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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xo chats with Sandy Tam

Mom to Blythe and Daryl // Owner of Pulp Function and Rugs by Roo

We met Sandy years ago when we were producing ReBash and immediately fell in love with the modern and whimsical products she was creating as Pulp Function. So naturally we were thrilled to have a conversation with Sandy about work, a big move out west, and life with two babes (and an adorable beagle).

We were surprised to find out that you haven’t always been a creative entrepreneur!

Almost the opposite! I worked in accounting for six years before realizing it wasn’t something I wanted to do the rest of my life. At my best friend’s wedding in 2006, I met someone who inspired me to pursue my passion, photography. I left accounting and pursued wedding photography for the next 6 years until I became pregnant with my daughter in 2015. I was fully booked that year and shot a wedding while 8 months pregnant. After she was born, I jumped right back into shooting and brought her along to all the weddings with me. Thereafter, I told myself I never want to go through that crazy process again. That was when I shifted gears and focused on my new business, Pulp Function

Pulp Function began as a hobby right?

I’ve always loved stationery and design. The original idea was for me to open an online retail store that sold all my favourite stationery.

How did that idea evolve?

I realized I enjoyed design more than selling, so I wanted to be the creator of what I sold instead of just being a sales channel for other people’s work. I started brainstorming on what I wanted to make and discussed it with whomever was willing to listen. In one conversation I had with a wedding planner friend, she said her clients wanted these large alphabet marquees for her wedding. We realized there was a market for this and my alphabet designs soon evolved into clouds, stars, dogs and bunnies for my daughter’s nursery. This became the start of our Marquee Art collection.

Your work is so visually attractive and pretty universal. Where does your inspiration come from?

Everywhere. I think about my business all the time. My brain never turns off. When I come across stationery that I like, I reach out to the designer and ask if they’d be interested in a collaboration. An example would be the Avocuddle stuffy toy made by Queenie’s Cards. It’s super adorable, so now we have a marquee version of her Avocuddle in our store.

It sounds like a ton of fun to be able to flex your creativity after all those years of crunching numbers – tell us about another favourite part about your business.

My favourite part of running a business is not knowing what will happen next. I hate redundancy and repetition and love spontaneity. I also know that you can plan the heck out of everything but ultimately, what happens at the end of the day is completely out of your control.   That thrill of just following your heart without knowing what’s at the end of it is what I find most fascinating about running a business.
I also get great enjoyment out of seeing an idea come to life.  I love seeing people’s reaction when they see my work. We do the One of A Kind Show every year. Our booth literally stops people in their tracks as they are walking by. It makes me happy because my work actually impacted someone, even for just a brief moment.

So we’ve talked about your passion for what you do, but as any business-owner and parent knows – it takes a shitload of background work to get things to even come close to looking functional on the surface. What’s your typical day like?

On weekdays, I wake up at 6:30 a.m. Usually, Albert (my husband) is already out the door because he works downtown and has a 1.5 hour commute. I wake up Blythe because she takes the longest to get ready. Blythe and Daryl (my 10 month old) share a room so while getting Blythe ready, I am praying that Daryl doesn’t wake up. On a good day, I will have Blythe all dressed and seated downstairs for breakfast by 7:15 and then I race upstairs to get myself ready. At this point, Daryl usually wakes up so I get him ready and downstairs too. I hook myself up to pump while feeding Daryl and eating my own breakfast. We try to get out the door by 8:30 but this rarely happens. It is usually closer to 8:50. The teachers have hinted many times that I should drop her off earlier. I have tried but things just seem to drag out in the mornings and I honestly don’t see myself waking up any earlier than 6:30 a.m.By around 4pm, I usually stop work and go pick-up Blythe from school. I grab Albert from the station and we all head home. We make dinner while the kids entertain themselves and we try to have food on the table by 6pm. We all have dinner together. This is my favourite part of the day because Blythe is such a talker now and she just fills us with so many stories about her day. And Daryl loves eating and it is so much fun watching him cram his mouth with food. After dinner, we go straight upstairs to begin bedtime routine. If my husband isn’t busy working on marquees, he will come upstairs to help out. We usually start with Daryl. His head stinks because he is wearing a correctional helmet to reshape his flat head. Albert cleans his helmet and gives him a bath. And I take Blythe for a shower. Daryl gets a milk top-up and story time with daddy. Blythe gets milk and story time with mommy. And then lights out. Nowadays, I jump back on my computer to research schools for Blythe. Albert usually does the dishes and then is off working on marquees. I am usually passed out by 11pm.

Your days are jam packed, girl! How do you carve out time for yourself and Albert?

