“I don’t want anyone to be under any illusions that everything is perfect and I’ve got it all together and I know all the answers, because I don’t. The whole thing is a big experiment. I think our businesses, our lives, are all an experiment. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can and be a better person in the process and I think that’s one way I deal with my Imposter Complex.”
—Marie Poulin, founder Digital Strategy School, Oki Doki Digital
Transcript, edited for reading:
Nikki: Welcome to Movement Makers. The podcast for business leaders and entrepreneurs like you who aren’t interested in do business as usual, but who want to have an impact on the lives of those around you. You want your life to matter. You want your work to matter. You want your words to leave an indelible impression on those who hear them, and you’re ready to show up, to speak up, and to do whatever it takes to change the status quo.
My guest this week is Marie Poulin. She is a designer, digital strategist and educator who helps purpose driven entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life in the digital space. With a background in both small agency experience since seven plus years of self-employment, she founded Digital Strategy School, an online mentorship program that helps designers become more strategic business owners. She also co-founded Oki Doki with her partner, Ben, where they help entrepreneurs productize their services through the creation of branded online courses, programs, and mentorship experiences. I really think you’re going to like what she has to say.
Hi, Marie. How are you doing today?
Marie: I’m good. How are you?
Nikki: I’m doing good, thank you. Whereabouts are you working from today?
Marie: I am at home in Vancouver BC apartment.
Nikki: Very nice. I think I saw that you were in California very recently for your birthday?
Marie: I was. I was in Sonoma Valley.
Nikki: It looked so nice. I loved your pictures.
Marie: It’s amazing.
Nikki: Yeah, so was that a treat for your birthday?
Marie: Yeah, a friend of mine was housing sitting for a friend who lives in Sonoma, and she just said, “Hey, I’m going to be here for a week. Want to come?” I don’t know if she was joking or not, but I said, “Okay, booking flights. I hope you were serious.” Yeah, sunshine and wine and my birthday. I thought, “Why not?” I treated myself to a little mini vacation and got to see one of my good internet friends.
Nikki: Very nice. I feel like you do that a lot. Through your digital strategy school, I’ve seen you host these mini get-togethers and I think there is so much to be said for that face-to-face contact and connection.
Marie: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I just meet so many friends either through Facebook groups or friends of friends online. It’s really nice to actually get a chance to meet people that maybe you’ve connected with through the internet. To actually meet face-to-face is kind of a different experience, so I love any chance when I’m traveling to just connect with people that I know live there and expand your network, meet new people. I love it.
Nikki: Yeah, that’s awesome. I love that, too. I was trying to remember how you first came across my radar, and I’m pretty sure it was because I found your name in the site credits for Marie Forleo’s Rich, Happy, and Hot Live event. I’m curious, how did score that gig?
Marie: Oh, that one. That is an interesting story because that one came through Twitter which is kind of random. However, I posted on Twitter, “Girl Crush on Marie Forleo. If you don’t follow her, you totally should.” This was … I don’t know how many years ago this was. Maybe five years or four years ago. I can’t even remember how long ago that event was. Marie’s been around for awhile. She saw that tweet right as she was in the process of trying to find a new designer for that site. The timing of it was just so perfect, so serendipitous. She said, “No way, girlfriend. I was totally looking at your stuff.” Yeah, so we connected quickly and randomly and one thing lead to another, and within 24 hours, I think we had a signed contract to do that project. You just never know who is listening when you’re out there on Twitter.
Nikki: That is so true, and actually I was listening to another interview in which you were talking about how Twitter has been really good for you in terms of generating leads. I would love to know some more about how you leverage the platform, whether you still do, and how you start those conversations or make those connections.
Marie: It makes me laugh, too, because you may or may not know, but I met Ben, my partner, through Twitter as well. Now, he is my life and business partner.
Nikki: Oh, I forgot that you did. That is so crazy. That’s really cool.
Marie: Yeah, so Twitter has been surprisingly amazing that way. I don’t necessarily use it in a conscious way as a business tool. For example, Natalie McNeil also came through Twitter when I … I’m not sure what I was posting about, and she just happened to see my tweet at the same time that she was also looking for a web designer, so very similar to Marie Forleo in a way. In this case, Natalie McNeil just happened to see a tweet that I sent that wasn’t necessarily related to web design, but she though … She kind of had her eye on me, and I just happened to tweet at the same time that she was, “Oh, I need to hire someone.”
She just reached out and I loved what she was about. I use it as a place to talk about my opinions, to share resources, for other people in my industry, and just connect with people that admire and want to sort of be in the same space as. I don’t necessarily use it in a conscious way to get new clients, but it has been a way to help people get to know what I’m all about.
Nikki: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s about, I’m kind of going back to what you were saying about meeting with people face-to-face, just cultivating those relationships first and foremost, and then the business kind of follows.
Marie: Totally, and that is pretty much how I roll in all parts of my life. Just connect with people first, and the business tends to follow.
