Katy Dolan shining a light on the dark sides of life as a young professional
Katy Dolan is a Harvard-trained sociologist with years of experience in marketing and research. Katy leveraged her expertise in the varied fields of tech, venture capital, politics, and non-profits to launch Katy Dolan Consulting, strategizing and executing marketing campaigns and research projects to serve growing clients. Just 23-years-old, Katy admits that becoming self-employed this soon out of college was not part of her master plan. But she’s on a mission to shine a light on the darker sides of life as a young professional.
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Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And today we're talking with Katy Dolan, a Harvard trained psychologist with years of experience in marketing and research. Katy leveraged her expertise in the varied fields of tech, venture capital, politics and nonprofits to launch Katy Dolan consulting, strategizing and executing marketing campaigns and research projects to serve growing clients. Just 23 years old, Katy admits that becoming self-employed this soon out of college was not part of our master plan, but she's on a mission to shine a light on the darker side of life as a young professional.
So please welcome to the show, Katy Dolan.
Katy Dolan: Thank you all for having me.
Passionistas: What is the one thing you're most passionate about?
Katy: As you alluded to in my bio there, I became very passionate about work life balance and how to navigate your career as a young professional. After I graduated from college and found that, you know, I wasn't having the most fun time navigating the professional world myself as a 22 and early 23 year old. And so as I began to have those issues, I of course talks about them with my peers and my friends and discovered that those issues were actually very, very common. And we didn't feel like enough folks were talking about how difficult it can be to graduate college and enter the professional world and not really know the best decision to make or know whether the things that are making you unhappy are your fault or someone else's fault, or, you know, all sorts of things like that.
And so I've become really passionate about talking about those first years out of college and your profession and what you can do to make that experience a little bit better for you both in terms of your professional success, but also more importantly, your mental health and your kind of sanity.
Passionistas: If you will talk about how your passion relates to what you do for a living.
Katy: To be honest, I'm still exploring the best way for my passion to relate to what I do for a living on the one hand, my passion relates to what I'm doing for a living, because what I'm doing for a living with my solution out of the problem that my passion relates to, if that makes sense. So I was very dissatisfied in my career in the first couple of years out of college. And so ultimately the best decision that I could make was to become self-employed and launched my consultancy and worked for myself.
And, you know, that was my solution to the problem that I'm passionate about. But that solution has helped me to kind of enjoy professional satisfaction at this point, but it's not helping the many, many, many other young people who were in the same boat. And so I'm still working on that solution. It's maybe a book it's maybe a company it's maybe a blog series. I'm not quite sure, but I know that there is something there from all these conversations I've had with young people who are feeling the same things that I did right out of college.
Passionistas: So what are the common threads? What are you hearing from these young people?
Katy: On the one hand, there are issues with your manager or your boss, your supervisor at your workplace. So I think a lot of folks are trying to navigate in many for the first time working full time with a manager, with whom they do not necessarily get along on a day to day basis.
And it's very difficult. I think to tell when you are shortly out of college, whether the challenges that you have with people in the workplace, particularly your manager, but also, you know, colleagues or other folks, whether those challenges are related to your attitude in the workplace to your contributions, or whether in some cases you are working in more of a dysfunctional workplace and your manager isn't really well equipped to manage folks. And so really where to put the blame is the question that I think haunts a lot of young people that I've spoken to. And I certainly felt that myself, right, when you come home after having a hard day where you had a bad interaction with your manager, it's very difficult to get in your head and wonder if that was your fault. And in some cases, it almost certainly is because you're a young professional and you don't know how to navigate that situation, but in other cases, it is your manager's fault, or it is your workplace's fault for not setting you up to be better prepared in that situation or whatever the issue may have been.
And I think that anxiety about, you know, whether it's you all the time, whether it's other people, whether it's some blend of both can really cause you to spiral into wondering what's going on in your workplace and why it's affecting you so badly. So one thread is kind of managers. I think another big thread of course, is just satisfaction and feeling fulfilled with what you're doing. So, you know, so many people get their first job out of college. And I think it's a very common cultural trope that your first job is just supposed to suck and supposed to be bad. Even when you talk to family members or friends or people you meet at a cocktail party or whoever it might be. And you describe that, well, this is my first job out of college. The instant response is this sympathetic like, Oh yeah, first job out of college.
