An interview with Marie Poulin of Digital Strategy School

An interview with Marie Poulin of Digital Strategy School

If ever there was an example of a design entrepreneur, then Marie Poulin is that example. She's already enjoyed a successful freelance career, working with clients that most would give parts of their anatomy to collaborate with. But now Marie is embarking on a different path, the lesser traveled road of products. Marie recently took the time to tell us all about it. Grab a coffee and enjoy the interview.

Who are you, and where does Marie Poulin hail from?

I’m a business strategist, digital strategist, designer and mentor.

I grew up in Ottawa, Canada, a middle child in a fairly low-income extended family (parents, grandparents, brother, sister, uncle). It was overwhelming to say the least– i felt like an introvert in an extrovert’s world. The house was always loud and bustling, something was always going on. It was total chaos!

I escaped by exploring the city by bike and rollerblades, and retreating into my world of drawing and painting. I was a combination jock, nerd, artist.

My father is a retired programmer, and probably the family member that I related to most as I was growing up. He was a bit of a wise owl; quiet and deliberate with his words. Logical, Intuitive and inquisitive. He always encouraged honing your intuition.

I also learned all about how “money didn’t grow on trees”, and that debt was just a normal part of life. “Everyone is in debt, deal with it,” was what I heard my parents say.

I took summer school and night school every year in high school so I could fast-track and get out on my own, and off I went to the York/Sheridan Design Program just as I was turning 18.

I suppose “freedom” has always been of utmost importance to me :)

In early 2012 I moved to Bali to live and work for 3 months, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I spent the next year or so couch-surfing, and I’m now settled in Vancouver with my partner Ben, who I met via Twitter in 2008! (I imported him from Seattle)

You’ve gone from freelance designer to multi-product entrepreneur. What prompted the change and what have been some of the biggest challenges?

project process and planning

A few things prompted the change:

  • I wanted to scale my impact. I was starting to feel like with only working on a few websites per year, that I was only really creating small impact. It felt like I was only leaving the world a little better than I found it, and I while I have no desire to be a “star,” or be in any kind of limelight, I do want to create large-scale positive change.
  • I realized that there was only so long that I could trade time for dollars. What if I want to start a family? What if I want to take a month off? Every time I would take time off, it would mean having a really lean month, and having to plan extra carefully (which is not my strong suit). I was afraid of being like my parents; in debt and not knowing how to manage my money.
  • Ben and I have such a beautiful complementary skill set, that it would be foolish not to explore what we could do when we pool together our talent and knowledge.

I read and study a lot, especially about entrepreneurship, marketing, work-life balance, and money, and what I kept seeing again and again, was that I needed to build a more sustainable business, with leveraged offerings.

The biggest challenge for me personally was not about having the time to do it, but it was about moving past fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of asking my peers for money! Fear of not being able to deliver what I promised. What if I let people down? What will my competitors or peers think? Can I really pull this off? There is a lot of mindchatter…

You need someone who can be honest and real with you and say things like, “woah man, did you know you’re really great at X?"

This is why I believe it is SO essential to have support, and MASTERMINDS. While I didn’t have a “team” to help me, I had a lot of support via weekly masterminds, FB groups, and one-off calls with business colleagues. You cannot succeed by working in a bubble, and having someone to cheer you on, remind you of your successes, and show you your blind spots is absolutely essential. Don’t wait to ask for help, and not only do you not have to do it alone, but you SHOULDN’T do it alone.

You see your own work and progress through your biased “behind the scenes” lens. You need someone who can be honest and real with you and say things like, “woah man, did you know you’re really great at X?” or to remind you that you should be outsourcing something so you can stick to what you are brilliant at.

Another challenge of course is taking a short term hit on your finances to invest the time into your product. I spent about 6 months of the year where about ⅓ of my time was going to product development and community building. I ran my course as a small invite-only “Pay what you can” beta. It was a great way to test the waters and gauge interest without going totally broke.

