As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tiffany Rafii.
Tiffany Rafii is the CEO and co-founder of UpSpring PR, a full service communications agency for the architecture, design and real estate communities. The agency currently serves over 60 clients headquartered in locales including New York City, Washington, D.C, Dallas, London, and Toronto in industries that span the hospitality, commercial and residential sectors. Tiffany spearheads business development, while overseeing and executing key strategies for managing internal operations and client relations.
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?
Sarah Terzic, our company’s co-founder and I started UpSpring PR in 2009 while finishing our senior year at The George Washington University. Although the economy was in a downward spiral, we saw an opportunity — one that capitalized on the shrinking PR budgets of small businesses. While many were focusing efforts on fashion, beauty, and finance, we went another route to help companies in the heavily underserved architecture and interior design industries.
After discovering our niche, we went on to build a structure that would make us stand out from our competition and fuel the growth of our clients. From the get-go, we have been business development-minded in our client approach and now have a team of 30 that believes in our mission, works collaboratively, and most importantly complements our skill sets.
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?
For us, it was definitely the time we scrimped on our first media database. Sarah and I were just starting out as business owners and were college students at the time. We didn’t have much money, but knew that having a media database was essential to doing outreach for our clients. While all of the mainstream software was out of our budget, we were able to find what we had thought was an inexpensive list solution. However, what we ended up with was merely an exported list of excel contacts with no rhyme, reason, or cohesiveness. Our ‘cost effective’ alternative turned out only to be a glorified excel document that ultimately couldn’t be used.
Sarah and I laugh now because back then, we would manually search within the spreadsheet to find a single writer from the most unorganized pool of contacts. Since then, we have not only made bringing in the best and most effective software a core priority, but when we don’t find exactly what we need to fit our company’s needs, we develop our own internally. This stumble led us to evaluate our needs and the value associated with investments in our company at an early stage.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I just finished reading Elevate by Robert Glazer. It focuses on how to bring out the best in yourself as well as those around you by building on the power of a positive focus. As a thought leader and visionary in the business world, his book looks at how spirituality, emotional intelligence, and intellectual ability can provide us with a path to becoming a better person — and ignite the best in the people we surround ourselves with. It’s a real life recipe for satisfaction in work and life and as a business owner, I especially found it to be an extremely insightful read with some effective strategies that I plan to implement into UpSpring PR’s own work culture.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We started out committed to helping small companies grow by staying focused on our clients’ business development goals. Did they want to expand their business to other countries? In other industries? Launch a new division? We’ve always maintained this mindset, which now applies to the larger companies we represent on our roster.
Employing this way of thinking is important in a time like this where people have to take a step back, look, and rebuild any losses they’ve incurred.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Transparency is key. We maintain open and honest communication with our clients and our staff. We always keep the UpSpring PR team informed on internal business decisions, and we keep clients constantly up-to-date on our work for them. Our priority is to always build trust and loyalty with our community.
We believe it is important to be transparent not only when you know something, but even more so when you don’t have all of the answers. During these uncertain times, we have meetings with our entire staff and sometimes, as frustrating as it can be, we don’t have all of the answers to give them. All we can say is that we are looking into all of the options and avenues, talk through that process, gather their input and ask that our staff and clients continue to put their trust in us as we explore that landscape.
We are human, we don’t always have the answers, but together we are navigating and building a company with unwavering dedication to the collective. Trust, integrity, and transparency is at our core and guides us in every business decision we make.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My husband is a doctor working in a New York City hospital and we have two kids under four years of age. Everyday I juggle the needs of my employees, children, and household. This is a balancing act unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was hard at first, and then I realized it’s ok to just do my best. Showing myself some compassion gave me the opportunity to step back and prioritize each bucket in my life and this strategy has actually led to heightened productivity. Don’t get me wrong, some days are easier to balance than others, but being less hard on myself has given me the room to enjoy the rare experiences this time has brought for me and my family, as well as my business.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Navigating how to virtually maintain our strong company culture and continue to foster collaboration and innovation has definitely been our greatest challenge. We are such a collaborative and social group that the sudden change required lots of adjusting in order to maintain the strength of our team’s interactions. After a few weeks, when we realized we would all be working remotely for longer than initially anticipated, Sarah and I did wellness check-ins with the entire staff where we discussed their ideas and needs. From there, we worked with the firm’s management team and initiated a set of activities that we continue to evolve and expand upon. Everything from hosting more virtual team building experiences to “Monday Meditations” via Zoom, a new lunch and learn series, and regular all-staff town halls just to all get together and talk about current happenings.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The news cycle is meant to evoke emotion, don’t ride the roller coaster. Stay informed, listen to the experts, and make sure to take time for yourself. It’s certainly easier said than done for many who are juggling families, work, and personal matters, but finding what works for you whether it’s a walk, a mediation, a baby shark dance party, or even a victory lap to get a glass of water or healthy snack whenever you finish a big task, make sure you take time for yourself. It’s hard for me to find pockets of time, so I rotate a few 10-minute activities that are only for me and make sure to do one at least twice a day.
