An Interview With Vanessa Ogle

Communication- Even if your culture isn’t one of the entire team in meetings all day and sitting at communal tables, great company culture and communication go hand in hand. Part of our company culture at my former company was facilitating quarterly check-ins with the entire team. This allowed employees and management alike to have a regularly scheduled open line of communication at a predictable cadence. This made our team members feel safe on a day-to-day basis, knowing that if they had something they wished to discuss, be it an internal issue or a request for a raise, there was a process in place for them to have an outlet. My advice is always to have an open-door policy because it’s better than the alternative: a revolving door policy.

Every company has a corporate culture. This culture can foster innovation and a fresh exchange of ideas or it can promote selfishness and backbiting which will damage the bottom line of any business. Sensitivity to the culture of a business goes beyond mere awareness; it’s about actively adapting and responding to create the culture that you want to represent your brand. This is crucial for building successful, respectful, and inclusive working environments and for creating products and services that resonate with a diverse customer base. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Back.

Alex Back is an e-commerce entrepreneur known for founding the successful home furnishings brand Apt2B at the age of 26. After leading the company through an acquisition in 2018, Back left his role as Chief Operating Officer in 2023 to embark on his latest venture,, a marketplace and discovery platform focused on helping consumers find great furniture, particularly couches. Leveraging his experience in e-commerce and online marketplaces, Back aims to revolutionize the way people shop for furniture by aggregating brick-and-mortar retail stores and DTC brands’ websites into a comprehensive online platform. He is also involved in a new startup that’s revolutionizing the junk removal business and making it more accessible, convenient and fun than ever before, Valley Haul Away.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about Why Corporate Culture Matters in Business, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

When I was in my early 20’s, I moved to Los Angeles from New York to be an actor in TV and film. I had been working professionally as an actor for 2 years already and was going to try my luck in the Hollywood rat race. Everyone knows that most actors need a side job to make ends meet. Most actors waited tables. I sold furniture.

I worked as a retail salesperson for a furniture company here in Los Angeles that was run by a guy named Mat Herman who ended up becoming my best bud and business partner. Mat and I became good friends, and I ended up working with him in various capacities over the following years. After leaving the successful retail store he managed, Mat went into wholesale as a sales rep for furniture manufacturers. While he was working as a sales rep for a legacy furniture brand headquartered in Mississippi, I was helping him a bit and keeping him company on long drives up and down the California coast, learning a lot about the industry along the way. One day, Mat got an email from a potential new account that wanted to sell the company’s reclining couches on their online store. The furniture industry didn’t have many online stores at that time in the early 2000’s and Mat’s company had no retail accounts doing business online at the time. He called his sales manager and asked if he could open this online account and sell them some product. His sales manager agreed, and Mat got the retailer everything they needed to start selling which was, quite simply, product specs on a spreadsheet and images of each of the products.

Within mere days, the first order came through, and Mat couldn’t believe it. A few days later, Mat would wake up to more orders in his inbox. A few days later, even more! All going to different parts of the country. It was clear that online furniture was about to have its moment and this, retailer, CSN Stores, was figuring it out. This is what inspired us to try our hand at selling furniture online. We had no e-commerce experience but very few people did at that time. In the coming years, CSN would grow much larger and would eventually become the single largest furniture retailer in America, Wayfair.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My experience running an e-commerce furniture startup, Apt2B, was an amazing one. We had so many amazing opportunities that came our way over the years and always did our best to seize them. We were on Shark Tank, furnished multiple MTV Real World houses, got asked to be on a Japanese TV Show and spent a week in Tokyo filming with a Japanese crew, we had the Property Brothers in our warehouse and I even sang the national anthem for the LA Dodgers on Memorial Day Weekend while promoting our brand to the entire crowd on the big screen at the same time. We had our furniture in Costco stores and Bed Bath and Beyonds across the US and were early pioneers on the Shopify platform which ended up ruling the e-commerce roost.