What would you say is the most inspiring part of working for yourself?

books that Marie Poulin is reading

I get to choose who I work with, and shape my own career and life. I don’t ever have to ask anyone’s permission to take a sick day or vacation or leave of absence. I get to run my business via my own intuition and common sense. There is NO greater personal challenge than running your own business. You get to see what you are really made of!

I especially love how much things evolve from month to month and year to year! I love change and adventure, so I love how my business and life are one big adventure that never stays the same!

You’ve spoken in the past about the importance of “process”. You’ve even built a business around improving processes for creative freelancers at the Digital Strategy School. What are some of the most common process problems you see with your students?

digital strategy school

The most common problems I see are that most designers don’t really have solid, reliable systems in place. They are repeating a lot of tasks over and over without streamlining or optimizing.

Most designers don’t have any kind of system for onboarding and welcoming clients, and even setting the tone and expectations for the project.

(Of course the reason I know this is that I was one of them, and it was crippling my business) This meant working resentfully on projects where I felt underpaid, or wasn’t enjoying the work, but I never had the confidence to speak up, and learn how to say no when I had outgrown the work (or client).

Many designers tend to talk to their clients about (and even show on their websites) their design process, but not their customer experience process. So most clients don’t really know what to expect, and as a result they tend to micromanage the designer (and we all know how that ends)! The easiest thing to do is to create a client welcome package that outlines all of the next steps and expectations of both parties; something that does not feel like a contract. Make it a sexy magazine-style PDF if you have to, just make it feel delightful for the client to read through, and practical. (I even mention things like the fact that I’m not a morning person, and I don’t do meetings before 10am!) What kind of feedback are you looking for at what stage? What happens when the project is finished?

I help designers see that in everything they do, they need to visualize it from their client’s perspective. I think empathy is a key missing piece in most designers’ processes.

Many designers tend to talk to their clients about (and even show on their websites) their design process, but not their customer experience process.

Another common problem I see (and this was also huge for me) was thinking that working ON your business means getting more clients. I thought if I had clients, then all was good. I had no strategy in place for my own business. When you don’t have a plan, it’s really hard to get to where you want to go. Most people don’t know where they want to go, or what’s even possible!

For example, a lot of designers want to be booked out with a waiting list. I actually believe that booking too far in advance was one of my biggest mistakes early on in my career. I never left time for debriefing, looking at what went well, and what could have gone better.

What if instead of booking yourself solid, you left that one “extra” space that you would have filled with a project for your side project, or created an information product as a source of leveraged income? I think that’s a far better use of your time, and it leaves wiggle room for your current projects to grow and expand.

Other common process problems include: not presenting their work like a pro, not letting clients know what type feedback to give, and not streamlining their day to day work flow and project management.

So tell us a little about a day in the life of Marie Poulin. What gets you through the day!

marie poulin and ben borowski

It really depends on the week (or even month), but in general, I wake up between 8:30-9am, eat breakfast (that my partner made because he’s typically up before me!), and then we enjoy a cup of coffee together while chatting about what’s happening online, or what we’re working on. I then spend an hour or so in the morning checking my email and getting organized for the day.

I’ve read so many books on productivity, and how you should do the hardest task in the morning, or shouldn’t check your email until blah blah blah. My brain takes at least a few hours of being awake before I can be on high alert, so I do easy admin stuff in the morning. I’ve stopped trying to fight my biological clock on this one!

I schedule my week loosely in advance every sunday night, and so each morning I check in with my Flow app to see what needs to get done during the day, and what’s coming up this week in terms of meetings or deliverables.

Both Ben and I work long days, but we also take our dog Mochi out for long mid-day walks, and sometimes head out to our local coffee shops or breweries for a work break. Now that we have a common collaborative project (Doki, our course building platform), we do work a lot more than usual. We’re both very driven by our work, and the fact that we get to collaborate on such a big project really changes the routine. We actually work in the same space side by side, and it’s been working very well!

Two to three days each per week, Ben and I go to the climbing gym to boulder for a few hours. This time is so important because we really do spend a lot of time on our computers! Everything melts away when you climb; you get so focused that you’re not even remotely thinking about work!

Occasionally one of us will head out to run errands, do a coffee shop workday, or give the other privacy to hold a meeting. We might look at a collaborative workspace in the coming year, but for now working at home has been working well for us!

