pay gap, and also parental leave policies. And I’m just wondering if you could talk about those.

Becca Apfelstadt  23:04
Yeah, I think the parental leave policy is a really good example where I actually mean, I had two children during the time that tree tree was growing at the pace. So it was a real life example. And I we had a maternity leave policy. And it was considered generous, you know, at the time, six weeks at 60%, it was something you know, this is this is years ago. And so I when I had my, my son, I gave myself the opportunity to experience our maternity leave policy as it was in place. And I experimented and did it myself, I paid myself 60% of my salary through our short term disability, and came back to work after six weeks, and realized our policy sucked. And it was. And so I changed it because that’s one of the great things you can do when you are, are at the helm of your own small business, you can make changes and make decisions that make policy better for other people. So I ran it through the filter of how would I want this to be for my family, because I I think of tree tree as a team and you know, as a family are people I really really care about and they’re at a moment where they’re welcoming people in and and it’s exhausting, and it’s a lot of recovery. And it’s a lot of adjustment, and you’re nowhere near ready. I don’t think after six weeks to let go of the little one. You’re ready to come back and have yourself fully engaged in business discussions and putting on regular pants and all those things.

Tim Fulton  24:55

Becca Apfelstadt  24:55
basically, it’s your kind of a wreck for a while you need a little more time. Yeah. And so I did 100% for 12 weeks for moms, dads birth and adoption. And we had so far five saplings join us on this policy.

Tim Fulton  25:15
My like, Well, you did there.

Becca Apfelstadt  25:17
Yeah. My niece. And we have a couple people currently expecting as well, which is really exciting. And I’m just so glad and they’ve come back and not missed a beat. And it’s been an investment in our culture, and in showcasing what a small business can do, that maybe seems like a stretch to others. And I know from anecdotal stories that have come back, that me doing that has caused at least three other businesses to reevaluate their own policy, and make positive change in our local community. And that made me feel really good,

Tim Fulton  26:01
then that’s great. I mean, that positive impact is great, not just for your employees, but the, the diffusion effect, if you will. Yeah, there more work you want to do in advocacy in that space?

Becca Apfelstadt  26:14
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s sharing sharing my story and continuing to other business owners, a couple of the ones that I’ve impacted so far have been led by males, who never about including dads or, or thought that dads should get less. And I pushed back on that and said, if you don’t give equal leave for the father, you’re sending a signal perhaps that gender norms should exist. And it’s up to the woman to be, you know, fully caretaking, you know, in those other moments. So, yeah, why do you as a leader want to make that statement? And what what if your statement instead was take the time and support? You know, maybe she needs to go back to work sooner? And he’s saying, right. I mean, why? Why are we making that assumption? So it was like, Whoa, I never thought about that. Yeah, I don’t, I don’t want to send that signal and times are changing.

Tim Fulton  27:17
Mm hmm. Certainly.

Becca Apfelstadt  27:19
And for adoption, you know, I heard stories, my husband was adopted. And I have had people at tree tree that we’ve employed in the past to have adopted at other companies. And they told me stories about having to essentially, like being forced almost to lie about how their time off work, like working with their class, to come up with a way to cover up the fact that they were taking extra time in this giant corporation. That wouldn’t give time, but the baby wasn’t legally old enough to put in childcare yet. are legally responsible for it. Yeah, for the child, you know, and so you’ve adopted this baby, just because you don’t have any physical recovery. They weren’t giving any paid time off. And I’m like, That’s terrible.

Tim Fulton  28:10
Yeah, from an adoption standpoint, just because you’re not physically recovering doesn’t mean that you aren’t, even if the baby is like to like, they don’t have time to transition. And nest for this person, is also the life change that you’re experiencing, and going through, and you need time to do that, and

Becca Apfelstadt  28:32
agree that you can get from people to come back, feeling connected to the culture and taken care of. It’s just incredible. And it’s, it’s money well spent, and our team, even the folks that had already had their children or who were or who were who had decided they weren’t gonna have children. When we announced this policy, it was one of my happiest moments. This company ever just to see the team’s response and reaction, there were tears, there was high kicks, it was lots of hugging lots of just pride, that they worked at a place that cared about families like this. And so business owners out there who have considered this and want to talk more about the ins and outs of it and how it works. I’m an open book, I’ll share our policy and how it’s worked for us how we’ve structured it, the benefits we’ve seen, but truly believe it’s an incredible asset and something that we need.