We’ve accomplished a lot and I have stories for days. However, the most rewarding thing we accomplished was the sale of our company to a large retail furniture chain. Few professionals get to experience a climactic moment in their careers- a moment that validates all of their choices up until that point and makes them feel successful. To be able to start a business out of thin air with one my best friends and for that experience to end in a triumph was a blessing and a defining moment in my life and career. So much hard work went into building our business to the point where it was an attractive enough property to be acquired, let alone the process of closing a multimillion-dollar business deal itself, which was nothing to be taken lightly. I learned more than I ever could have dreamed and now I proudly have “sold a company” on my proverbial resume.

You are a successful individual. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Confidence- There was so much “fake it ’til you make it” in my career, I could write an entire book on the subject. It takes a lot of confidence even put yourself in a position to fake it until you make it which is why it’s such an important trait of successful people. I would venture to say that it’s necessary but it’s also extremely useful. One of our business advisors who used to be a pro athlete once said that, in sports, one thing he was always told was to play high school ball like he was in college and play college ball like he was in the majors… this translates directly to business in the sense that if you’re a 1 million dollar company, embodying the spirit and mindset of a 10 million dollar company can pay dividends.
  • Resilience- every business has problems. How you react to them is the measure of success in my opinion. When I think back on the many challenges that came my way in business, I’m grateful that I was able to keep a cool head and calm spirit throughout most of them. During the pandemic, there was a new challenge every day in the furniture industry from supply chain to workforce to managing burgeoning demand. The thing that made us successful was our resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Need to be liked- The need for other people to like you is something people don’t talk about enough. Some people develop this trait, and some people could care less what other people think about them. Usually, it’s the latter that’s celebrated the most and for good reason! In general, the more we care about what others think of us, the more we’re not in touch with what we, ourselves, need. However, in creating an empathic business environment and culture, my need for others to like me ended up being a very valuable trait. Even though at times it would have been more convenient to rule our company with an iron fist, taking a more affable and personal approach to management proved to be very successful and allowed me to foster relationships with employees and team members that likely don’t exist in other professional environments very often. I’m proud of this and I own the fact that it stems from a trait of mine that most people would look down upon.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. How do you define corporate culture in the context of your business, and why is it important for your company’s success?

Corporate culture isn’t everything that makes a business successful (you still need a great product or service, great execution, etc.) but it is everything that makes the people part of a business successful. I define great corporate culture as a working environment that maximizes the potential of the people working in it. This doesn’t mean that a culture needs to involve a certain vibe or approach- there doesn’t need to be ping pong tables and kombucha on tap- it simply needs to embody the characteristics of an environment that will make its inhabitants the most successful. Some company cultures may be established based on ideals of great collaboration and teamwork and others may be focused on providing the individual all they need to be successful in a silo. In fact, the tech partner I’ve worked with over the past number of years has a company culture that is very much focused on individual excellence more that of the entire team.

This company’s belief is that the success of the company overall depends on the success of the individuals who are doing the work rather than the team at large. This group of overachieving full stack web developers is less extroverted than perhaps some other groups of professionals and they enjoy working on their own, owing their own projects and contributing their individual achievements towards the greater good of the company. There are no cameras on during zoom calls. There is no office or HQ. And it’s all deliberate! This is a company with a culture document that is 120 pages long, mind you. The company leadership has taken inventory of the natural inclinations of the team and has made it a mission to meet them where they are and to provide them with the type of support and personal responsibility that they crave to be successful. And, yes, they do sometimes get together for lunch IRL.

In my experience, creating the right type of culture to meet your employees where they are and to help shepherd them where they need to go is the key to using your team to give you the best possible chance of success. If everyone’s working to their full potential, the sky is the limit in many cases.

Can you share an experience where corporate culture impacted a business decision or client relationship (positive or negative)?

In 2018 our small company of around 20 employees was acquired by a much larger company of around 500 employees. Even though we were acquired to bring along our fresh take on the furniture business and the culture that went along with it, we were up against a big challenge in trying to bring a new age startup culture focused on personal responsibility and fun to a much larger and more traditionally corporate entity. We met many challenges along the way but one of the biggest was our necessity to adhere to the corporate performance review process that had been put in place to cover the common denominator throughout the organization and was not necessarily catered to individual departments or teams. The creative graphic designers were privy to the same performance review format as the local delivery drivers and warehousemen and women. On paper, this seemed benign, but this particular style of performance review included a numeric rating system wherein an employee would be given an overall grade at the end.

