Making The Leap And Figuring It Out As You Go

Posted on December 12, 2014 by in Customer Spotlight | 14 comments

Making The Leap And Figuring It Out As You Go

This post is part of our Customer Spotlight series. If you have an interesting story to tell and would like to share your experience with WordPress and Elegant Themes on our blog, please contact us!

Hey, I’m Marie, a digital strategist that helps entrepreneurs and small businesses to bring their ideas to life online.

I know, pretty vague, right?

The thing is, web design is really only a small part of what I do, and it took me a few years to really understand what I was doing differently than other designers. A bit of background:

I got my Bachelor of Design degree ~10 or so years ago, and at the time, I was mostly focused on print design, branding, identity, etc. It wasn’t until working at a small studio in Toronto that I realized how critical web experience was for business success. As a mostly print-based studio, more and more work was coming in that required a digital component, and if we weren’t able to deliver, we knew we couldn’t compete with other design studios.

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Long story short, in a company of 2, it was up to me to become the “interactive” department of our studio. Lucky for me I was actually really excited about the challenge. I was fascinated with what was possible with the web, and learned how to build my first Content-Managed websites using TextPattern (which most people have never heard of). It was a lot of trial and error, and a lot of learning as I went along. I didn’t have many peers who were as involved in web design as I was, so I joined online communities, attended conferences like An Event Apart, and followed tutorials in an effort to learn as much as I could, and streamline my process.

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Making The Leap

After 4 years of incredible studio experience, I took the leap and became fully self employed. I knew if I was going to continue to push my career and skills to new heights, it was time to have more control and flexibility over my projects, my working style, and my schedule (I’m a night owl!).

Over the years, I began to work with more and more businesses who already had WordPress websites, and weren’t interested in working with a CMS they’d never heard of, let alone knew how to work with! I knew I had to make the switch, and began teaching myself how to work with WordPress.

Figuring It Out As You Go

A few years into freelancing, I outsourced most of the development, having custom themes built for my clients. When my developer took on full-time employment and was no longer available, I decided it was time to learn! I signed up for Elegant Themes. I would take themes apart, and put them back together. I would copy/paste snippets from one theme to another, and edit pieces to see what would happen. Slowly but surely I began to get comfortable with WordPress. (That and dating a programmer sure does help…)

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For the last 2 years I’ve been working consistently with various Elegant Themes as a starting point for my customization, and most recently Divi has been my go-to theme because of it’s flexibility and built-in responsiveness. I can safely say that Divi has helped me significantly reduce my development time!

From Web Design To Digital Strategy

Now the best part about figuring out a smooth project workflow, is that you have more time to devote to the most important part of the project, which is creating solutions to your clients’ business challenges.

About a year into freelancing full-time, I took on a contract job at an agency as a digital strategist. At the time I didn’t know the full-extent of what this title encapsulated, but I was so keen to learn anything that could to give me an edge.

I learned so much about digital strategy while I was there. I saw that my boss was having conversations that went way beyond the design of the website, and went into business strategy. They were making suggestions regarding things like: products the company should no longer offer, naming of products, and streamlining their internal workflow. I had no idea these were things that a design agency could even do! It was basically business design, and I was hooked!

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The Missing Link

Naturally, I was bringing my studio experience and design thinking to my freelance clients. It didn’t even occur to me that this type of work was something that other designers weren’t doing, until I began participating in Facebook Groups. I noticed a lot of designers were more focused on design details, and not so much on how they could help their clients meet real business goals. For those freelancers who had never worked in an agency before… they weren’t even necessarily aware of the possibilities! More and more I started to realize that a large part of my project process involved strategy work, which was allowing me to have a steady stream of work at a high price point (while many designers at a lower price point were struggling). The key, I believe, was shifting from being “just a designer” to being a digital strategist; someone that could look at all aspects of a business, and find ways to connect the dots, streamline the business, and create more value for their clients.
At the end of the day, people don’t really want “web design,” they want more customers, more sales, a better experience with their clients, etc. Web design is just one of the many tools in your toolkit to help your client grow their business. I didn’t want to contribute to more websites that looked pretty, but didn’t actually increase sales for my clients.

I believe designers can’t really afford not to learn about business, strategy, and marketing.