Our work and “life” are one and the same; I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how to separate them!

We couldn’t talk to you without asking about your proposal process ;) What does a typical proposal look like for you now and how has this changed over the years?

These days, my proposals are pretty beefy! My proposal process looks like this:

A prospective client gets in touch via email, and I investigate them online. If I have time in my schedule and the project looks interesting, I suggest a Skype call (I don’t even entertain a call if I know I don’t have time, or I’m not interested). Depending on the chemistry with this person, this call typically lasts 45-60mins, though I have had some go as long as 1.5hr. I generally know pretty quickly if the project is a good fit, and/or if I have the job. One of my personal strengths—at least so I am told time and time again—is my warmth and open energy. I smile a lot, and am genuinely interested in people and what lights them up. I see the big picture, but because of my experience designing and developing, I know a lot about implementation too. I know how to get them excited about the possibilities of our collaboration, so admittedly, it’s pretty rare for me not to get a project once we get on Skype!

I think this willingness to do a really in-depth pre-screening has been the key to landing much larger projects, and every designer could stand to work on this part of their process. You just can’t expect to land a $15,000+ project with a 15 min consult!

I ask them what their challenges are, and it is a pretty casual conversation, but I ask a lot of questions about their day to day operations as well as their larger business goals. (Most designers make the mistake of asking all about the features a client wants.)

I don’t get into technical specifics in this call; it’s more of a business/strategy assessment. I often ask about their future ideas, and ask if they have plans to create products or courses. Either they are already experienced with this and want to take them further and increase their reach, or they have no idea where to begin, but they are excited by the possibilities.

I ask a lot of questions about their (my clients') day to day operations as well as their larger business goals.

I try to paint a picture of what is possible for their business when they don’t get hung up on technical limitations. I also ask them to define what success would look like for them in 6 months, 1 year and beyond. I try to find out what the measurable goals of the project are.

My job in this meeting is to understand the bigger picture of the client’s business and website, and illuminate a direction for them.

I am at a point where the people who contact me generally already know they want me to do the project, and the proposal is a mere formality. So once I get off the call, I generally follow up with some notes, links or recommendations, and let them know that I will be in touch with a proposal.

My proposal includes an overview of the overarching business goals, a guideline of our working process, an outline of the various project phases, deliverables, (rough) schedule, price estimate, terms, expectations, and next steps. It’s on average about 10 pages in the form of a nicely designed InDesign PDF.

Where I believe my proposal process has really shifted is in how I break down projects. I always encourage my clients to break a project up into phases, instead of trying to launch a huge new website with multiple courses, ecommerce, and blog, etc.

I have a paragraph that basically says: “In my experience, people significantly underestimate the time and effort required to produce content. I recommend launching your site in iterations or phases, starting with a blog.” This of course depends on the individual business. Phase 1 is often basic website, blog, strategy, and maybe email marketing. Phase 2 might be online products or courses, and Phase 3 might be membership or community based features and marketing + launching strategy.

My (proposal) pricing is for my expertise and the value I can create for the client, it's not based on all the individual components’ pricing.

I then outline a price range for each phase, and I indicate that we will determine a more accurate range after the project discovery session. I believe it’s almost impossible to give a fixed price with only a 1 hr meeting, and before doing a proper discovery and assessment, so I basically ensure they are on board for the range I’ve given them. I then provide examples of things that might bring the cost up to the higher end of that range (extra revisions, complex features or custom scripting, additional print materials, etc).

I then send the proposal with a personal message via

How has this evolved from when I first started? My proposals are no longer broken down by specific technical requirements, features, or hours. My pricing is for my expertise and the value I can create for the client, and not based on all the individual components’ pricing.

I needed to break down proposals by my hourly estimate for each task when I first began, but as I get better and faster, I realized that it was foolish to charge based on my time! You learn something new from every single proposal that you create!