Tim Fulton  29:34
That’s great. Well, I recognize that you’re passionate about it. I’m curious if there’s much to say about the the pay gap issue. That’s a passion of yours.

Becca Apfelstadt  29:42
Yeah, I mean, I just I think that there’s more work to do. We’ve made progress locally here in Columbus, what Shannon Cantor’s initiative that that she worked on through the Columbus women’s Commission has us get somewhere I was in a room where I got to watch some local leaders really, who had not been exposed to how the numbers, how disparate the numbers were, and go back and make positive change in their organizations, we employ almost all women, not by not by choice kind of by chance that just just so happens. So we don’t really have the issue inside our own company. But I am very sensitive to it and aware of it and advocate for that not being the case, you know, anymore. And, and I’ve really marveled at how some of our local male leaders have have stood up for that. And like what Mike Coffman at Cardinals done their client of ours, to call attention to it and make changes based on the knowledge like once you have that knowledge, you can’t ignore it, you got to go do something about it. And the companies that are are paving that path, and I think that’s commendable.

Tim Fulton  30:58
Absolutely. I want to thank you for your time today. But before I let you go, I want to ask a question that I tend to ask in a lot of episodes is one What do you think Columbus is doing really well? And then the second question will be the reverse of that.

Becca Apfelstadt  31:13
I think Columbus is doing a really great job at attracting talent. That is, we’ve come a long way and being able to get people to come here and have the location be such a deterrent, or such a hurdle to overcome, you know, coming in from for the retail brands, top talent coming in the tech top talent coming in from universities. Just the stories I hear and what I see, it does not feel like it’s such a hard sell. They might, you know, have have come in for the interview. But then they they needed a lot more massaging to get comfortable with the idea of leaving their family or coming here. And all of the the restaurants and the culture and how the landscape has changed. The parks, the you know, just all the recreation, access for from the airport, you know what they’ve done to make it travel? I feel like there’s just been a lot of positive enhancements to the lifestyle here that have made it easier for people from other markets to consider making that move. And that’s really, for our business community.

Tim Fulton  32:30
And what could Columbus do better?

Becca Apfelstadt  32:32
I think Columbus could do better at collectively having more confidence in that. I think we as a community, we’re still, you know, I’ve been in the business community here, close to 20 years. And it’s still like, you talk to someone from outside of the market. It’s like, Oh, I’m, I’m from Columbus, Ohio, almost like it’s got to be.

Tim Fulton  33:01
You have to qualify it right. You’re a subscriber to the mike Coleman swagger, like, yeah.

Becca Apfelstadt  33:10
Yeah, we got to have some more swagger. Right, we got to have some more. I’m from Columbus. And if you don’t know where that is, what’s your problem? You know, right. What? Why, you

Tim Fulton  33:22
know, I’m not talking about a medium sized town in Georgia.

Becca Apfelstadt  33:25
Yes. Or Indiana or wherever. Right? So I think we have a ways to go with the confidence. And someone that I admire used to call it like, let’s just take the comma off of Columbus. Because it’s always like that, comma, Ohio, how can we take the comma off of Columbus and our industry? You know, we deal with that to it, you know, the the big ad shops aren’t there in San Francisco and New York City and LA and all of the big markets and there’s, there’s it’s hard to get attention sometimes. But we’ve been able to work with a lot of brands that are headquartered here and, and make great headway with those fortune 500. And as we expand with our new positioning, we’re really looking at, you know, going outside of the market to so we’re gonna have to keep that in mind as as a company, you know, it’s

Tim Fulton  34:23

Becca Apfelstadt  34:24
let that be something that gets in our way.

Tim Fulton  34:26
Absolutely. Becca, thank you so much for your time today.

Becca Apfelstadt  34:29
Thank you, Tim. It was a pleasure.

Tim Fulton  34:44
Thank you for listening to the confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. Again, you can get more information on what we discussed today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cast calm. Please Rate, Subscribe, share this episode of the confluence cast. with your friends, family, contacts, enemies, your favorite co founder. If you’re interested in sponsoring the confluence cast get in touch with us. We can be reached by email at info at the confluence cast calm. Our theme music was composed by Benji Robinson. Our producer is Philip Cogley. I’m your host, Tim Fulton. Have a great week.