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The Sustainable SaaS: What Permaculture Can Teach Us About Building Software

Marie Poulin

Co-Founder, Digital Strategist, Oki Doki

I help people move from 1:1 to 1:many offerings @ https://t.co/H5oPxaKXfl Saas co-founder, online courses + programs: https://t.co/q0mb9i35wM

Halfmoon Bay, BC
Marie Poulin


Here's Marie's master class of what not to do. It's a very honest behind the scenes of what's happened since Oki Doki launched, and their journey to sustainability.

Oki Doki helps people launch online courses and productized services, with Mochi - their head of customer happiness

Marie and Ben's house on the sunshine coast of Canada. They had to learn how to maintain the land: chopping wood not giving a good gosh darn

Permaculture design certificate with cats hanging out in a field? This will be good.

Permaculture: A set of techniques and principles for designing sustainable human settlements. - Toby Hemenway

There's no right answer to how to do permaculture

There's no right answer to how to do SaaS, just like in permaculture

What would our SaaS look like if we had designed it on purpose? Marie and Ben stumbled into it.


  • How we launched our idea(s)
  • what we got wrong (and right)
  • What permaculture can teach us
  • What it means for you

Relevant permaculture principles for SaaS

1. How Marie and Ben Launched their Idea(s)

Ben and Marie didn't start with any customer research or audience building, but they did get $10k for their first Digital Strategy School. The beta later made $50k.

1. Observe & Interact

Pay attention to the patterns.

Observing and Interacting to and with your environment is a basic tenant of permaculture. You're spending up to a year just observing your land before making any major decisions.

Observing and Interacting to and with your environment is a basic tenant of SaaS, as in Permaculture

Marie and Ben could've learned a lot from 10 or 20 customer interviews before touching a line of code.

Oki Doki's path skipped the necessary permaculture lessons

2. User Small and Slow Solutions

You can't start with a tropical oasis - just start with the smallest little piece. In permaculture, a raised garden bed is a great small start

Oki Doki made several mistakes:

  • New endeavour
  • New technology
  • Complex functionality Multi-layers of user permissions New (to us) market
  • Very competitive space Committed before any revenue Over-engineered for growth

They should have started small:

  • Interview 20 people
  • Design prototypes
  • Landing page with signups Blog posts
  • Office hours Consultations

They did our first demo once the product was already built to scale - don't do this!!! Bring in someone at the rough and ready state to play with it. Observe them to see how they're using it. Product demos - just watching someone using their tool - are very humbling. Things you think are intuitive aren't. You are not your audience.

They built it in secret - don't do this either!!!

We were letting our competitors lead our innovation (instead of our customers). Your customers have the most to teach you.

What should you do? Tell people what you're working on and be in conversation constantly:

  • Share early concepts
  • Don’t wait until your product is polished to share it
  • Do things right the first time
  • Be honest about your limitations

When Marie went to Microconf for the first time in 2016, she had her mind blown by all these new concepts: churn, MRR, CAC - she realized she had a lot to learn

Even with these mistakes, they managed to get to $1k MRR.

3. Design from patterns to details

Don't focus on the details:

  • Technical stack
  • Specific Features
  • Create a course
  • Sell a course
  • Deliver a course

Focus on the patterns:

  • Diversify offers
  • "how do I turn my 1:1 into training?"
  • Bundle offers
  • Services onboarding
  • Mentorship
  • Guided course experiences
  • Course fatigue
  • Imposter Complex
  • Procrastination

We were so focused on the details of execution that we were missing out on the larger patterns of behaviour.

Our ideal customers were entrepreneurs who had high-touch coaching programs.

Our customers kept extending their trial because their courses were taking them way longer to build than they expected.

To zoom out and make sure you're not getting caught up in the details, ask "how might we".

Ask real questions that solve your audience's problems, not "how might we build a course platform and help sell people sell their courses?"

Design generally before specifically; Understand the underlying patterns


  • Ask “How might we?” questions
  • ZOOM OUT: Understand the problem from all angles
  • Understand the emotional context surrounding the problem

Marie and Ben realized they needed to integrate more of their efforts

4. Integrate, rather than segregate

Integration What do we each want to get out of the business? How can we collaborate and make better make use of our existing resources, skills, strengths? How we make things easier?

Reality check: It was easier to sell $2k/mo consulting retainers than a $49/mo SaaS subscription

Reality check: It was easier to sell a $1k coaching program than a $49/mo SaaS subscription

twitter brennan dunn as somebody with a business that can do nearly in a weekend with a super targeted promo


Marie then:

  • Hired Instructional Designer
  • Put Digital Strategy School on hold
  • Did Deeper Customer Research
  • Introduced Course Consulting
  • Shifted Company Positioning

They went back to what we knew how to do best: working with clients 1:1. That meant noticing:

  • Spending way too long building courses and programs before validating the idea
  • People were signing up for a platform long before they had content ready to go (then procrastinating)
  • Amateur course creators were fire-hosing their learners with too much information
  • New(ish) product creators were expecting their first courses to replace their client income

Marie and Ben launched a new service that used their audience's language

On-demand demos have become a lead generation tool for OKI DOKI's services

We finally had an integrated product / service / SaaS ecosystem.

What now? On-demand demos have become a lead generation tool for our services.

Elements should work collectively toward a stronger whole:

  • Leverage existing skills + assets
  • Think holistically
  • Integrate services into your SaaS
  • “Many hands make light work”

5. Creatively use and respond to change

The problem is the solution

We had to adapt in a way that made sense for the way we work with people.

We knew we didn’t want to be the “build your 6-figure passive income course” people.

2 years of working with course creators and coaches finally gave us the insights we were looking for.

We stopped worrying about what our competitors were doing, and focused on what our customers needed.

What happened? Everything became easier. Better copy creates resonance, which helps you stay competitive.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”; Turn change into opportunity

  • Change is inevitable
  • Problems are opportunities
  • Listen to your customers over your competitors
  • Find your unique edge

Permaculture principles:

  • observe & interact
  • use small and slow solutions
  • design from patterns to details integrate, rather than segregate
  • creatively use and respond to change
  • Deeply Understand the people + problem
  • Favour small progress and share iterations
  • design for generalities before specifics
  • Think of everything as a functioning whole
  • Embrace change and adapt

It took OKI DOKI 3 years to find our groove + become sustainable. Is your SaaS part of your business, or is it your business?

Why would we hustle so damn hard... for a life we already have? Once we let go of the “shoulds” and the FOMO, we realized that we could make a great living as a small company, and love our life.

Why would we hustle so damn hard... for a life we already have?

What do you want to get out of your SaaS, and how hard are you willing to work for it?

We’ve made a conscious choice to grow slowly, with less stress and less FOMO.


Check out Gaia's Garden for more on permaculture.


Being married to your business partner, have you set up "just in case" scenarios?

We treat eachother like equals and give eachother a ton of autonomy. We found out we have to have a meeting every week to get on the same page. Weekly meetings and checkins, being honest about strengths and limitations, and getting an outside perspective.

What other ways can you know if you're creating resonance?

Get your friends to describe what you do to someone else. How do outside people perceive you? What words do they use?

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