Nikki: Obviously, you’ve worked with some really big names like Marie and Natalie. Did you find that that kind of had this sort of knock-on effect and that you got a ton of referrals and a ton of business as a result? Did that really kickstart things for you or were you kind of pretty well-established before that? What’s your story?
Marie: Yeah, I was fairly well established before that, but definitely once I got work with … I’d say it probably started with Meghan Telpner. She is a nutritionist that works in Toronto, and had a pretty big audience at the time, so I would say doing her website kind of set the wheels in motion. Then, once I had the chance to work on Marie Forleo’s Rich, Happy, Hot, I think my name was in the site credits. The traffic that came through from that, I actually had to take off the contact form on my site because I was getting way to many inquires. Some of them weren’t necessarily the best inquiries. You have people looking for a Rich, Happy, Hot style website, but they only have a hundred dollar budget. That just kind of created all of these new challenges, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to have to put up the gates, in a way. How do I make sure that the right people are coming to my site?”
As you can imagine, Marie has tons of cookie-cutter, “I want the Marie Forleo special. I want my website to look just like Marie Forleo’s.” There was a huge wave of other designers, I noticed as well, having that experience where people were specifically asking for these cookie-cutter sites. It did kind of create this interesting snowball, and it forced me to figure out what does make a really good client for me. Who do I say no to? Who do I say yes to? Then, of course, once the demand builds up, you do have a bit more flexibility in the budget of your projects and can say, “I can be a little pickier and choosier now that I have more inquiries.” It did open some doors in that way for sure.
Nikki: Yeah, I love that because I think it’s interesting that you had all of this business coming in, all of these inquiries, which you’d think would be like, “Yeah, this is amazing. This is great.” However, then it presented this whole other raft of potential issues or learning experiences. I was remembering before we started chatting that a year or so ago now … In fact, it may have even been longer ago than that. I remember having a conversation with you about how I was booking out for months on end. I didn’t like that because inevitably, there would be scope creep or deadlines wouldn’t be met, and then suddenly everything was having to be pushed back. I couldn’t take a spontaneous weekend away.
Nikki: I couldn’t work with a favorite client on short notice, and it made me feel pretty constrained in my business in terms of the fact that I had no time to be creating or making new things to elevate and scale what I was doing. I remember you totally identified with that because you had to deal with something very similar. Can you tell us some more about how you did cope with that, and how you moved to working in a saner way with people that allowed you more freedom and flexibility while still bringing in enough income for you?
Marie: That is probably the part that takes the longest to learn. I think whether you are just starting up in your business or you are kind of in that sort of intermediate level where you have the clients and you have the money, but maybe you don’t have the time anymore. I can definitely relate to being overbooked, and not being able to predict, “If I sign on these 10 clients over the next however many weeks …” I think we tend to plan for the best-case scenario all of the time, and more often than not, I think we tend to underestimate how much time projects take because we don’t really factor in things like email or project management or all of those gaps in between that aren’t necessarily doing the work. I think we are all guilty of doing that underestimation.
A big thing I had to learn to do was to leave way more padding in my projects. That is pretty hard, too, because the tendency is, “Well, I’ve got a space in my schedule. I should probably book that up.” However, if you’re not leaving enough of a buffer, and you’re not able to pay the bills with the clients that you have, then you’re probably not really working at a sustainable rate. A big risky thing that I had to do was increase the rates and reduce the time that I’m working on projects to give myself more wiggle room. To give myself time to improve the parts of your business that weren’t really working.
I’d say that took a year to two years of just really being in the trenches and consistently overbooking and consistently underestimating before I was like, “Okay, this clearly isn’t working. I need to reassess. I need to re-adjust. Where do I need to improve?” You know, streamlining communication and not rewriting the same things over and over again. I don’t know that you can really skip that work of being in the trenches, but I do think there are things you can do to start streamlining it a little bit better. It does take time. You don’t really know until you’ve done a few projects and gotten a few under your belt where you’re like, “Well, that didn’t work. Moving on.”
Nikki: Yes, exactly. I always says that entrepreneurship is the steepest learning curve because you have to make the mistake and then you’re like, “Okay, I’m never doing that again.”
Marie: You really learn what you’re made of. I don’t know if you read the article I wrote. It might have been about a year and a half now, but I wrote an article called “The Big Mistake that Nearly Every Designer Makes”. It’s kind of a link bait title because it does work for anyone in any industry, but I read this article by Michael Hyatt about designing your ideal week, and I found that was one of the most useful re-frames around how you plan your time. Instead of planning putting in client projects first and then working your life around that, it was reverse engineering. What kind of business and what kind of life do you want to have? Do you want to be working eight hours a day, five days a week? Maybe. Maybe not.
If not, then what do you need to do to make sure that you’re leaving time for … Is it every Friday morning to have a day where you can plan your business or run errands or that sort of thing? It’s just a different way of looking at your scheduling, but essentially, you put in all of your non-negotiables first. For me, that’s climbing, conferences and events, vacations, and things like that. Put all of that in your calendar first, and then slowly work back from there. If I want to leave time for marketing, or if I want to leave time for connecting with other people … I actually have scheduled time in my calendar that is just called “connecting.” That is a time to connect with other people whether it’s in a Facebook group; whether it’s going out and going to a coffee shop and meeting friends.