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Digital Strategy School

Using the Divi theme, I’ve been building what is now Digital Strategy School, an online mentorship program for designers where I show them how to shift from designer to strategist, streamline their projects, and create more value for their clients.
Using Divi helped me get my idea to market early, building out a beautiful back-end quickly, while integrating Wishlist Member plugin to create the bones of the course. This allowed me to Beta test my program quickly, knowing that I could easily tweak page templates as I added new content.

I’ve since launched a number of other sites for my clients using Divi, including: theconquersummit.com, and theconquerclub.com. I’ve also used the Minimal theme with great success. My own site, http://www.mariepoulin.com is also a heavy customization of an Elegant Themes 2 column theme.

I do plan on continuing to work with Divi because it’s perfect for clients that need to easily add special formatting to their individual pages, especially sales pages. It’s the most flexible theme I’ve used thus far, and I’m curious to see what else I can do with it!

14 Comments

  1. Hi Marie,

    I love the simple, clean design of your site and I think your platform will be helpful to many designers. Best of Luck!

    Adam

  2. Thanks for posting, Marie, and for sharing such great advice on personal branding and positioning yourself to be far more valuable than “just an other designer”. I think that’s a critical component to entrepreneurial success for any creative. And it must have taken a lot of courage to take that kind of leap. Congrats!

  3. Great post Marie. I love how you outlined the path and how you got to where you are now through experiences. It goes to show that no matter where you are now, if it’s not where you want to be, it may be where you need to be in order to be ready for where you want to be.

    In regards to your model & vision, I think you nailed it. There is so much more than design when you partner with a client to help them achieve the most with their online investment. Many designers fall short of that including myself as I reflect on some of my past projects.

    Keep up the great work and as a fellow ET member and Divi user, I hope to cross paths some day either in forums, meet-ups or website galleries. And thanks for sharing your story!!

    Geno.

    • Hi Geno

      Loved your site – can you tell me how you got the handwritten link on the slider? I’m a bit of a newbie so apologies if it’s really obvious.

      Cheers

      Jayne

  4. Hi Marie,

    Thanks for posting your story! I share the same “taking the leap” experience with you and thanks to the Divi Theme it’s been a great help in bringing my clients visions to life! Which is very exciting for me to be able to do.

    Thanks again for sharing!
    Victoria

  5. Hi Marie,
    That’s a nice post. There’s some similarities to how we have evolved.
    Although we are purely focused for the local area and offer a ‘come to you’ service.
    All the very best with the awesome leap you’ve taken!

    • Just thought I’d say “Loved your Site!”
      A really fantastic example of Divi

      Jayne

  6. Hi!

    There’s so much to do online. I like how you position yourself and your website looks lovely! Good luck.

    We all make adjustments as we go along. The market teaches us, then changes, and teaches us again…

    I have an MBA so I guess I’ve always been a digital strategist…but never labeled myself that…

    😉

  7. Your post felt like it was written for me. I have come from the other direction – big business management – and when a sole trader friend asked me to “do a website for her”, she had no idea of what it should say or look like. We spent ages first talking about how her business ran, what components were profitable, how she saw her offering fitting into the market etc etc, and that made it easy for me to know what she needed – which was actually a fully automated website and booking system. It’s revolutionised her business and she hasn’t looked back. My point is, in the micro business or sole trader niche, THIS is the service that people need – Digital Strategist/ Business Strategist – more than any other, but it’s hard to market something to people that they don’t know they need (and worry they can’t afford) in the first place. Thanks again for the great post !

  8. Marie,

    Thanks so much for sharing. It encourages those like myself who are not technically gifted to still take that leap and learn by mistakes and successes.

  9. Thanks for sharing your journey, Marie. I think many web designers, like myself, are seeing the need to evolve into something more valuable to their clients than just providing pretty websites.

  10. Nice job and presentation including the Digital Strategy School. Your services are refreshing and what I need, but I am unable to afford them at this time. However, this kind of information is the quality that departs from the top ten things to do and then you will make it happen.

    Its true; the Divi Theme brings out the design element I have always wanted to to this kind of work.

    When I am finished the current copywriting course (a real one) I am taking, and I am successful at earning extra $$ I will come to you for training. This is the future of business presentation online.

    Things have changed, but what has not changed is the principle involved in how to conduct real business for real people and be good at it.

  11. Thanks for sharing.

  12. It’s fantastic you decided to share your experience with design with us. I have taken designing courses and have some idea about it, however this time i would need a professional designer and a translator for my newly launched website.

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