9 to no thank you freelance interviews

Welcome to 9 to No Thank You! an interview series with freelancers who kicked their 9 to 5 habit and now kick serious business butt. These inspiring ladies are sharing the stories of their cubicle escape, and giving helpful tips along the way.

Today we’re talking to Marie Poulin of MariePoulin.com and Digital Strategy School. Marie is a veteran freelancer and knows a thing or two about balancing a hectic schedule with a lot of projects. She’s sharing her top 4 tips for starting out, and how she made the leap to full-time freelancing.

Hey Marie! Let’s get started.

Where do you live?marie poulin

I live in beautiful Vancouver, BC Canada!

What do you do? What is your business all about?

I am a digital strategist and designer; I help people grow their online businesses and communities. Some of this involves branding and positioning, business strategy, product/service design, web design, and marketing. I also help mentor designers over at Digital Strategy School, helping them make the transition from designer to strategist. I also run a company (Oki Doki, weareokidoki.com) with my partner where we are bootstrapping a web application that is an online teaching tool to help anyone create online courses quickly and easily.

How long have you been freelancing? What were you doing before?

After graduating from university with an Honors Bachelor of Design, I worked at a small design studio for 4 years as an interactive designer before venturing out on my own. It’s been about 6 years now that i’ve been self-employed.

What was your transition into freelancing/entrepreneurship like?

I was very lucky in that I had such a great relationship with my boss that when I was thinking about making the transition to freelance, he was totally open about helping me make the transition. I was able to go down to about 3 days per week at the studio, leaving me 2 days per week to start working on my own projects. We did this for a couple of months before I had enough ongoing work that I was able to jump in head first, and never looked back!

What do your days look like now?

At the moment, my “work” time is broken up by: 20% admin, business strategy and planning, learning and courses; 50% Digital Strategy School (admin, strategy, planning, mentoring, content production, marketing); 20% client work; 10% Oki Doki (UX/UI design + planning). That will shift from month to month depending on launch cycles etc, but a typical day looks like:

Waking up between 8:30-9am, 10am meetings (mentorship), time block for content development or client work, afternoon meetings, followed by more content development or client work. Some days I am interviewing guests for Digital Strategy School, other days I might be interviewed for a podcast or a blog, or other days I’m working on ideas for Oki Doki. If you want to know more about how I structure my day, this post had over 90k views on Medium!

What is your favourite part of being a freelancer/entrepreneur?

I have complete freedom over what I choose to work on, and even how and when I work on it. I don’t like being told what to do; I’m very self-directed and self-motivated, so freelancing allows me to make my own decisions about everything from the clients I work with to the time of day I work, to how much vacation time I can take. FREEDOM.
I’m also no longer limited by how much I can earn, because I don’t charge based on my time!

What were some of the doubts or roadblocks you had when you started, and how did you work through that?

I was terrified of what would happen if I didn’t have enough clients, but I had such a burning desire to explore self-employment, that I was willing to take the risk; I was unwilling to fail.

I’m extremely driven and motivated, so while I’m often scared, I move forward in spite of fear. I always ask myself, what is the worst that could happen? What is at stake if I don’t do this?

I had student and credit card debt when I made the leap, so I did not have 3-6 months of “cushion” saved up, but I had enough clients and connections and straight up determination that I knew I would make it work. There was no way with my salary at the time and my living expenses that I would have been able to save up 6 months worth of a “safety net” if I stayed at my current job – I knew I could earn more money freelancing, so I just threw myself in!

I also remember a saying that has stuck with me for a long time: your capacity to earn is in direct proportion to your willingness to take risks. Aka, if you play it safe, you’re going to get safe results… and I have no desire for a safe/mediocre existence!

Is there something you know now that you wish you would have known when you were first starting out? And what are you best tips for freelancers just getting their start?

I didn’t have any systems in place! I was flying by the seat of my pants and had no idea what I was doing. I wish I would have known and understood the importance of systems and processes so that I could have streamlined things (so that I could work smarter and not harder).

The best advice I could give:

  1. EVERYTHING is about your clients and the people you serve. Check your ego at the door, and start getting on board with EMPATHY. Empathy is the key to success.
  2. Never stop learning and failing. You have to be willing to learn, experiment, and fail often. When sh*t hits the fan, always be willing to ask yourself, “what can I learn from this experience?”. Every client, project and experience has something to teach you; make sure you’re listening!
  3. Get mentors and/or a business coach. I wish I had done this looking back. I think we try to do too much on our own, and we end up spinning our wheels. Be willing to get outside perspective; you won’t regret it.
  4. Communication is the key. We really do teach people how to treat us. If you don’t speak up when a client is asking for something outside the scope of what you’ve agreed upon, you are teaching your client that it is acceptable to do so. Often times we get resentful of clients that “take advantage,” or ask for too much, when really we haven’t set boundaries or expectations clearly.
    Do not ever let your emotions get the best of you. If you are heated or irritated with a client, or feel they are asking for something outside of what you’ve agreed upon, always keep your emails level-headed, short, and straight to the point. (Amateurs and new freelancers have a tendency to write mini-novels to their clients, feeling like they have to explain themselves. Short emails = respect. No one needs to read your novels; they make you sound desperate and very inexperienced!)

What are some of your favourite tools for running your freelance business?

Freeagent.com for accounting and bookkeeping, Evernote for information and note collecting, the Adobe Suite of course, Buffer app for social sharing, Timely App for time tracking, Google Docs for collaborating, Scrivener for writing, Airmail for email, Slack for easy chatting and reduced email, Flow app for daily task management, and 1password for easy storing of passwords (a MUST!). One of my all-time favourite tools is probably TextExpander – I use it hundreds of times per day! It allows you to type a few letters and output a snippet of text. I do this with email address, urls, client scripts, etc, and I’m sure it saves me hours.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Relaunching Digital Strategy School (with a co-mentor) in the fall, co-hosting some podcast episodes with a colleague, running an in-person retreat for Digital Strategy School, and of course, launching our online teaching tool in the fall! I do have plans to write a book, but that might be further down the horizon… who knows 🙂

Find Marie!






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