Really being intentional about that time first, then you look at how much time is left to work with clients. You’ll often see that it’s not eight hours a day for five days a week. You might only have four hours a day to work on client work potentially depending on what business you’re in. That is something to factor in. For all of your services and all the products that you put together, how much time are you spending marketing those? I think most people aren’t spending enough time doing the connection work or the marketing. That has been game changing for me.
Nikki: I absolutely love that, and I’m so glad you brought it up because I totally wanted to ask you about it. I love that whole idea about reverse engineering your week and starting with that bigger vision first. Where do you want to be? Then backtrack from that.
Marie: Absolutely, and not even just on a weekly level but just saying, “What do I want 2016 to look like or 2017 to look like?” Just really kind of having a general big vision of what I want the year to look like or what I want my focus to be. Then I break it up into quarters and go, “Okay, well, knowing that I want this to be my big vision, what do I need to focus on this quarter?” I think it’s almost impossible to plan a year in advance, but I think you can have a yearly intention. That is one thing that has worked really well for me. I set an intention for the year, and then I kind of break it up into these smaller segments and say, “Okay, so the first quarter of the year, I know that I’m going to need to work on my course development or maybe it’s marketing planning or whatever it is.” Whatever it’s going to be so that that’s written down and you have some really specific ideas of what that needs to look like.
Then, you can start making a work back schedule for, “Okay, what do those 12 weeks look like?” What do I need to get done each week to make sure that by the time that quarter is done, I really feel like I knew what my focus was and I outlined my tasks and goals based on reaching that goal? I think if you don’t plan it, it is way too easy to just get stuck in the busy work where things are kind of getting done, but you’re not necessarily move towards that bigger goal that you had for yourself. I am a big … I don’t want to say that I’m a planner by nature, but I do think that setting things in motions and being really purposeful about what you want to do is the only way that I’m going to get stuff done, personally.
Nikki: Talking about bigger goals and planning and everything else, obviously we’ve talked about your web design and how you were able to work with some really great clients, but I don’t think that’s your business model at all right now. Are you still working with web design clients occasionally?
Marie: Occasionally, yes. It is a much smaller part of my business. It’s kind of fun to have this chat right now, because I do sort of feel like you’re catching me in the middle of another big transition. It feels like there are always at least a few of those every year, but yeah. A major change that I went through was moving away from the one-on-one services into teaching and mentoring other designers. Then once I had done that for about a year, that is when me and my partner launched our start up. Again, we’re in another shift so I’m happy to talk about any part of that that might be interesting to for your listeners.
Nikki: Definitely. Let’s start with the first piece: Digital Strategy School. I’m dying to know why you felt compelled to create that in the first place, and then how you transitioned from what you were doing to creating that. I imagine a lot of it was down to that kind of ideal work week idea.
Marie: Yes, it’s funny because I didn’t really know what it was going to become. I knew that I wanted to do some teaching. I knew that I wanted to create a course. I knew I had a course in me. However, it wasn’t really until I started actively … What would you call it? It is kind of creeping. I would say that I basically started creeping around in different Facebook groups and listening to what other designers were complaining about in their businesses. People would say, “Oh, this client is so frustrating. I gave them this thing and they came back with this feedback, and it didn’t really work.” I could hear a lot of people complaining about some of those same things over and over with their clients.
I started to ask myself, “What am I doing differently? Why are some people struggling to get a thousand dollars for a website project and I can do a website project for ten thousand?” It’s not because I’m a better designer. I know that. What is the difference? What am I doing differently that I’m kind of having an easier time getting these higher-end clients?” What I realized that I was doing was much more strategic work. It wasn’t just like a set and forget it, here’s your designs developed, done, and we’re out of here. There was a lot more customer discovery, business modeling, a lot more strategic work that a lot of designers weren’t doing.
That had come from my experience in an agency environment. Once I realized that I had a little bit of that … It was a huge advantage that I was able to see how projects were run in a bigger capacity. I thought that there has got to be room to bring some of those principles into smaller, solo web designer projects. Obviously, you don’t have the same budget necessarily that you would have at an agency, but there has got to be room to bring some of those principles there. I just started posting in a few Facebook groups, and I’d say for about two years before I launched the program, I was just giving information away for free in Facebook groups.
At the time, I didn’t know that I would have a thing to sell, but I was like, “Oh, here’s a proposal that might help you or here is my spreadsheet that I use for that.” I was just giving it away for free. By the time I had something to offer other designers, they were already tagging me in Facebook groups and saying like, “Oh, Marie might be able to help with that. She is the one to go to for this.” Other people started of spreading the word or just being really supportive of what I had to offer. They remembered me as being really helpful. In a way, I call it strategic generosity.
