The culture is the brand: Rachel Friedman's Tenfold vision for companies has caught on
Rachel Friedman has always been interested in space.
A fine arts major at the University of Michigan, Friedman started her career as a designer and, after graduation, went to work at Continental Office in Columbus. There, she created business spaces intended to inspire creativity and increase productivity.
But she also learned a lot about the businesses themselves.
“One of the really valuable, fun aspects of being a designer was that I had the opportunity to get introduced to businesses across a lot of different industries,” Friedman says. “To be a successful designer, you want to dig into a better understanding of those business models and company cultures.”
That experience inspired her idea of the workplace as a strategic business tool.
In 1998, she left Continental for a job at Herman Miller, a design and furnishings company headquartered in Michigan. As global accounts manager, she managed a portfolio of some of the company’s largest Fortune 500 clients, working to align their workplace and business strategies.
“Seeing all of those kinds of companies and organizations awakened a curiosity that I had around business,” she says. “Throughout my roles, my mindset was very entrepreneurial: I wanted to better understand how I could create a value proposition that was compelling for these companies.”
Another benefit at Herman Miller: full coverage of employees’ education. “When I heard about that, my ears perked up,” she says. While employed full time, she applied to Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, where she enrolled in 1999.
“I had a toddler; I was pregnant with my second; and I was working full time,” she says. “It was definitely rigorous.”
Jay Barney, chair of Fisher College’s strategy department at the time, who’s now at the University of Utah, had a lasting effect. “The minute he started to lecture about business strategy, I thought, This is me. This is the way my brain works,” Friedman says. “That’s when I realized, at my core, that I thought I was a designer, but I was a strategist.”
A business degree under her belt, she eventually left Herman Miller and took a job as the vice president of marketing and sales with her previous company, Continental. “Part of my role there was to think about how we differentiate in a really competitive industry,” she says.
While there, in 2006, she came up with the idea for Tenfold. “That’s where I got the whole idea of what that suite of services could be: leveraging space as a medium to communicate the brand and culture story,” she says.
She thought about launching her own company, but felt torn with the demands and responsibilities at her job.
Barney, who continued to mentor Friedman, challenged her to spend more time on her own venture. “He said, ‘I can hear the passion in your voice. You need to be doing this full time,’” Friedman says.
“So many entrepreneurs roll out of their college dorm room as entrepreneurs,” she says. “My path was very different.”
Tenfold is born
In 2014, 22 years into her career, Friedman launched Tenfold, a strategy and creative firm that researches and unveils brands’ culture and reflects that culture through their space. Clients have ranged from ESPN and NBCUniversal to Big Lots and Huntington National Bank, among many others.
“When I would sit down with leaders to help brand their space, they would say, ‘Our culture is our secret sauce,’” Friedman says. “I would say, ‘That’s amazing, tell me more, so I can use it for inspiration.’”
Most leaders couldn’t say exactly how or why. “They just had a feeling,” she says.
Friedman took those feelings and, through a blend of qualitative and quantitative research, dug deeply into what made the brand tick. “If we can’t name it and articulate it, then how can we protect and reinforce what makes you great?” she says.
Her team, which now includes 21 people, works with clients on language, to first be able to create a message and then find the best ways to drive it forward. “Then we create experiential activation aligned with the whole brand and culture story,” she says.
Tenfold also works with clients on succession planning and strategic or generational leadership changes, providing leaders with a blueprint of the key ingredients of their company culture.
One early culture practice client was Hot Chicken Takeover. Owner Joe DeLoss was a peer advisor and friend whom Friedman met as part of a group called Vistage, a coaching and peer advisory organization for small- and midsize business leaders.
“Rachel has an ability to listen to a business like no one I’ve ever met and put a pulse on what’s happening,” says DeLoss. “It’s really remarkable.”
At the time, his restaurant had grown from its initial location to three in a nine-month span. “Everything was broken,” he says. “We put ourselves under a dramatic amount of strain and stress associated with what we were building, and our team and culture dramatically shifted.”
He engaged Friedman and the Tenfold team. “We wanted to better articulate and understand what kind of magic was happening at Hot Chicken Takeover from a culture perspective,” DeLoss says.
Friedman stepped in and started to identify and correct broken or nonexistent systems.
“She held stakeholder meetings with everyone on our team—people with varying levels of responsibility—and synthesized [the data] down into key trends and takeaways,” he says. “They were immediately actionable, and in the months that followed, we were able to recalibrate and invest in systems we needed.”
Today the popular chicken chain can be found in seven locations throughout Columbus and Cleveland. “A lot of that foundational work, Rachel helped inform,” DeLoss says. “It was the first time, in a sophisticated way, that we looked at what we were building. Prior to that, it was about intuition.”