Many people reading this may have a lot more experience with this type of grading system than I did at the time, and I will admit that I can see its merits. However, our company culture was one of fostering positivity and personal responsibility, both of which can be eroded by a numeric grading system that forces some negativity to be named in virtually every review (otherwise everyone would receive perfect scores) and creates an air of hierarchy that is hard to come back from. Quite simply, I, as the benevolent team leader of a successful group of self-starting young professionals became “chief evaluator” and “test grader”… whereas a more qualitative approach would have served our company culture way more fully. This was a sign that our corporate culture may not survive being absorbed into a larger entity.

What strategies do you employ to monitor and enhance corporate culture within your team or organization?

Corporate culture isn’t something that you “set and forget”- it needs to be fostered and constantly iterated upon. It’s not just a quarterly retreat or a weekly lunch and a few jokes on slack. It’s something that lives and breathes and requires as much care as any relationship does. The biggest thing is communication- checking in regularly with team members about their workflow and, more importantly, their feelings about work in general is extremely important. Asking questions and getting feedback is probably the most impactful thing a company can do to monitor whether their actual culture is in alignment with their ideal culture.

As far as enhancing culture is concerned, the method depends on the specific situation and the specific team, of course, but one throughline is probably the fact that every good work culture, however individually minded, is rooted in the sense of achieving something together as a group, team or company. Re-aligning everyone’s focus on common company-wide goals that they can contribute to is a great way to realign a group around a common interest and, ultimately, around a unifying culture.

How do you handle situations where the executives may not be aware of corporate culture in mid-management?

I believe heavily in leading by example. That should always be the first approach to fixing any sort of cultural issue because it’s the most important thing. If the leader isn’t embodying the corporate culture, why should anyone else? If mid-management or a team member in another area of the company hasn’t gotten the memo on the vibe and spirit of the company, even after being shown said exemplary behavior by leadership, a more direct approach is necessary. This is because part of any great culture is a responsibility to uphold that culture at almost any cost. It’s kind of like Fight Club- first rule is that you don’t talk abou — you get the idea.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Reasons How Corporate Culture Helps the Bottom Line of a Business?”

1 . Positivity- positivity is extremely important and is cornerstone to almost any great company culture. There are certainly some cases where teams have been found to be more productive when working under duress or some other fear-based ideal but far more teams have been found to be productive when operating in a positive environment. In my former business, the bulk of our team dealt with customers and, often, ones whom were not having their best days. If part of a team’s job description is to deal with and compartmentalize negativity, it’s almost a necessity that this be countered with a culture and environment filled with positivity to offset it. Conversely, I’ve worked in environments that are fear-based and which operate on an “or else” mentality and I’ve seen how well it works… you can too by doing a search of businesses sorted by lowest star rating on Glassdoor.

2 . Communication- Even if your culture isn’t one of the entire team in meetings all day and sitting at communal tables, great company culture and communication go hand in hand. Part of our company culture at my former company was facilitating quarterly check-ins with the entire team. This allowed employees and management alike to have a regularly scheduled open line of communication at a predictable cadence. This made our team members feel safe on a day-to-day basis, knowing that if they had something they wished to discuss, be it an internal issue or a request for a raise, there was a process in place for them to have an outlet. My advice is always to have an open-door policy because it’s better than the alternative: a revolving door policy.

3 . Retention- Retention is one of the biggest drivers of bottom-line success and failure in any business. If you’re constantly turning over your team, the likelihood of achieving goals diminishes at a rapid rate. Investing in a company culture can create an asset for a business operator and a point of leverage with employees that otherwise may feel compelled to look for a different or higher paying job. Like most assets, company culture requires constant investment and upkeep, and, like most assets, it often pays dividends. The founder of Trader Joes, Joe Coulombe, was a huge champion of great company culture. He believed that taking great care of his employees meant higher retention which meant higher profits. His model has been copied and studied for the past 50+ years because of his success as a result of using it. And it trickles down too! Trader Joes’ customers are just as loyal because of a trickle-down effect that I believe stems from the overall company culture. It can’t just be the great wine selection and amazing mixed nuts, right?