When it came time to say, “I have a program that is geared at where you guys are. Is this something of interest to you?” People were super supportive and they signed up pretty quickly. I did the very first version of it as a pay-what-you-can, which was kind of a crazy experiment in itself, too. However, I wanted to get that experience of mentoring people. I didn’t have any formal mentoring experience so I thought, “Here we go. It’s going to be an experiment. I’m going to put it out there.” The response was overwhelmingly positive and it allowed me to work out the kinks; to work through the content. Essentially, I sold it before I’d really created the content, and if I had created the thing I thought it needed to be, I think it would have been a totally different program, and it would not have been nearly as useful and it wouldn’t have met the needs of the people.
A bit of openmindness and a willingness to listen to where people were really at, you start to hear the same patterns over and over again. I was just like, “There’s got to be a way to meet this niche.”
Nikki: I’m glad that you brought up pay-what-you-can, because I was listening to another interview with you, and I was like, “Oh, that is such a cool idea. I haven’t heard about anyone doing that before with a course as part of the beta test.” Was some of the motivation for that just so you could gauge how much people were prepared to pay for the course? I feel like people wrestle with this so much. Do I charge a lot for it? Do I charge not so much but get more people onboard? Talk to me a little bit about your reasoning behind that.
Marie: Yeah, I do think pricing is way more art than science. Part of it was a chance for me to gain credibility and gain a certain level of confidence. I think we talked about this before, but launching Digital Strategy School was one of the most terrifying things I had ever done. I was so terrified to sell to my peers because there are some people in the program that have been in business longer than I have, so there was a part of me that struggled with that whole impostor complex of, “Well, who am I to teach this? I’m not “the” digital strategy expert. Who am I to do this?” I had a lot of awkward imposter complex feelings around it, but people seemed so excited about it. Initially, it was a recommended value or it was a thousand dollars, but I’m opening it up to a pay-what-you-can. They had some anchoring for kind of what I believed the value was. Even then, it was incredibly under-priced – even my suggested price.
Again, that is part of the experimentation. Doing it with a smaller group allowed me to at least get that comfort, that confidence, to really get a chance to work with people in a smaller capacity so that I could learn from that and make it better. It came for a place of nervousness, confidence, I don’t know. “Is this something I can do? Are people willing to pay this?” I just kind of thought, “You know what? It’s going to be a bit of an experiment in generosity and let’s see if people are interested.” If I can create that community of super supporters, they are the ones that end up telling their friends, “Oh, man. You have to be in this program.” That is how it all began.
I don’t necessarily think it’s something that I’d recommend to everyone, but for me, it was what I needed at the time. It allowed a few amazing people who maybe couldn’t have afforded the program otherwise to get into the program, and they just got so much out of it that they’ve just become super supporters.
Nikki: I love that. I think it is such a smart idea. Like you say, maybe it wouldn’t work for everyone, but I love the idea of Strategic Generosity, and yeah. Gathering those super supporters around you so that they can do the work of sharing you with everyone they know. I think that’s awesome.
Nikki: Right now, how much is the course and are you launching it a couple of times a year or what’s happening with it right now?
Marie: Yeah, you are literally catching me in the middle of this transition. I guess I’ve run it for about two years now, and what I’ve realized is that it is a firehose of information. I pretty much have taken everything that I ever knew and jammed it into a course, and while the information is amazing, it is also really overwhelming. This is, again, part of this: It is so important to listen to your students and notice where they are at. People were feeling guilty and not booking their calls because they were like, “Oh, I haven’t done module two yet, and I’m really behind.” They were feeling guilty for being behind. I thought, “Oh.” The whole point of the program is to empower people and not make them feel guilty or feel like they are behind.
I realized that I needed to make it more bite-sized, so what I’ve done is I have actually closed the doors on it and I’m breaking the modules up into smaller courses and adding a few other new courses. This way, people can actually choose different tracks as they need them. I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of iteration and things are never perfect. I just thought that this is the time now. I’ve got to shut it down, and I’ve got to make it more approachable, more bite-sized, and more affordable that way as well.
Nikki: That is not the only thing that you’ve got going on is it? Tell me some more about Oki Doki Digital and what you’re doing with that.
Marie: Around the same time that I was launching this program, my partner and I incorporated, so he moved up from Seattle and we now run a business together. A good chunk of what we do is we consult with people that launch online courses. Now we have a platform that also helps people do that. A big part of my shutting down Digital Strategy School is that I am moving all the courses now off of WordPress and onto our platform. That is kind of a thing that was happening at the same time as working on Digital Strategy School. We only technically opened the doors officially so that anyone can sign up in about May. I guess, we’ve technically only been open for a couple of months, but it’s been about two years, I would say almost two years of Ben working full time on the platform. We basically use the proceeds of Digital Strategy School to pay for Ben’s salary so that he could be focused 100% on the app.