For the few proposals that never materialized into projects, I will often ask the prospect what I could have done differently, and what influenced their decision. You would be surprised the information you learn from just asking! I had one woman who told me that she felt I was perhaps more experienced than she needed, and that I hadn’t included a schedule (whereas another designer had). The funny thing about this was, I had removed the schedule component because she had indicated that she had a new baby, and was uncertain how much time she could devote to the project, and I wanted to keep it flexible. Turns out she wanted more structure. Of course it was excellent that I didn’t get that project, because I probably would not have had time to build my own course (which has been on the backburner for years already)!

These days I only really do a few projects per year, and I do more one-off consulting, so I don’t have to put as many proposals together as I used to. Between Digital Strategy School and Doki, Ben and I have really minimized our client work to make these projects happen.

If you could wave a magic wand over the Digital Strategy School and Okidoki, where would they be now? What part of your life would they occupy?

Digital Strategy School might be made up of individual expert strategists, each contributing to and teaching modules (which may or may not be available as stand-alone products). There would be both live and interactive components (events, workshops, etc), and courses that can sell without needing to be so hands-on. In all likelihood, DSS would be split up into two courses: Design Mentorship, and Digital Strategy (for all, not just designers).

Doki will have a community of paid members, and Ben will likely have a few developers working with him to support the application.

I would love to leverage what we have worked so hard to build, so that we can take a step back from our business, and work shorter days. I would love to have more time to mentor young teens, or even volunteer overseas to help do some entrepreneurial mentoring to under-served communities. I build generosity into my business (I give a lot away to friends, colleagues, and anyone who ever asks, including 2 scholarships to DSS this year), and I would love to do that on an even greater scale.

Ben and I are committing to being the company that is known for all things course and launch-strategy related. We want to consult with talented entrepreneurs to get their courses online, understand how to build their audience and customers, while also providing the platform that enables them to do so.

I imagine that both DSS and Doki will be the majority of our time and life, but my hope is that if Ben and I start a family, we can do so in a way that feels healthy and balanced.

With so much going on, what do you do to disconnect…do you disconnect?

marie poulin and her dog Mochi

Haha. Admittedly, I’m much worse at this then Ben. I have trouble turning my business brain off!

As I mentioned before, climbing is my great escape! I do read a ton, though it’s often still in the business and marketing universe, as well as personal development. I’ve been seriously considering getting into Yoga this year!

In the summer we bike all over the city (Vancouver is so beautiful in the summer!) as well as hike and climb outdoor. We definitely work less in the summer, and step it up in the winter!

Also, healthy food is a passion of mine, so I always make time to cook good healthy vegetarian food at home. We’re also near such amazing food, that we typically go out for dinner a few nights each week.

I am a pretty avid traveler with a thirst for adventure, so I try to do at least a few trips each year, or I go stir-crazy!

If you could do a Back-to-the-Future and visit the younger, wide eyed version of Marie, what would you say to her?

Trusting your gut will be the most important skill you can learn. It will take you some time to understand what those feelings are telling you. Never ignore them; they are there for a reason.

Discomfort and pain are merely lessons and opportunities in disguise. Sometimes things hurt like hell, but you’ll learn the most from these experiences.

You can’t change anyone but yourself.

DO NOT try to do it all on your own. You don’t have to know all the answers. Tune into opportunities for mentors and support! Don’t wait to ask for help, even if you don’t think you need it.

Don't get emotional with your clients. HOWEVER, ignore all the bullsh*t that people tell you about not "getting personal with your clients." It will one day be the key to your success.

Setting boundaries in both your business and personal life will be one of your most important life challenges. When something is upsetting you, making you feel uncomfortable, or doesn’t feel right, you need to speak up. No one else will do it for you.

DO NOT try to do it all on your own. You don’t have to know all the answers.

You are going to feel like everyone knows what they are doing except you. (Turns out most people feel the same way)

Your thoughts are the only cause of your suffering.

I know you’re sensitive, but don’t be afraid to have an opinion. Don’t waste so much of your time trying to blend in… you’ll have to unlearn it all later anyway.

GO TRAVEL. Go on an adventure alone. See the world through other people’s eyes. You will never be the same.

Lastly, where can folks go to find you?

Thanks Marie.