Time for myself means listening to my favourite podcasts while driving to and from school, or while showering. Time for myself means reading a book while doing my last pump of the day. I try to fill my day with pockets of enjoyment here and there, which is usually layered over something else that needs to get done. And I don’t mind this. I am a doer by trait. I like doing things and keeping myself busy. With the big move happening now, I am finding so much enjoyment out of purging because I love purging. If I can fit in a 30 minute purging session in my day, I am happy and I feel fulfilled. That sense of fulfilment when I am able to get things done within my day is my biggest motivator to keep me going. Sure there are times when I feel completely exhausted and my head is spinning from over-multitasking. That is when the meltdowns occur, and then I talk it out with my husband. And then I’m ready to do it all over again the next day! As a couple, we really just enjoy spending time together vegging out in front of the TV with pizza. That is actually a perfect date night for us.

Podcasts while showering? You are the ultimate multitasker.

I am! I’ve done it all. I’ve even pumped breastmilk while driving.

QUEEN! We bow down to you.

With Blythe I sometimes had to pump 8 times a day – it just became a necessity to fit it in around other daily tasks otherwise I’d be out so much time.

We find it totally inspiring. We all do what we have to do, to provide for ourselves and our families, right? Speaking of inspiration, if you could meet anyone, who would it be?

Marie Forleo. She is a business coach and I have been following her for years. I watch her videos, I take her courses and I listen to her podcasts. I would love to meet her and tell her how appreciative I am of all her teachings and guidance.

One thing Marie Forleo talks about often is how to be productive and organized. Do you have any tips on how you stay organized?

As you can tell from our place, we have given up on “organization”.  During my pre-marriage and pre-kid days, I used to be super organized. I was such a perfectionist. But now, I have gotten used to the chaos. Sure, it stresses me out to see the mess everywhere but I also feel that if I can train my mind to be okay with mess in my life, then it makes me a stronger person...because if business has taught me anything, it is that I cannot control everything. Things happen and things get really messy sometimes even if you did everything you possibly can to avoid it.
This is also why I love purging and I love minimalist living.  The less you have, the less mess you are capable of creating.

It’s funny because I’m the same way. I’ve absolutely learned to embrace the chaos. What about with work? Do you have organization tips?

When it comes to work, I try to stay organized and on top of things. I am far from perfect. I put everything on my calendar and I set reminders on my phone. It also helps that I work with other people who are organized. My friendor who does all the cutting for us knows that I am forgetful. He keeps me on track and sends me reminders all the time. That is why building a team that I know I can count on where I fall short is important to me.

Team work makes the dream work! With having kids, especially, and childcare.

For sure. It definitely applies to childcare. Right now, Blythe attends a full-day preschool that is about 15 mins away, which is great. But this might end when we move to Vancouver. Finding a full-day Montessori in Vancouver is proving to be a challenge as most of them are half day only.  So I’ll have to figure out how to occupy her time for the rest of the day when we get over there.
Daryl is with me all the time. My parents come over to play with him, bring me lunch and help me with packing. This also ends when we move to Vancouver because my parents have no intentions of moving to Vancouver with us. But as Marie Forleo says, everything is figuroutable. I’m sure the pieces will fall into place somehow and life moves on.

That’s a great attitude. You’ve got such a “go-with-the-flow” perspective that I think a lot of us strive towards. Having said that, what are some challenges you’re currently facing as a parent and entrepreneur? Things that you’re struggling with?

This is a loaded question. There are many many many challenges I face as a mompreneur. Guilt is probably the biggest challenge. The guilt comes in two ways. There is the normal guilt when I don’t spend enough time with my kids. When at home, I am almost always working on my business and I leave Daryl to play on his own on the floor. When Blythe was a newborn, I had just started up Pulp Function and it wasn’t so busy. I brought her to yoga classes, music classes and playgroups. With Daryl, because we’ve gotten so much busier (did I mention I started another business called Rugs by Roo?), I haven’t brought him to anything. He just tags along with me while I run errands, do drop offs, pick ups, supply runs, etc. Thank goodness he is a good sleeper in the car and he generally plays well on his own.
The second aspect of guilt is financial. While we are still able to provide for the family and afford preschool for Blythe, it is a constant struggle financially. The guilt comes from not seeing financial stability with my business yet and wondering if I am putting my family at risk because I have chosen the entrepreneurial path instead of a steady, lucrative accounting job. Maybe if I had a corporate job, I could afford a bigger house, more toys, more after-school activities, etc etc etc. I know it takes time to build a business and I am doing all the right things to get us there. But I just wish it could come sooner because I am a very impatient person and self-doubt isn’t always easy to overcome.

We hear you. The struggle is so real when it comes to guilt. Ultimately we’ve found that embracing the things that fuel your passion, which is what you’re doing, makes you a happier person – which translates to being a better parent, which typically means the family unit overall is happier. If you’re doing what you love and feeling fulfilled, you’re winning at life already.

To stay connected with what Sandy’s up to – check out her two businesses Pulp Function and Rugs by Roo. Good luck in Vancouver, Tam Family!

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

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