We knew that if we didn’t devote the time for it, just working on it in the evenings and weekends was not going to cut it, so it was a big risk, but the program did really well. We just decided, “Look, we’re going to reinvest it.” Yeah, Ben’s been working a year and a half to two years almost full time on the application. It was just so excited to finally launch it and make it available in the spring. Now a big chunk of our consulting is all around … We’ve been working really closely with the people that are using the platform and that are launching and delivering their online courses. The fun part is that we get to see the kinds of courses that people are launching. We get to see the kind of questions that they have and because we are working so closely with them, the features that we build end up being reflective of the kind of people that are using it.
Now, we do a lot of consulting around people that maybe have an idea for a course, but they have no idea where to begin. That has been a really interesting organic path. For a while, I thought that it felt a bit disconnected. “There’s Marie the web designer. Then there’s Marie Digital Strategy School. Then there’s Oki Doki.” How do all of these pieces fit together? Is it confusing for my positioning? However, I do think that when I take a step back and I zoom back, and I look at the evolution of it, it makes a lot of sense based on the experiences that I’ve had. That these transitions have been happening, it’s like Marie the web designer who then designs your course, who then builds a course platform, and now we talk to other people that launch courses. It has been kind of an interesting trajectory. I don’t think there is any way I could have planned it out that way, but that is kind of where we’ve fallen.
At the moment, I’d say that 60% to 70% of my energy is in Digital Strategy School, and the rest is in Doki planning, connecting, onboarding new people. A lot of what I do is just hopping on the call with people that are launching online courses. I will ask them questions. I offer any advice that I have. We follow up with people as they are launching. It’s a chance for us to learn about gaps in the market, what people are struggling with. That has been the trajectory.
Nikki: I’m dying to know. What is it like working with Ben?
Marie: Oh, it’s so funny. Everyone asks that. Honestly, I feel extremely lucky that we can work together. I think a big part of that is that our skill sets are complementary and not competitive. We are really clear. We know what each of us brings to the table. Ben is extremely introverted. He is so happy for me to be out chatting with people. I’m pretty introverted as well, but I really do love and value connection. I’m all for hopping on these calls and asking the questions and dealing with the human side and the marketing and the strategy, as well as the design of the platform and the user experience behind it. He is fully on the technical end. It’s a good balance and we have amazing communication which you have to have. He also works four or five days a week at a co-working space. I tend to work at home. I’ll go in maybe one day a week. Just even having that space in a place for Ben to meet other people at the co-working space and get out of his regular routine has been really helpful. So far so good.
Nikki: That’s awesome. I know that you said before this interview that you’re an open book. I wanted to go a little bit deeper. I want to talk about imposter complex. How has that affected you and why do you think that came up in the first place?
Marie: When I launched Digital Strategy School, I can’t even described the panic that I felt when I put it out there. I really had no idea. “What are people going to say when I launch this? What am I doing? This is crazy. I’m not the expert!” I just had so many mixed feelings around it. I had heard of Tanya Geisler and heard her name about her work with the imposter complex. I was like, “Oh, imposter complex. That’s a thing.” I didn’t really have the words for it at the time. I heard about her, and I actually hired her as my coach pretty much a couple of weeks after launching. It was like I launched and just freaked out. It was like, “oh, my god, what have I done? Help.”
I hired Tanya, and she was so wonderful to work with. She’s a leadership coach and her specialty is dealing with the imposter complex. Going through her process and her coaching was life changing for me. It gave me a whole new perspective and understanding of where it comes from, and why, and what my triggers are, and how each of us deal with our own imposter complex. I know, for me, it can manifest as taking another course. It’s like, “Oh, if I just get that other certification. If I just take that course.” I know a lot of us are guilty of this online. We’re always buying new courses and we get coursed out, or we buy things that we don’t ever end up actually finishing.
However, as part of her process, she forces you to put together what is basically your authority thesis. You have to gather the evidence and support that kind of shows why you are the person to do this. It is a very intense process. If you do it properly and you really do the work and answer the questions, it is very provoking, and it is really … It just stirs up a lot of very deep, buried, weirdness. Like where does this all come from? Where do these hangups come from? We all have them and they all show up in different ways. For me, I started to realize how much my own family relationships had maybe influenced the way that I saw myself. That whole process of working with her actually led me to seek out therapy.
Finally, at the beginning of the year in January, I started seeing a therapist and signed up for acting classes in the same week. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Both of those have been absolutely life changing, so again, I’m happy to chat about any part of that and what I’ve learned. My gosh, my comfort zone this year has been stretched to new limits.
Nikki: You’ve been very open and transparent about sharing your journey on Facebook. Talk to me some more about that and some of the discoveries that you’ve had and the specific ways that these different methods of kind of dealing with some of that inner stuff have really worked for you.