Tough. Right? And I think so many people recognize that that first job is so often not particularly fulfilling. It's not really what you want to be doing. You haven't yet found what it is that you want to be doing. And so you're toiling every day doing often kind of menial junior level work sometimes in industries and fields that you're just not passionate about. You're not interested in, you've maybe realized through working there for the last one to two years, that it's not what you want to do for the rest of your life. And so that meaning is really not there in your day to day experience. And that is only worsened by working 10, 12 hour days, which a lot of people are doing in these junior level positions. And so particularly when you combine that kind of the trifecta of those bad experiences, you maybe have a bad boss or a bad manager.
You're not doing work. That's fulfilling to you. And you're working 10, 12 hour days with very little time for a personal life that can be really oppressive as a 22 and 23 year old. And you're not sure where to go in terms of your career to make it feel less oppressive than it is.
Passionistas: Talk about your personal experiences after you went to college and your first job.
Katy: I think in my first job and really couple of jobs out of college, I struggled with a lot of the same issues that I described previously. There were certain interactions with people that I wasn't sure why they kept happening and why they were so unpleasant, why I was having such a hard time proving my value in the workplace, why I was having such a hard time, even kind of fulfilling requests and, and meeting the expectations of my colleagues and my managers.
I think I certainly struggled some though, not as much as some of my peers with hours and balance. I think it's, it's difficult to come from college and then suddenly have an email, a professional email inbox that needs to be responded to at all hours of the day. And, you know, receiving emails late at night that you feel pressured to respond to. And those things are difficult. And I certainly dealt with that. And then also I would say just as a, as a broader point was just struggling with what I was supposed to be doing and whether this was what I'm supposed to be doing, whether this is fulfilling enough to sustain a 30, 40, 50 year career from this point. And it got to the point where most, every day I was sitting there wondering if I really could, if I could stomach doing this for even six more months, much less, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
And that was in some ways the industry I was in, but in other ways, just the day to day work that I was doing and the culture of the places I was working, wasn't sure it was sustainable. And so just a lot of questioning I would say is what I was doing in those first couple of years, wondering what was wrong, whether it was me that was wrong, whether it was my fault and what to do about it, if there was anything to do about it.
Passionistas: Let’s go back a little bit. How did you get your start in marketing and tell us about the charity you founded in high school?
Katy: In high school, I was a very, very enthusiastic member of the band and I had played piano for a long time, but I played flute in the school band and our band program at my high school was pretty serious and pretty elite and pretty competitive, particularly when it came to marching band.
And so we had a marching band. I ultimately became the drum major of the marching band, which is the student conductor. And we traveled in competitions around the Pacific Northwest where I grew up and were pretty successful in competitions and things like that. So band was really a huge, huge portion of what I was spending my time on and music and student leadership within the band. And one of the issues that became apparent to me being involved in the band is that at least where I grew up in this is not the same everywhere across the country, thankfully, but at least where I grew up, you had to provide your own musical instrument in order to participate in the band or also the orchestra. And obviously for many students that poses a financial barrier instruments are very expensive. Obviously purchasing an instrument can be several thousand dollars, but even just renting an instrument from, you know, the local music shop can be anywhere from, you know, $50 a month to several hundred, depending on the quality of the instrument.
And so for many families that additional expense is not feasible and it caused many families where I was from to, you know, lean away from choosing band or orchestra in favor of other activities when band or orchestra has significant scientifically proven positive impacts on adolescent development. And so my best friend and I in high school kind of came together and realized this problem. And at the same time that we realized the problem also kind of realized a potential solution, which is that many people keep musical instruments in the top of their closet gathering dust from when their child played it 30 years ago. And so they have these trumpets, these clarinets, these violins, all these instruments that really aren't doing any good for anyone and don't have a ton of value but would have a ton of value if they were in the hands of the student learning how to play.
And so we created a nonprofit organization that kind of matched those two sides of the market, if you will. So we tried to collect musical instrument donations from those who had them laying around the house and then put those instruments into the hands of kids who wanted to participate in band or orchestra. That was our core programming. In addition to that, we also did some kind of music instruction clinics with community centers and youth groups and other kind of young people around the area. And then we also gave some scholarships, some monetary scholarships to participate in band or orchestra to cover some of the, you know, more monetary fees that are separate of instruments. And so we'd started that organization and really kind of started a business if you will, when we were 15 years old and ran it for several years. And at that point, the most exciting part of running that little business, which was a nonprofit, was the marketing and the getting the word out about what we were doing.