It’s also so important to remember to be there for one another and show empathy and compassion for how everyone is feeling. Reach out to those you know who are home alone, those who are managing family and work, and those who you know may be struggling with depression. While you are the one reaching out to help them, the reward of making that connection will help you as well.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Times like these often see the end of a lot of businesses, which makes room for the creation of new ones. It’s important to identify the needs of the industries you’re associated with, be willing to pivot to service those needs, and ensure you have the tools to succeed. Sectors such as retail, hospitality, and workplace aren’t going to die; they are going to change. Large scale events may be on hold for a while, but people aren’t going to stop interacting, innovating, and collaborating. Those who are willing to do the research, take calculated risks, and be part of inevitable change will see great growth in the post-Covid-19 economy.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I always tell the team that we only grow through discomfort, whether it’s a demanding client, a difficult management experience, or a personal experience that challenges us on an emotional level. It’s hard to see now, but there is so much good that will come of this pandemic.
As a CEO and a mom, we will come out of this health crisis having a greater understanding and level of compassion for the balancing required of working parents. Lines have been blurred more than ever. I’m an entrepreneur, wife, teacher, mom, chef, entrepreneur, peacekeeper, housekeeper, and toilet paper keeper rolled into one, and sometimes, it’s all in the same hour of the day! I’m going from call to video meeting to lunch and worksheets and everyone I work with, employees and clients alike, couldn’t be more understanding. We laugh when my four-year-old makes a cameo on Zoom and it brings us all closer. I hope that this level of respect and understanding extends beyond quarantine and we can maintain a perspective that lends itself to actual work life balance.
I also anticipate a lot of companies reassessing their work-from-home policies and workplace flexibility. Company leaders are seeing their teams adjust to working from home and learning that they may be able to have some component of a work from home structure benefit them beyond this pandemic. However, what we all need to be weary of is going too far in one direction or the other. This is very similar to the move many companies made to the open office floor plan and then not too long after, it was met with backlash, as productivity wasn’t the same and problems needed to be solved for. As it relates to the shift to working from home for me personally, when we were in the office, I would generally turn and share an idea with my business partner countless times a day. Sometimes something would come of it, other times nothing would. Now, I’m only calling her when I have something important to say. Are we losing little moments of innovation? Probably. Are they big enough to impact the business? I’m just not sure yet. Every company is different and will have varied job roles that are more or less impacted by this structure, so it will be interesting to see how companies move forward.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Like most companies, we spent the first month assessing the impact on our business and anticipating the things we would need to do to maintain quality control remotely, ensure we were supporting our employees properly, reevaluate client needs, and stay attuned to the shift of the PR landscape. Once the dust settled, so to speak, we mobilized our staff to ensure each client’s PR plans and strategies were revised and we were fulfilling their changing needs with new services and a laser focus on their growth, while finding new ways to add value. For us, the protection of our core client base and the productivity and happiness of our staff have always been and will always be a priority.
From the perspective of growth and new business in a post-Covid-19 environment, Sarah and I made a quick shift back to our roots and re-calibrated our business development strategy along with our VP of Communications and Business Development. We have taken a clear look at all of the industries and client types we serve, identified the pockets where we believe growth will be seen, and look to expand in those categories in the next 6–18 months. We have always been focused on the long term — if a client is a great fit for our future, it doesn’t matter what their budget looks like, we are here to invest in them and have them grow with us. This outlook served us well in 2009 when we capitalized on the shrinking PR budgets of companies and we are well-positioned and prepared to ride the same wave now. It’s one step back, a few deep breaths, and then a fun ride up!
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
My biggest piece of advice is to protect your core client base and continue to over serve them. Look for innovative ways to adjust the services you provide and the way that you support them. In times where business development is impacted, it is vital that you prove value to your clients, stay flexible and if required, provide additional support at little or no cost. This mindset will provide the stable foundation required for rebuilding any momentum that may have been lost.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m an eternal optimist at heart, so what better quote to lead with than “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s important to stay positive and have confidence that you have the strength to lead through any situation. There are always going to be challenges, but worrying doesn’t help and very often, prevents you from seeing the solution and taking the action needed to keep driving things forward.
How can our readers further follow your work?