Marie: Sure. It all kind of started when … I consider myself fairly introverted, maybe sometimes a little on the socially awkward side at least by nature. I was seeing how that was holding me back in business, and the idea of doing even podcast interviews … Some of my first podcast interviews, I cried after the interview because of all the pent-up nervous energy. I just thought, “Gosh, this nervousness and this awkwardness. It’s really holding me back, and I want to get more comfortable talking to other people or presenting. If I ever want to run a workshop or do speaking …” Slowly, speaking gigs have been presenting themselves. I always say yes, but it is really a terrifying experience for me. I know it is a terrifying experience for a lot of people, but one of the speaking gigs I did last year, I spent two nights before not really sleeping. By the time I was doing the talk, I felt like a complete zombie and just felt like my nerves were shot and I wasn’t ready. I had hired a speaking coach, and I could just feel myself getting really twisted up about it.
I thought, “I need some way to practice and get more comfortable in front of other people.” Part of what the acting and therapy has helped me realize as well is that it’s not necessarily talking with other people that is nerve racking, but it’s being the center of attention or being the center of focus. Again, the therapy has really helped me understand maybe how that was a threatening thing. The acting class has allowed me to work through some of that discomfort because oh, my gosh. They just throw you in the deep end, and they’ll be like, “All right, get up on stage and dance for two minutes on stage with no music in front of a class.”
Nikki: Oh my goodness.
Marie: Stuff that like even just talking to the class, let alone singing is a serious discomfort. The last class we had to bring an object to class that carried some significance, either positive or negative. We would have to stand on stage and talk about it for two minutes. Things like that, you start getting so comfortable being uncomfortable. After that, we had to do a dancing exercise and I was like, “Well, it doesn’t get any worse than this. Speaking now seems like a walk in the park because at least I don’t have to dance.” It just kind of puts things into perspective.
It’s been a really interesting journey, the last eight months of doing both of those at the same time. What I learned in probably the first 20 minutes of my very first therapy session: My therapist suggested that it is likely that my mother has borderline personality disorder. She’s like, “Have you ever done any research on that?” I said, “No, I’ve heard the term, but I didn’t really know what it was about.” She recommended a book called “Stop Walking on Eggshells”. I did get the book, and my whole life suddenly made sense. I couldn’t believe how quickly she honed in on it. She just said, “If it’s true that your mother does have borderline, which may never get diagnosed, it affects everything about the way that you move through the world.”
Reading that book, and doing some research on it, I started to see how I was being held back. In a way, it gave me a lot more compassion for my mother, and it helped me understand where those behaviors came from and where my fear of the world in many ways has come from. It has given me a whole new lens. I don’t do [acting] because I want to become an actress, but I do it to become comfortable with discomfort. It’s a playground for your emotions. It’s the most human we can be in all of our awkwardness, our nervousness. All of it is welcome and all of it is important to get the most out of the class. It’s a place where you are rewarded for failing and rewarded for being awkward and learning to be okay with your own nervousness. It is incredible.
Nikki: Wow. I love that you speak about having this discovery about your mother and then feeling more compassion towards her because you have this deeper understanding of what she is maybe facing or dealing with. I feel like it would be very easy to fall into this place of deep resentment and anger and not be able to get past that.
Marie: And I mean, I spent years in that head space for sure. At some point I just said, “Well, okay. It’s not really serving me, and is this really true? Is this the whole story?” Definitely, going to therapy helped me get a little bit more perspective that way. Once you see the world through their eyes – in the case of borderline, through the lens of abandonment … That is one of the most common, I don’t know if you want to say “symptoms”, but everything is seen though the lens of being abandoned. Once I started to look at situations or fights or disagreements through that lens, her behavior completely made sense. I don’t have a relationship with my mother. It’s been about five or six years at this point that we haven’t been in contact. However, I can still love her from a distance, and I can recognize that it’s not healthy to have that relationship in my life. I can still have compassion for where it comes from.
That’s been the part that I’ve been wanting to work through. Is it okay to keep this relationship out of my life because that feels healthier? Am I just coping or is that actually safe for me? I wanted to make sure that I was being the bigger person and making sure that I was making the right decision about that in a way that I could be at peace with and still sleep at night. I think everyone can benefit from that really objective, third-person perspective that a therapist can offer. It’s been life changing for me, personally. It’s been amazing.
Nikki: I love that. And I love how you talk about it as well. Talk to me some more about that. I feel like you have no hang ups about sharing the stuff that’s going on and being honest about that and—
Marie: And it might be too much information for some people.
Nikki: No! I really like it because I feel like it helps people realize, “Oh, it’s not just me.” I think that to look at you, and to see the trajectory that you’ve gone on, to see the success that you’ve had, the kinds of people that you’ve worked with, the kind of rates that you’ve been able to command, I think it would be really easy to think, “Oh, Marie’s got it all together.” I think that that’s why it’s so refreshing to hear, “Actually, no. I have been through stuff, and I’ve figured out a way to process that and to navigate that.”
Marie: Yeah, and you know, I really do … It’s taken me awhile, I guess, to appreciate that this is kind of my unique perspective. This is what I bring to the table. A lot of my students in Digital Strategy School have just mentioned … I mean, they get to see when shit goes wrong. I am an open book. They actually get to see behind the scenes of my client projects as they unfold. They get to look at the proposals. They get to see all of the email communication. I record the meetings. They get to see everything. They see when I flub. They see when I write an email that is really long and personal. They get to see all of that. Some of them just say, “Whoa, I had no idea. It is so generous of you to share this. Oh my gosh.” It just gives them a whole new perspective.