And that was everything from designing the first logo, which looked absolutely horrific. And I believe I designed in Microsoft paint, which I do not recommend all the way from this really janky looking logo up to actually, you know, putting that logo on a website and on social media and developing content for social media that could get the word out because a study and more followers get more people to understand that they could donate instruments and all of those sorts of things. And so my starting marketing was really that when I was 15, it was marketing the organization that my best friend and I had started together and trying to make as much of an impact as we could, by getting more and more folks in our community to realize what we were up to. So that was really the start in marketing and have obviously kind of expressed it now in many, many more ways in the eight plus years, since we started that nonprofit.
Passionistas: Where did you go to college and what did you study?
Katy: I went to Harvard for college. Harvard does not have any kind of quote unquote practical majors in the way that most colleges do. So it's a, it's a liberal arts school. And Harvard is very laser focused on maintaining that liberal arts focus. And so that means that all of the majors at Harvard are disciplines like sociology, which was my major, but, you know, even a business major at Harvard is the closest thing is an economics degree, which is, you know, much more theoretical than a typical business degree from other schools. And so there was not a way to study marketing specifically at Harvard, but I studied marketing if you will, through internships and extracurricular experiences that often put me close to marketing, whether directly or indirectly. And so for many of my kind of extracurricular commitments at Harvard, I found myself doing a lot of the same things that I had done for my nonprofit, whether it was brand strategy and kind of creating a visual aesthetic and expressing it on a website and on social media, whether it was developing content that could, you know, get more eyes to our programming and whatever, you know, toward whatever objective that we needed to.
And then in internships also worked on various marketing initiatives. I worked at the Make-A-Wish foundation and my first summer in college and helped them with things like press releases and kind of packaging all these really inspirational, wonderful wish stories into content for social media and beyond. And in my senior summer, I worked at a public relations firm that assists democratic campaigns and progressive causes with advertising public relations and communications. And so kind of furthered the informal study of marketing there, if you will.
Passionistas: And did you also intern at the White House?
Katy: Yes. I also interned at the white house. That one was not so much marketing focused, but in my sophomore summer, I interned at the white house. This was my politics will show through here. This was the last golden summer of the Obama administration, the summer of 2016. And I worked as an advanced intern at the white house, which means that whenever the president and this is true in any administration, not just the Obama administration, whenever the president makes any sort of public appearance, that's outside the white house, whether it's a speech in DC or whether it's a big international trip to France or Japan or wherever here, ultimately she might be headed.
The administration sends an advanced team out to prepare for that event. And so I worked as an advanced intern. We were helping to prepare all of these appearances and speeches on behalf of the president. And so that was everything from booking travel and managing the receipts of that travel booking, which obviously it was a scintillating job all the way up to actually getting to staff the president at those appearances in DC. And then ultimately, I also took a trip to California with him in August of 2016 for a speech on climate change. And so that was a really wonderful, wonderful summer, obviously, to be so close to an area of politics that I was very passionate about. But really if you do want to kind of project a thread onto it in the past, there is some marketing involved in advance. You're dealing with members of the press.
That's actually a big component of advanced work is wrangling press that obviously show up to presidential appearances. And you're also trying to, you know, in your setup of the event, help to craft the narrative that the press and the public can interpret from the president's appearance. So that's everything from who sits behind him or her when they're making a speech all the way to the experience that those, that those attendees have when they first walk in the room. And so there was a little bit of marketing involved, but that was definitely not one of my more marketing focused summers, but it was still a very fun summer. Nonetheless.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and you're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Katy Dolan to learn more about her business, visit KatyDolan.com. Now here's more of her interview with Katy.
In 2019, you founded Katy Dolan consulting. So talk about what inspired that and why you wanted to focus on startup companies.
Katy: Specifically, as I have described, I was having some professional difficulties, I would say in my first year and a half or so out of school and realizing that I was perhaps not cut out for the kind of typical nine to five job. I desired a really high level of work life balance. So meaning that it mattered greatly to me to take the nights and weekends off and to have a reasonable amount of vacation and that I wanted to learn a bit more than I was really able to learn. And then in the roles that I happen to have, I wanted to be more exposed to different kinds of projects, and also get back to some of the work that I have really loved from the beginning, which did happen to be marketing and branding.
And so I was beginning to realize that there was maybe an opportunity to act on some of these wishes and hopes. And I began taking on a bit of freelance work here or there while I was still employed full time. So I began kind of leveraging my network to get back in touch with a couple of startup founders that I had met in VR through various ways prior to that point and asking if I could do just little projects here or there for them, these were not major moneymaking projects. These were not projects that were really core to the business in most cases, but anything to help me kind of build my independent portfolio as a freelancer or as a consultant. And ultimately I kept doing that work to kind of prove to myself that there was product market fit. If you will, to use a startup term to prove to myself that I could basically generate enough income from freelancing and consulting to replace a full time job income.
