I’ve always wanted to say “our next Life & Business featured entrepreneur needs no introduction,” as if I were an Oscar presenter in long silk gown. Since I’m sort of behind the scenes here at Design*Sponge and primarily focus on Shopping & Marketing editing up front, I was thrilled to be able to interview Marie Forleo. Marie is all heart and soul and I’ve never seen a more sincere, smart dynamo. When I need a lift or a pep talk, I think of Marie in a “What Would Marie Do?” kind of way.
Yes, she’s a motivational speaker, life coach extraordinaire, entrepreneur and the founder of B-School, an online business school for modern entrepreneurs, but more than all of those things, she is an honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth bundle of energy whose mission is to help people build lives they love while using their gifts to change the world. Marie is the creator of an award-winning online show, MarieTV, with over 35 million views on YouTube and an audience in 195 countries. She’s the founder of B-School, an online business school for modern entrepreneurs.
Oh, and did I mention that Oprah loves her, too? Oprah has had Marie on her show as (and I quote) “a thought leader for the next generation.” So, without further introduction, here is my interview with Marie!
P.S. B-School registration for this year’s program is February 20th – March 1st, 2018. The live program is 8 weeks and runs March 5th – April 27th, 2018. You can learn more about B-School here and you can register for the program here.
Photography by Bonnie Tsang
Design*Sponge: Why did you decide to start your own thing, versus work for someone else?
Marie Forleo: I struggled for years trying to be happy working for others. After college, I worked on the floor of the NYSE on Wall Street and also on both the advertising and editorial sides of magazines at Conde Nast.
No matter how hard I worked or what industry I tried, something always felt off. This small voice inside of me kept saying, “This isn’t it. This isn’t what you’re supposed to do with your life.”
I began to panic and think something was seriously wrong with me. Maybe I had trouble with commitment or my brain couldn’t focus. Time seemed to be passing by so fast, yet I couldn’t find my professional footing. I felt ashamed and like a failure.
The part that didn’t make sense was that I loved to work! I’d had jobs since I was 9 years old and wanted so badly to find something I could throw my full effort and energy into.
After a few painful years of being a serial quitter, I realized the best shot I had to find my dream job was to create it.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I was on the internet at work and stumbled upon a Newsweek article about this “new” profession at the time called coaching. (This was around 1999, well before coaching became mainstream.)
Something in my heart lit up like never before. Not kidding, it was a clouds parting, trumpets sounding, angels singing kind of moment. My soul was screaming THIS! You have to do THIS! But my logical mind was quick to judge.
This is [outrageous]. You’re 23 years old. Who in their right mind would hire a 23-year-old life coach? You’ve barely lived life. Plus you keep quitting your jobs — you have nothing to offer.
Thank God I didn’t listen to that critical voice. I signed up for a three-year training program and started my studies at night while I continued to work at the magazine during the day.
About six months into my training I got a call from HR. They wanted to offer me a position at Vogue. That was my fork in the road moment — either take the prestigious new job and keep that steady paycheck or quit and figure out how to start my own business.
I started bartending and waiting tables at night and learned how to grow my business during the day.
How did I know it was what I wanted to do? Mental illness runs in my family and one of my goals was to find a way to help people suffer less and live with more joy. I started out as a psychology major and though I eventually transitioned to business, my commitment to study human potential and find a way to help others never changed.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
That it’s not enough to master your craft. You also have to master the business of what you do. Meaning: you must train yourself in sales, marketing and effective communication.
I began to understand that it doesn’t matter how extraordinary you are — if you can’t inspire other people to pay attention or engage, you severely limit your income and the impact you can make on the world.
So many of us just want to be “the creative person” or “the idea person” and either trust that success will come, or delegate the marketing part. But this mindset prevents us from earning what we’re worth.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Two things. First, my own self-doubt and insecurity. Not feeling smart enough, good enough, educated enough or capable enough.
The second challenge was a lack of money and know-how. I was carrying debt after college and had no clue how to start or run a digital business. But one of my life mottos is that “Everything is Figureoutable,” so I put my head down and got to work. It took me a long time (7 years of side gigs) before I was confident enough to run my business full-time, but eventually it happened.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Focus on what you can give, not what you can get. Challenge yourself to find and create new and innovative ways to deliver love and value, whether it’s to your audience, your customers or your team. The more you stay focused on serving, the less you struggle.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experience that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
One expensive failure was during one of my earliest group coaching programs. I had invested nearly $5,000 to build a custom membership site. This was an enormous financial risk for me at that time (heck — that’s still a lot of money today!), but I was so confident about how great it was going to be. While marketing the program, I talked smugly about the fancy bells and whistles our custom site would have.
We had a few hundred people sign up and the moment we tried to onboard them, the entire site crashed. It was a total shit show. That was an expensive and embarrassing lesson that taught me so much about hiring the right people, project management and the importance of testing before paying customers show up.
Another huge lesson: you do not need an expensive, fancy, custom website to have an enormously successful business or happy customers. Simplicity is beautiful.
I know your annual B-School is about to begin. How many years has it been running and what inspired you to create it?
This is our ninth year. We’ve grown from our first class of a little over 200 students to now having nearly 40,000 graduates across 160 industries and 130 countries.