They get to be a fly on the wall while they watch me and the way that I interact with my clients which is quite personal. Again, that took a long time to understand that, yes. You can actually be personal in your business and still be successful. I think that being really honest that way and vulnerable with my students, and not coming at it from this “I am a perfect business owner over here and I have it all together.” I’m like, “Hey, I came across this with a client. I didn’t know how to deal with it. This is what I said.” It is very eye-opening, and I think it’s been empowering for them.
There is this sort of, “Oh, well. If Marie can do it, I can do it, too.” I’ve just seen how much being open and vulnerable has helped people because I don’t want anyone to be under any illusions that everything is perfect and I’ve got it all together and I know all the answers, because I don’t. The whole thing is a big experiment. I think our businesses, our lives, are all an experiment. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can and be a better person in the process. I think that is one way that I cope with my imposter complex is by saying, “Yeah, I don’t know the answers. There is always more to know, and there is always more work to be done.” The more that I can learn and get better and get my own shit together and be okay with where I’m at is an example for other people of what is possible.
Nikki: How long have you worked for yourself now?
Marie: I think it’s been almost seven years.
Nikki: Did you do anything else before that?
Marie: Yeah, I did work at a studio for about four years out of school. That was an amazing experience because it was a one-man company working in his basement. He had a wife and two kids, and so I just got to know the family so well. They were kind of like my mentors and my sort of pseudo family at the time. I became quite close to them. For me, they were an amazing example of what a healthy relationship looked like. That was kind of an interesting pivotal time in my life. I was maybe 21 to 25 working there. They were amazing humans and taught me a level of compassion for people. Just to have had that under my belt, I think, set me up in the right direction for everything to come. Yeah, that was a good four years of working out of the house with my mentor.
Nikki: That’s awesome. I know that you’ve worked with some pretty amazing mentors and coaches over the years. You have mentioned Tanya. You have mentioned that first company that you worked for. Tell me some more about how they have been really important to you in terms of helping you master the inner game of entrepreneurship and deal with that imposter complex.
Marie: The first job out of school, I just feel like you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know anything. You have no idea how the real world works. All I had is my schooling experience, so I learned how to run a project. How do you talk to clients on the phone? What does an invoice look like? What does a project process look like? Everything, I guess, that I learned I just kind of ended up trickling into my own business, because I really felt like I was starting from absolute zero. I just had no idea how a real project would run. That was just a big foundational experience for me of just hearing [my mentor] on the phone with clients. He treated me like an equal so he would bring me to client meetings. I got to see the way that he would talk to the clients, what a proposal would look like, all of that stuff was just really, really useful and foundational.
When I was thinking of going out on my own, it is always terrifying. I would be working evenings and weekends and was also working nine to five at the studio. At some point, I had to make the decision. Do I keep working here? I’ve been here for four years, but I just wanted some more freedom and flexibility around the kinds of projects that I could take on. I had a really difficult conversation with them, but they were so supportive. They allowed me to go down to working three days a week with them, and then I had two days to work on my own business stuff. That really helped that transition go a lot smoother because it gave me some time to ramp up and bring in some clients.
For the first year after going out on my own, I thought that if I can pull in enough money that my bills are paid in year one, I have succeeded. That is amazing, so I did. I managed to make around the same that I made when I worked at the studio. I thought, “Okay, this is a viable thing. I can do this.” I will admit that I was working way longer than eight hour days. You’re just hustling constantly and everything is just learning and messing up, but I think for me, that feels quite natural. As we talked about some of the family stuff, I think given that I grew up in a state of probably being … Like my adrenaline glands were fatigued, I was just kind of used to being on edge. I think that there is actually a comfort in the riskiness and the unknown and just being thrown in the deep end.
That is actually a comfortable thing for me. Again, I credit that to just … That’s how it was living at home. There was a lot of walking on eggshells and trying to avoid making mom angry. There was an internalized stress there that really taxes your adrenaline glands. In a strange way, I feel like the way it manifests now is that it’s hard for me to relax. There is a lot of inner dialog around, “That’s lazy. You should be working.” Even on a Sunday evening, I’ll feel that guilt that I should be working. I don’t think that’s healthy. That is again, something that I’m working through. That is sort of how my work ethic has manifested. It’s like, “Oh, I should always be making myself better. I should be working on something.” That is kind of how that’s gone.
Nikki: I think a big thing for me was deciding that my typical day would not involve me working in the evenings or at weekends just because I realized I needed that head space to start each week fresh and bring my best self to every single project that I worked on.