Big Lots once was a breakthrough brand, and one of the largest headquarters projects in the city. “We went up against some large national firms,” Friedman says. “I look back, and still can’t believe that they hired us as a team of four—that really propelled us in the direction we wanted to go.”
In early September, Friedman took the principles she learned in branding into retail with the launch of Tenspace.
Tenspace is an ever-changing, brick-and-mortar store in the Short North that will share stories of rising online brands with the public in an interactive, experiential format. Every two months, the space is transformed to immerse customers with new brands.
Web Smith, founder of 2PM, a subscription-driven media and e-commerce company, was integral in the Tenspace launch.
Smith met Friedman at a forum through Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global network for entrepreneurs.
“I’ve long believed that people should know who she is and what she does,” Smith says.
“She has done a wonderful job helping large corporations identify their cultural touchpoints, and she expresses those through interior design.”
With Tenspace, Friedman has created a space for online companies to execute pop-up strategies. “Oftentimes, those spaces aren’t very well designed, and they’re not very interesting or intriguing to the customer,” says Smith. “Either they lean too heavily on the art side or too heavily on the retail side. What Rachel is building is a combination of both.”
When Friedman was looking for brands that would fit the Tenspace mold, she looked to Smith. “I had the opportunity to work with her in identifying the brand and convincing the brand to work with her,” he says.
Her first customer was Rudis, a long-established wrestling apparel and equipment brand based in Marysville founded by three Ohio State wrestlers.
“The beauty of Rudis is that it’s steeped in storytelling, which makes Rachel’s job a lot easier,” says Smith. “There’s a lot you can do with the story, both in the name and the history. It’s going to be a pretty rich display, and I’m really excited to see it.”
Inside, customers will be able to view things, experience and purchase goods.
“It also drives more attraction to the actual website so the entire store is essentially going to be an Instagram-able experience that will generate a lot of user-generated content for these retailers,” says Smith. “There isn’t another platform that can really do that. Not for individual brands.”
Whether in branding or leadership changes or cultural shifts, one thing Friedman says is a common thread with her clients: “The types of clients that hire us are really good leaders; they take brand and culture very seriously.”
Q&A with Rachel Friedman on office space
With the future of the workplace in flux—how much space will we need? How will people use it?—Rachel Friedman wrote a 17-page white paper called “Culture in the Flexible Workplace.”
What does your paper say about how office space will be used going forward? It goes through a pretty extensive point of view around what purpose the build environment needs to serve. Moving to a post-pandemic era, especially since now people are given a lot more choice and flexibility about where they want to work, if people want to be isolated and be engaged in heads-down work, then they need to work from home.
And so why, then, should they want to come into the workplace? It’s all about connection and how we reimagine and repurpose spaces to drive the types of interactions you miss when you’re working from home.
You say tiny interactions at the office carry great cultural significance. Can you elaborate? I spent a lot of time talking about those micro-interactions that you have at the office—spontaneous interactions that really have an impact on really important dimensions of company culture: coaching and mentoring, learning and training, innovation, building trust and authentic relationships; feeling connected to the mission and vision of the organization. So without a physical place to be, you really struggle to hit on those important dimensions of healthy company culture.
What about digital interactions? So what we’re encouraging companies to do is to be very strategic and intentional and really think about the experience they’re trying to create for their employees, but also not ignoring the digital channel. Over this period of time during COVID, where we were disconnecting physically … the hits you’re taking on company culture aren’t traumatic things … they’re the small, little chipping away [parts] of your culture that you don’t see. It’s like watching your kids grow: You don’t notice the changes day to day, but six months from now, (you see the change). That’s what I think is happening with organizations. They’re not going to see what’s happening until it’s too late.
What’s the reaction been from people who read the white paper? The kinds of businesses that get what we do see how important the built environment is. They’re not saying that the physical workplace is going to be what it was before COVID, but they are saying that they realize how important the physical environment is, and that [they] need to make sure [they] leverage their investment in real estate to help build, preserve, and drive company culture.
Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.
Founder and CEO, Tenfold and Tenspace
In position since: 2014
Previous: Executive vice president, branding and marketing, 3d branding, Continental Office Environments; global accounts manager, Herman Miller; designer, Continental Office
Education: Bachelor’s in fine arts-design, University of Michigan; master’s in business strategy, Ohio State University
Community involvement: Columbus Chamber, Lifesports, Ohio State University
Personal: Friedman and her husband live in New Albany; two children in college (at the University of Rochester and University of Michigan) and one in high school. They have a dachshund-border collie named Summer.