4 . Specificity- Anytime a group of people are in alignment, great things are possible. Having a clearly defined corporate culture can get a team in the right mindset to achieve great things together and, ultimately, be more profitable in business. Being specific about the ins and outs of a company culture is as important as being specific about the ins and outs of the team’s goals. When everyone knows very clearly what is expected of them and is in alignment from a cultural standpoint, the output of the team environment can be exponential. A great example of this is in sports- you can put numerous great athletes on a single sports team but, with the wrong culture, that team can be doomed. Conversely, a team with a true alignment of spirit and a specific common goal where the end result is a championship vs individual achievement is usually more successful. This is why 2024 is the New York Knicks year!

5 . Fun- Figuring out what makes a group of people feel like they’re having fun is a major unlock to success. Fun comes in many shapes and sizes but finding a way to bring levity to otherwise challenging situations can be the key to achieving productivity and, ultimately, profitable success. Most people dislike their jobs and feel a resistance towards doing their best work as a result. Work should be a net positive exchange for an employee- once they feel like they are not getting back what they are putting into it, productivity and progress can be stunted. However, if they truly enjoy doing their work because it is (what they consider to be) fun, they are far more likely to feel like they are coming out ahead in the arrangement they have with the company. On the TV show, The Office, Michael Scott is often labeled the quintessential “bad boss” because of his inappropriate behavior and constant plight to make the Dunder Mifflin Paper office more fun. Did he do everything right? No. But his average retention rate in that office was higher than any company I’ve personally ever seen.

In what ways has focusing on Corporate Culture given your business a competitive edge?

As a growing bootstrapped business that never took on outside funding, we were never able to be as competitive with pay as many of our counterparts. However, we used our culture of positivity and personal responsibility to attract and ultimately retain some amazingly talented individuals that contributed greatly to our company’s success. Most people that left the company would express how hard it was to leave it. We had created an environment people wanted to work in and gained a competitive advantage as a welcome biproduct.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ve always liked this concept of having a very structured method of getting an entire society to do community service. A few years ago, I was educated about the fact that this is done successfully in Rwanda. On the last Saturday of every month, everyone stops what they’re doing to perform selfless acts for their community. I think if we can get Americans and the rest of the world to embody this cultural practice, not only would it provide a ton of practical value but the emotional value it would create for us to all feel a part of something at the same time would be immense.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’m currently hard at work growing my new business venture, Checking out our website to see what we’re up to, following us on socials @couchdotcom and following me on LinkedIn are all great ways to follow our exciting journey!

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About The Interviewer: Vanessa Ogle is an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. She is best known as the founder of Enseo which she and her team grew into one of the largest out-of-home media and connected networks in the world, serving more than 100,000,000 people annually. Vanessa’s talent in building world-class leadership teams focused on diversity, a culture of service, and innovation through inclusion resulted in amazing partnerships and customer relationships. She collaborated with the world’s leading technology and content companies such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Dish Networks to bring innovative solutions to the hospitality industry. Enseo has also held an exclusive contract to provide movies to the entire U.S. armed forces for almost 15 years. Vanessa and her team’s relentless innovation resulted in120+ U.S. Patents. Her favorite product is the MadeSafe solution for hotel workers as well as students and children in their K-12 classrooms. Accolades include: #15 on FAST 100, 50 Fastest Growing Women-Owned 2018–2020, Entrepreneur 360 Best Companies 2018–2020, not to mention the Inc. 500 and then another six times on the Inc. 5000. Vanessa was personally honored with Inc. 100 Female Founder’s Award, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and Enterprising Women of the Year. Vanessa now spends her time enjoying her children, sharing stories to inspire and give hope through articles and speaking engagements. entrepreneurs-to-be with her articles including her LinkedIN newsletter Unplugged. In her spare time she writes music with her husband Paul as the band HigherHill, teaches surfing clinics, and trains dogs.

Please connect with Vanessa here on linkedin and subscribe to her newsletter Unplugged as well as follow her on Substack.

Alex Back On Why Corporate Culture Matters in Business was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.