“I’ve actually never had a resume!” We’re going to jump out on a limb (soon-to-be-reveled pun 100% intended) and say that treetree co-founder and CEO Becca Apfelstadt is one of very few successful advertising agency owners who can say that.
Starting her career before most girls even decided what to wear for prom, and quickly moving up the advertising industry ladder, Becca’s lack of a traditional list of qualifications, experience and references is hardly surprising. This Leading Lady is proof-positive that action and results speak a lot more than a perfectly formatted application packet. Can we say we’re more than a little jealous she’s probably never had to write a cover letter?
So what is treetree? Becca calls her business “The Agency of Special Projects.” Focusing on key initiatives that work seamlessly with clients’ internal marketing teams and even outside agencies, Becca and her team make it their mission to deliver something a little different. It’s not necessarily about being better or smarter, it’s about proving more and differentiating from competitors.
And that differentiation has totally worked. Founded during the economic downturn – a time when ad agencies were disappearing – treetree has been recognized as one of the country’s fastest growing companies. But just like a resume, that’s not something Becca has relied on. Instead, she asserts a lot of creativity and hard work from a dedicated team has made all the difference.
Let’s go back in your career just a bit. What were the steps on your career path that took you from college graduate to CEO?
I started my career in advertising as an intern at the age of 17. Just 10 years later, I was vice president of that same agency and transitioning into the start of treetree. It was fast. Advertising is fast. I fell in love with the pace and energy of the industry at that very young age. I was fortunate to find a team there that invested in my growth, and I read everything I could get my hands on to learn about the business world and industry. I learned “backwards,” getting to have practical experience in the real world and then learn the theory in the classroom. I grew very passionate, got very curious and dug really deep to make sure I learned as much as I could, as fast as I could.
After college, I was charged with creating a new department at the agency where I began my career and grew it to a team of about five people. That was my first experience managing others. That led me to become very interested in leadership and management and I wanted to be good at that, so I studied it. I got to have a front row seat to watch that agency change and grow and I soaked up all of the lessons along the way, including culture building and leading with strong values.
By the time I was 21, just before I graduated college, I knew I was going to want to own my own agency some day, based on what I had seen in that internship. I remember writing it down on a “bucket list” of 100 things I wanted to do in my lifetime. I never dreamed it would happen so quickly and I would start that agency at the age of 27, but that’s what happened. No one was more surprised than I was.
Once you had the idea for the agency, how long did it take you to launch?
The theme of my story can be summed up in one word: fast. I think we took about a week or two to make some major decisions and once we decided to launch, that was all transitioned over a weekend.
What has your agency’s growth been like since opening its doors, and how many employees do you have?
It’s been tremendous! We’ve been named one of the fastest growing companies in America and in Columbus, several times. treetree launched a niche positioning as The Agency of Special Projects, which really solidified our place in the market and helped us differentiate. As soon as we did that, we began to grow rapidly. What started with two people at my dining room table has grown to more than 20 talented, smart, passionate “trees” with a lot of momentum.
In your role, how do you divide your time?
I divide my time into three categories: “trees,” clients and prospects/business community members. I serve my team and our clients’ teams first and often. I am in a lot of meetings, having a lot of discussions, lunches, coffees, etc., but I don’t think I’d want it any other way. Most of my desk time is accomplished early morning or after my kids go to bed. I like to be with people, interacting and collaborating as much as possible.
I have a routine of mapping out my week ahead every Friday so that before I leave the office, I have a clear plan, I know which days are going to be heavier, which days require me to delegate and I make time and plans for personal care then, too. I use a Moleskine planner and I track workouts, I schedule personal coaching and I ensure I have enough time set aside to practice gratitude by writing notes of appreciation. Gratitude is one of our core values at treetree.
How important is culture to treetree?
It’s not just important; culture is everything. I wasn’t motivated to become an entrepreneur, I was motivated to build a place that people would want to work and thrive. The advertising industry can be tough. My personal legacy is to build an agency that our team will describe as their favorite agency they every worked (and the favorite agency our clients ever hired). Happier people produce better work. If the legacy is going to be fulfilled, culture has to be top of mind for all of us. We empower everyone at treetree to protect and cultivate our culture.
When you think about building your team, what qualities do you look for in those you hire?
We look for people who are going to fit well in our culture and within our way of doing things. Our focus on special projects means we have to be able to be flexible, nimble and fast. We look for candidates who are going to be naturally aligned with that style. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. We have assembled a team of hard-working, curious, tenacious and warm people. They are driven by the same values as treetree (after all, people don’t check their personal values at the business’s front door), and they are A-players. We have high standards for our work and high expectations of one another. We also have a lot of fun along the way.
Do you feel that you have a good work/life balance, or do you have more of a work/life integration? Why?
Hands-down, it’s work/life integration. There’s never a 50/50 balance, at least not that I’ve experienced. When you’re an owner, the business is a part of your blood. I have learned how to compartmentalize so I can have enough time and energy with my family. I’m learning to put the phone down more and more. I’ve assembled a team that’s “got it” when I’m on vacation or maternity leave and that’s made an enormous difference. But I absolutely love what I do. And I’m fortunate that it rarely feels like work. Whether I’m at the office or home, I’m always surrounded by people I love and adore, and who are (or who feel like), family. I am so blessed!
How do you and your spouse share childcare and housework?
We are absolutely equals when it comes to parenting and running our household. My husband is also a business owner. We have a team approach to running our life together. I’m really proud of how we divide and conquer each week. The key for us has been a shared calendar on our phones and eyeball-to-eyeball communication. Somehow, we make it happen.
What is an accomplishment on your resume that you’re most proud of?
I’ve actually never had a resume! And this wouldn’t exactly be listed on a resume, but I am most proud of the fact that I didn’t let owning a business stop me from having a family. I’m not going to lie; it’s really, really hard to balance two little ones and a 20-person team. It’s demanding from every angle. But the joys and gifts from motherhood and the treetree culture are so incredible that it makes it all worth it. My business is better because I took two maternity leaves. And I really took time away – eight and nine weeks each time. I hope that part of my story can inspire other women to not let the fear of managing it all get in the way of what’s right for her family. There’s more to life than what happens in the four walls of your company and it’s so easy to get sucked into all of the happenings there. Don’t forget to get out and build a life, too.
What is a leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career that you’re willing to share?
Say it out loud. I’ve learned that the team wants and needs to hear from me, in all kinds of situations, and that I should never assume that anything has been communicated – or that it hasn’t been miscommunicated. Strong communication skills are vitally important for any leader and I’m constantly working to sharpen and fine-tune mine. When that part is nailed, the business is more effective and the team is happier.
I’d love to grab coffee with: Don Draper and Roger Sterling
My favorite purse is: Marc Jacobs Hobo
My go-to outfit is: Black blazer and dark denim with heels – always with heels!
My favorite dinner spot is: A carpet picnic with my kids, or a beautiful patio with my husband
I can’t live without: Sharpie pens. I’m an office supply junkie and these are the best.
My favorite way to unwind is: Going for a walk with my husband, our kids and our two dogs.
I feel my best when: I’ve had 8+ hours of sleep and gone to my favorite yin yoga class. Bonus if it’s a good hair day.