And so ultimately I did, you know, kind of demonstrate that fit and prove to myself that it was possible. And from then made a pretty hasty decision to quit my job and launch my consultancy full time and become self-employed. And in doing so, I had been exposed obviously to many inspiring people who also are freelancers or consultants. The vast majority of the ones I know and am inspired by do happen to be women. And many of these women had showed me or told me directly that one of the most important things to do if you're launching a consultancy or freelance career is to have a bit of a brand or a bit of a niche for yourself. And as I began to think about what I wanted that brand or that niche to be startups really made the most sense because when I looked back at my experience thus far, whether it was starting my own nonprofit, whether it was working for other organizations through college.
And then when I worked in venture capital post-college and it was obviously working with startups, the common thread was really organizations that were just starting organizations that were really young. Didn't have big budgets, didn't have 50 staff members had a really lean and scrappy team and a lean and scrappy budget, but we're still trying to get the word out about themselves as much as possible. That was true with my nonprofit and it's true with most every startup company. And so I decided that my niche and my focus within my consulting business would be startup organizations. And so I call myself a startup consultant. And when I say that, I really don't just mean startups as our culture typically interprets that word. I E like venture capital backed tech companies, startups. I also mean small businesses and nonprofits and political movements and campaigns, really any type of organization that is small growing and looking to get the word out, which is pretty standard, you know, the, the motivations and kind of the tactics that you use are actually pretty standard, whether you're for profit, nonprofit, political, whatever it might be.
And so that was the reasoning behind both launching the consultancy and then ultimately focusing on specifically startup clients.
Passionistas: And you also mainly focused on marketing and research when you work with clients. Why those two areas specifically?
Katy: As we've kind of spoken about marketing had been a big thread of mine throughout much of the work I've done, whether it was my own nonprofit many years ago, all the way through several of these organizations that I've worked with since. And it's really the most exciting work of startups, in my opinion, it is, as I said before, that process of using all of the resources you have available, which is often very few to actually teach people and get the word out about what you're doing, which is at least as a, as a founder, in my experience, one of the most exciting things that you can recognize when people, when you realize that people actually know what you're doing, and you didn't actually tell them they found out organically, or maybe by a paid advertising or whatever it might be, but they found out by some other method than you telling them.
It's very exciting to learn that someone actually knows about your company, your knows about your organization, that they just came across on the internet somehow. And so I think marketing is very exciting work, not only as a marketer and myself, but also to work with founders who get really excited and realizing that, you know, we've done something that actually allowed them to have greater reach and their messages resonating with more people. And so marketing was kind of a natural fit. It's something that I knew a lot of the tactics about a new, a lot of the strategy to accomplish. And then the research angle was perhaps a bit less intuitive but was something that mattered a lot to me. So we haven't really spoken about it yet, but in college at Harvard, I studied sociology, which I'm also very passionate about and the discipline of sociology, which is, which is the study of really how people relate to each other.
So there's psychology, which is kind of how you relate to your own mind. But then we move into sociology. When we start to talk about how more than one person relates to each other, whether it's in a pair or a small group, or even, you know, whole societies at large. So I studied sociology and a big component of the field of sociology is in depth interviewing and trying to get people's stories from them directly and use people as primary sources. And I had done a lot of interview based studies, including my senior honors thesis, which had been entirely interview based. And I knew, and I know to this day that there is so much power in talking to people about their experience. And it's not an area that a lot of startup founders are really thinking about when they start their company or their organization or whatever it might be, but it's really critically important toward understanding your consumer, understanding your target audience, or even understanding your own employees or your own folks within the organization.
There's many ways to use it. And so I really wanted to kind of share that gospel if you will, with my clients, that it's really important to take the time to do these in depth interviews and to actually get the stories of people who you're impacting and use those stories to impact both your marketing efforts, but also your product development or whatever it is, whatever else it might be. And so, in addition to marketing, which is kind of my core service at this point today, I also do research studies with certain clients. And that typically takes the form of user research where in advance of launching a product or launching a new feature of a product, we go out and speak to a whole bunch of members of the target audience of that product or software in order to see how the products will impact their lived experience in this, in this certain field or industry that we're working in, and then translate all of those insights into kind of actionable tips and things as a company or organization can do in their product development, in their marketing, in whatever it might be to make sure that what they're doing really resonates with that end user. So that's the, both the marketing and the research components of my consultancy.
