XO Chats with Sean Stephens

Sean Stephens, Father of four, CEO of Treefrog Inc.

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

With his bright green hair, perfectly tailored outfit and easy laugh – Sean Stephens makes a big impression. We chatted with Sean about how he’s created a life for himself and his family that is a seemingly perfect blend between business and personal. His exuberance is contagious and we found ourselves completely inspired by his zest for life. 

Tell us about Treefrog Inc.

Treefrog is a digital transformation agency – we transform businesses through technology. We started out as a web development and digital marketing agency and through the years we’ve shifted towards incorporating AI, drones, robots, IOT and helping businesses achieve their goals through all sorts of technology. 

How did you become an entrepreneur?

Treefrog was actually founded by someone else and in 1997 I bought the business with my ex-wife and another partner. We moved the business into our house and for the first few years we literally worked and lived in the same space. We had our first child who was very sick and had to manage the health problems, while growing this new business. When we had our second child, we had eleven people working in my living room! 

That sounds intense!

It really was a crazy time. We moved into a new office space and my ex-wife is a very talented interior designer (she actually designed our current office space) and turned it into a great place to work. During this time, my ex and I separated amicably and have since married other people. 

So I have 4 children in total (2 biological children and 2 step-kids) and we exist in a really great blended family.

How do you guys manage the blended family and all of its challenges (scheduling, the different relationships)

It’s interesting because my ex ended up marrying the head of development at Treefrog and I’m married to the head of sales! So not only are we blending families, but we’re all connected through our work. My ex no longer works with Treefrog and has since gone on to open a very successful interior design firm, but we’re all interconnected. 

We have great relationships, actually, and we co-manage the family. We have a pleasant dynamic and we’ve been able to mix lives and hopefully the kids are mentally stable and have a great foundation. Often in families, the kids are the ‘suns’ and the parents kind of orbit around them. In our experience, since the adults are the strong personalities, we are each our own ‘suns’ and our kids orbit in and around what we’re doing. 

Talk about balance. 

Yeah absolutely – it takes a lot of organization and the kids kind of cycle around this milieu of families. We have one ‘main’ house for which is my ex’s and I make sure the office is family-friendly so that I can spend as much time as possible with the kids. 

Having a family-friendly office must be a great perk for staff.

I really believe in lifestyle innovation and efficiencies, so making sure the office is kid-friendly is so important. Every Friday we have a hairdresser come in so I bring the family in for haircuts. We’ve had sleepovers at the office for my daughters. My 11 year old son is deeply involved in developing and doing quality assurance for a new product we are launching soon. It’s just business merged completely with personal – the way I believe it should be, because I love my work so much and I love my kids so much. 

You’re a big proponent of efficiencies – do you have examples of how you’ve incorporated this into your life in other ways? 

I wear pretty much the same thing every day – it makes it so much easier and I don’t have to think about anything at all so it saves time. I have 70 of the same white shirt, 50 of the same underwear, and a drawer with about 200 of the exact same socks so I never have to fold or sort them. If you open my bathroom cupboard you’ll see rows of the same toothpaste and chapstick. Efficiencies!

Any advice on how someone can be more efficient in their own life?

My advice is to find the things you hate to do that you can pay someone else to do. So for me it’s anything to do with lawn care – I just don’t get the concept of having a lawn. So I’ll make sure I pay someone to do it and save my time towards doing things I enjoy instead. Its lower-value activities vs high-value (which for me are spending time with my kids or on the business). 

Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone – how did you know it was something you’d enjoy?

I have a high adoption of risk – I grew up in a war zone so everyday was risky. For me, big risk equals huge wins. 

Do you think the entrepreneurial bug has rubbed off on your kids? 

Well my 11 year old definitely shows signs of it! He paid some construction workers to help him carry a basketball net that he found back to the house and then sold it on Kijiji! He also sets up a lemonade stand on the main street and raked in some money there. He realized he was spending too much on the lemonade so he found a cheaper lemonade – I guess he’s learning about margins and quality control. My younger son loves art and he’s created a comic book series.  And we love to do geocaching as a family which takes a lot of initiative and decision-making. 

You’ve blended family and work life successfully, but you also spend a lot of time supporting the local community. Where do you find the time? 

Profit in a business is like breathing – you have to have it. But being in business is so much more than profit. I want to know I’ve had a positive effect on those around me and helped as many people as possible. We spend a lot of time and work with the community – whether its supporting the local Pride Parade, developing apps for local charities or ensuring our company is being as environmentally conscious as we can. Fighting for what’s right is a part of our business and what we believe in. So in terms of finding the time, we make the time because it is a big part of our values. 

If you had advice to give to your 20-year old self, what would you say? 

I believe we’re all set to write a story of our lives. I’ve put everything I can into making my life awesome – nothing is a foregone conclusion. So I don’t know what I would change or say other than to enjoy life!

Sean has found a really inspiring way of blending work and family life – to not only maximize efficiencies all around, but also to maximize his time spent with higher value activities aka spending time on work he loves and with his loved ones. Did we mentioned he’s also the lead singer in a band, Sean Stephens and the Distractions? To learn more about Treefrog Inc., check here. Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter and you’ll get these interviews straight into your inbox! And if you’d like to be featured or know someone who should be, contact us. 

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XO Chats with Eva Wong

Mom to Kai, 9 and Mei, 6 // Co-Founder and COO of Borrowell

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

We recently spent a summer afternoon playing ping pong with Eva Wong, co-founder and COO of Borrowell and chatting all things work, life and building a tech company. Not only did Eva kick our ass at ping pong, but she did so with grace. We have a feeling she does this across all aspects of her life – kicking ass, gracefully. Borrowell is one of the largest financial tech companies in Canada and was the first company in Canada to offer free online credit scores and reports. Their focus is helping Canadians make great decisions about credit.  With a staff of 70 and over one million members, the five year old company has experienced rapid growth and great success. Eva says they’re just getting started. 