When I first started my business in the early 2000s, the world of content creation and digital media was in its infancy.
I had no clue what I was doing, so I made a commitment to learn.
I read as many books as I could. I attended every business conference and seminar I could afford. The problem was, I found it hard to identify with the teachers I was learning from — I just couldn’t relate to their style or ethics. Many of them talked about customers like they were nothing more than numbers at the bottom of a balance sheet. It was all about “extracting as much profit as possible.”
It was the opposite of what I felt in my heart that a creative business could or should be.
Simultaneously, I heard from many colleagues (mostly women) who wanted to start their own thing — but were holding themselves back. First, they had extremely negative associations with sales and marketing. They also felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the online tools they needed to start and grow their businesses.
That’s when B-School was born. It’s an online business school that teaches big-hearted creatives how to start and grow a meaningful, profitable business. I wanted to show people that it’s possible to make money and make a difference in the world.
I also wanted to train people in modern marketing, which brings out the best of your humanity, not the worst. Most people, especially creatives, have such negative associations with marketing (and rightfully so), but I promise, modern marketing can feel like the ultimate expression of your creativity.
Bottom line, if you have a product or a service you genuinely believe in and you don’t do everything you can to share it with the world, you’re stealing from those who need you most.
I know this year’s B-School scholarships are closed, but you offer them every year. How does someone apply if they are making goals for next year’s B-School?
The income inequality that exists in our world is heartbreaking. It’s also solvable. While it requires a shift in global consciousness and changes at the policy level, I believe teaching people how to think and behave in entrepreneurial ways — even if they don’t start their own businesses — will help us create a more equitable and prosperous world.
That’s why we make sure that folks have a chance to join us for B-School regardless of economic means through our annual scholarship contest. So far we’ve awarded over 200 scholarships to nonprofit founders, writers, makers and one Mongolian goat milk yogurt chef.
To apply, we ask people to create a 90-second video telling us about yourself, your business, and the bigger “why” behind it. We’re looking for heart, creativity, and clarity. Super important: we have a detailed list of submission details explained in the third video of our free, 3-part business building video workshop at marieforleobschool.com. So for people putting this on their list for next year, they can get excited and motivated by signing up for our 3-part business building video series now [to get the details] about the scholarship in the third video.
If you decide to sign-up for the scholarship next year, please read and follow the directions carefully to be eligible. (We often get thousands of submissions so it’s vital to get the details right.)
What’s the ultimate goal of B-School?
Freedom. Financial freedom, creative freedom, time freedom and location freedom. Our goal is to give people the tools, structure and support they need to run a meaningful, profitable business that is a true expression of their unique gifts. (Also, #smashthepatriarchy.)
Switching back to your business as a whole, what has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Truthfully, I don’t believe I’ve sacrificed anything. I love what I do. It’s part of my identity. Even the challenges and struggles (which are many) are oddly satisfying because I’m constantly growing as a human being.
I’m also not striving for balance in my life. I think balance is a mythical, elusive state that’s pushed on us by society. It’s one more thing that women are supposed to achieve. Instead, I strive for health, joy, contribution and connection. Often, I experience those states through living in a way that might appear “unbalanced” to others. But what’s most important to me is how I feel and what I contribute, not how I look.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I’m the person has 5-9 books on her nightstand at all times. Below are the resources, interviews and books that I consider musts.
First, grab our free, 3-part business building workshop, which is now up for a limited time. It walks you through the six pillars to starting and growing a modern business.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. He offers a brilliant framework on how to combat “The Resistance” we feel when faced with the prospect of following a new creative endeavor.
I also highly recommend our free weekly show and podcast, MarieTV. We have over 350+ free episodes that tackle both the tactical and pragmatic aspects of building a business and life you love. (But only if you like to laugh while you learn.)
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? If so, walk us through that.
Failing and quitting my first safe, stable corporate jobs — even though I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to do next — led to my current life.
When B-School began to gain traction, I was also running a yearly personal growth conference in NYC, working with individual coaching clients, and leading high-level mentoring groups.
Collectively, those revenue streams generated more than $1M per year. But after stepping back and taking a hard look at how I was spending my time, I realized something significant. To have any shot at making the global impact I hoped to make, I needed to stop trying to do so many things and focus.
“Simplify to Amplify” is another motto I live by.
So I killed every other paid offering except B-School, which resulted in initially losing over $1M in revenue. But the expanded mental bandwidth allowed me to focus 100% of my efforts on making B-School the best program it could possibly be. The next year, we tripled our revenue, profit and reach.
This philosophy is tied to the gardening concept of pruning. By cutting back the extraneous, you ignite a powerful surge of growth. A great question to ask yourself is: what area of your business might grow 2-10X if it received more time, energy and focus?
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
DANCE! As a former hip-hop instructor and fitness teacher, I miss being in the studio. I miss the choreography. I miss hitting it so hard that I’m drenched in sweat and delirious from joy. There’s something transcendent and healing for me about music and dance. Right now I’m working on my next book, so once my manuscript is complete, I’m committed to get back into class. Until then, I’ll just keep moonwalking in my socks.
Author’s Note: I’m so excited to be a B-School student this year! And, yes, I’ll share what I’ve learned. — Caitlin