Marie: Absolutely, and I think that is the beauty of working for yourself. It is so important to know yourself, to really know what you need because for me, I love being able to take a four hour coffee break in the middle of the afternoon with a friend and work in the evening when it’s dark. I want to be able to enjoy the sunshine if and when I want to. Then I can work in the evening if that makes sense for me. Not everyone wants to be at their computer in the evening. I don’t always as well, but just being able to schedule your time around the way that it makes sense for your own energy levels.
When it first dawned on me that I didn’t have to schedule 9:00 am calls, it was like, “Oh, duh. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” Now, I don’t book calls before 10:00 am. It’s funny how long it takes you to realize that, guess what? You actually get to design your business around the way that it works for you. It takes awhile, I think, to figure that stuff out. It’s a lot of trial and error.
Nikki: Definitely. Actually, that brings us really nicely full circle and back to the idea of the ideal work week and everything else. It is so funny what you said about the 9:00 am calls, because I realized for a really long time that I was having calls on Monday mornings, and the last thing that I want to do is talk to anyone on a Monday morning.
Nikki: Yeah, I had to do the same. I was like, “Okay, no more calls on Monday mornings, Nikki.” You’ve got to be strict. You’ve got to stick to this.
Nikki: When you think about those entrepreneurs, those future digital strategists, those people who are still trying to find their way, who would love to achieve the level of success that you have but maybe who can’t see a clear path in front of them right now, what would you tell them and what do you want them to know?
Marie: That is such a big question.
Nikki: It is. I saved it ’til last. [Laughs]
Marie: Again, a big part of what I’m grateful for is I think my home experience has maybe given me a heightened level of empathy for other people. I’m listening constantly to what is happening … for other people; in the market. I’m just kind of listening and noticing. Even just observing people talking in Facebook groups, just always being listening to what are people really asking for? What are people really struggling with? I think the more you can get out of your own head and into where other people are at. What is going to make somebody’s day? What does somebody wish existed? Where is there a gap in the market? I think a willingness to be curious and to listen and kind of notice what is happening for other people, you’ll already be way ahead of the game if you’re really listening and paying attention closely. That may not be a big epic answer, but I do think that the ability to listen and read between the lines can serve you greatly in business.
Nikki: I love that, and I’ve been talking a lot recently about leading with empathy, because I feel like that is a big differentiator. That changes everything. It’s exactly as you were saying. As soon as you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really get to know what they are struggling with and how they are feeling, then you can create things and do things and say things that really speak to that.
Marie: Absolutely, and again just looking at … Everything is an iteration. Everything is an experiment. Even if you decide to niche in one area, and you change your mind the next year, you get to do that. You’re not totally tied to any one thing. I think if you approach everything with sort of an open mind and look at it as a big experiment, you’ll be fine. Just be willing to try things out.
Nikki: Definitely. I lied. I do actually have another question, and it is a big one. Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Marie: 20 years?
Nikki: Yes, someone asked that question in an interview that I heard the other day, and I was like, “Oh, I haven’t even begun to think about that.” I always think a year out or five years out.
Marie: I thought five years was long. Oh my goodness. Wow, I guess I would be 53. Geez, the question is will I have a family of my own? Is that something on the radar? Would I have little teenage girls running around? Wow, that is such a big question. I’m glad that you asked that.
Nikki: Is that your way of saying, “I wish you hadn’t asked me that, Nikki”? [Laughs]
Marie: No, it is a tough question because it is like who knows what’s going to happen with Ben recently moving here and trying to get citizenship and looking at … Gosh, real estate in Vancouver is so expensive. We’re looking at moving to the country. Do we live in Asia for six months and save money on a down payment? We’re in the interesting stage of possibilities right now, so that is kind of an interesting thing. We are open to the possibilities, but I guess we haven’t really been … Yeah, I haven’t really thought about what it might look like then. It would be nice to own a place, and to have a space that I really love. Maybe we are closer to some members of our family or maybe we have a family of our own.
It would be interesting to do something that I’ve been kind of curious about or what I’d love to look into is mentoring younger girls. Whether it’s in an entrepreneurial capacity, whether it’s doing some volunteer work in a third world country, just something around … Whether it’s self-esteem, entrepreneurship, just building strong healthy girls. That’s something that is close to my heart, so I’m not sure how that will manifest, but I suspect that I’ll be working with children in some capacity.
Nikki: Oh wow. I love that. Very cool.
Marie, thank you so much. I really appreciate your openness and your honesty and your generosity in showing up and sharing as you did today, so thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I’m glad to know you.
Marie: Yes, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Nikki: All right. Take care. I’ll speak to you soon.
Marie: Thank you.
That’s it from the Movement Makers Podcast this week. If you enjoyed this episode, then please leave a review on iTunes and subscribe so that I can let you know about future episodes.
In the meantime, I want to know how you’re making a difference at work or in your business. Be sure to tweet at @nikkigroom and let me know.
- Digital Strategy School
- Oki Doki Digital
- Marie Forleo
- Natalie MacNeil
- “The big mistake nearly every designer makes” Medium article by Marie
- “How designing your ideal week can increase your productivity (and sanity)” by Marie
- Tanya Geisler