Tell us about Borrowell.

Borrowell‘s mission is to people make great decisions about credit. We were the first company to offer free credit score monitoring, and we help you choose the best products for you with our AI-driven financial product recommendations. Borrowell is one of Canada’s largest financial technology companies, with more than one million members. We have 70 employees at our office in Toronto, and we’ve been recognized as one of the Best Workplaces in Canada.

People may be surprised to know that you don’t have a tech background!

That’s right! I have a general business background and then worked for a non-profit. I met my co-founder, Andrew, while volunteering with an organization called CivicAction. One of the biggest things I always try to share with other founders is that you don’t have to have direct experience in order to start. I decided to go full-force with Andrew on Borrowell during my maternity leave with my daughter which was actually perfect timing for me because it was a time of re-evaluation and self-reflection. It didn’t feel like it was a big risk – if it didn’t work out I would have just gotten a job. But if I hadn’t taken this step I would have regretted it. Being an entrepreneur doesn’t make you unemployable, so I knew I had to give it a try.

During the five years of running Borrowell, you’ve grown the team from 5 to 70. Tell us about the company culture you’ve developed here. 

Working on our culture has been a very intentional process as our team has grown. Early on, we developed our core team values and we want to truly live up to them every day. We often hear from our team that Borrowell is different from other places they’ve worked. We think our culture is a really positive thing and we work hard to keep it great. A part of this comes from hiring based on a values fit and not just a culture fit. 

We notice that you’ve won Canada’s Best Workplaces in a few different categories (among other accolades) so clearly what you’re doing with team culture is working! Are there a few key things that are particularly important to you when it comes to building culture?

Diversity is really important. To us, diversity equals business success. Our user base is diverse – across all demographic aspects – and having a team that truly reflects a variety of demographics and experiences is really important to us. 

Secondly, open communication is critical. Do all members of the team feel they can challenge ideas and speak their mind and be heard? 

You mentioned your user base is diverse which is interesting because I actually had the impression Borrowell was targeted towards Millennials.

Yes, it is really diverse! Our oldest member is 103 and our most engaged members are actually between 30-50 years old. Geographically they’re spread out – we have customers in the most northern tip of Canada!

How do you maintain team synergy in an era where remote working has become more common?

We actually don’t have a ton of work from home – we really believe that face-to-face collaboration works the best for our organization. We can ideate and solve problems together and we try to have team members cross-pollinate by changing the seating in the office regularly. This gives everybody the chance to connect with each other on a human level – getting to know one another happens on a deeper level and it helps to avoid team vs team scenarios. We also encourage everyone to have a monthly random coffee – we have an algorithm that matches people to go for coffee who don’t typically work together. This way, there can be a deeper understanding of what your colleagues are working on which ultimately helps tighten the bond of everyone at the office as a whole. 

We love the office design and that it lends itself really well to collaboration. The board room names are awesome.

We love this space because of the open desk situation, with options to adjourn in separate meetings rooms or sit in sound-focused pods if you want to have a one-on-one conversation. Because of all the concrete in the office, a lot of the decorative elements are actually acoustical treatments and help to dampen the sound.

How do you balance work and family? 

I try to work fairly regular hours and my husband works pretty predictable hours so between the two of us we can manage life and our kids. He’s able to leave work each day at a regular time so he handles the after-school shift and gets dinner ready. 

Do you have a go-to dinner recipe?

I wouldn’t call it a recipe, but I do have a go-to dinner solution. As much as I like to cook (and I realize not everyone does), I don’t do very much cooking on weeknights. We keep it simple, which seems to make everyone happier, including our kids. Our Thursday dinner (for the kids, and sometimes the parents) is grilled cheese sandwiches with some sort of raw vegetable on the side. It’s super easy, we almost always have the ingredients, and the kids love it. Particularly when their dad makes it, because he’s more generous with the butter!

What do you do in the realm of self-care?

Well I definitely recognize that I operate better with sleep so I make that a priority. If I’m tired, that’s when the impatience comes out. I also just joined a gym and I ride my bike to and from the office. I’m very inspired by my mom, who is 70 years old but is the most active person I know! She plays ping pong, swims and bikes. It’s just getting into the cycle of good habits and hopefully once I’m in the cycle I can maintain it. Talk to me in the middle of winter though, to see if I’m still getting up for 6am classes!

What’s it like being a part of the tech community in Toronto?

It has been so supportive. It’s a great community – we started out at the Ryerson DMZ and One Eleven. When you share physical space with other people in your industry, you have that built-in support. I would say that having that peer-to-peer mentoring is really valuable so if you don’t have one mentor in particular, that’s okay because sometimes we learn the most from others who are going through the same challenges as us at the same time. 

Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs that you’d like to share?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – if you don’t know something, ask. Learn the answers and make yourself an expert on whatever it is you’re lacking. It shows curiosity, not ignorance. 

Eva didn’t let her lack of experience in technology hold her back. She trusted her gut, asked a ton of questions and became a subject matter expert. Eva has co-founded a company which has made huge impact on the fintech world in Canada, while also shining a much-needed spotlight on diversity in the workplace. Like we said – kicking ass, gracefully. To learn more about Borrowell, click here. If you enjoyed this article, sign up for our newsletter, to get all upcoming #xochats straight to your inbox!

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