Passionistas: What do you think is the most important marketing tool in the modern world?
Katy: I think it depends on whether we're talking tool and kind of an abstract sense, the most important voice or content we can share, or whether we're talking tool in a tactical way, whether it's like email or social. So on the ladder, if it's the tactics, obviously social media is very ubiquitous in today's day and age. And I think when we were, you know, back eight to 10 years ago, social was seen as kind of the next area that any company needed to get up to speed on and their marketing program, obviously, because many of these social media platforms had only even started at that point. And so we were still learning how to do social, in my opinion.
And I think this is not necessarily the opinion shared by every marketer. Social is at this point. So ubiquitous that as long as you accomplish kind of a base level competence in it, I think you're kind of all set and people will always go to your Twitter and expect you to have tweets there for them to read, but honestly, the kind of margin of improvement that you can have on all those tweets over any other brand's tweets is it's fairly small, I think at this point, because social is so ubiquitous. And so for me, I think the real area of opportunity for many brands is, is more content marketing. And it's actually having more in depth content, whether that's written content in the form of like a blog or audio content in the form of a podcast or video content, obviously in the form of video, all of those things are kind of the next level that I think many brands can get to, to really take them from zero to one.
And so I work with a lot of companies and encourage many other prospective clients or folks that I just talked to really think about how they can begin telling some stories via content. Once I, once again, whether it's in writing or by audio, because I think that's really the thing that takes consumers now from just this base level appreciation of, okay, this brand has an Instagram page. Cool, got it. But, Oh, this brand has all this cool stuff that I like to read and watch and listen to. And this makes me feel much more close to the people that are running this company and makes me much more likely to buy or endorse or promote within my own network. And so I think content marketing is, is kind of the next thing to be unlocked by a lot of companies and organizations out there.
Passionistas: So what type of clients have you worked with, and what's been your biggest success story?
Katy: So far, I have worked with a wide range of clients at this point, and that's very intentional at this pretty early point in my career. I don't really want to be a really niche down specific strategist. I want to be more of a generalist. I want to be exposed to all sorts of different companies across all sorts of different industries. And so unlike many other freelancers or consultants, I try not to work too much within say e-commerce consumer package goods or within B2B software as a service or, or any of those niche disciplines. I try to work with a lot of clients and that has been my focus in the last year or so of running. This consultancy has been a diverse client set, which I do have, but I think one client that I've worked with a, for a long time and pretty extensively, and B has been really successful in that time that we've worked together is tiny hood, which is a company made by parents for parents, the founders of tiny hood or two moms themselves.
And they in their own parenting experience decided that there had to be some way to make parenting a bit easier and more information out there. So you didn't have to feel so lost and uncertain when it came time to breastfeed your baby or introduce solids to your baby for the first time, or make sure you were up to date on CPR, infant CPR. And so Becky and Suzanne, these two moms created a company called tiny hood that is trying to help parents feel more confident in their parenting. And in the previous history of the company that was really expressed as forming communities of parents and connecting parents to each other, which is obviously vitally helpful for a lot of moms and dads out there who don't necessarily know a lot of parents, or just need more input from a network that is a bit more expert than they are in parenting.
And so the company was pretty successful with those communities, but in the last year or so, what we've been working on more together is the launch of really a new class of product for tiny hood, which is online parenting classes. The challenge has been, how can we communicate this expert led content? So these classes are all taught by certified experts in their field. How can we use these experts to speak directly to new moms and dads about how to take care of their babies and children? And so in late 2019, and I believe December of last year, we really went ahead with like a launch of the online parents class product. But that product launch had been proceeded by a lot of user research that I had assisted with on talking to a lot of new moms, a lot of pregnant women and a lot of new moms about what they needed to know about parenting, what they weren't getting from the current parenting market and how a new company could really come into and significantly assist on their parenting journey.
And so what the result has been is a suite of online parenting classes that I think, and I think the company agrees are really well tailored to what we heard from parents throughout that user research process and have been really, really successful in the several months that they've been online thus far. And I've also been proud. This was not at all my decision in any way in March, but I've been proud of the decision that the company made to offer some of their breastfeeding classes for free in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously a lot of pregnant women and new moms were planning to go to the hospitals to take certain classes specifically on breastfeeding. And now the hospital has canceled their classes. Even if the classes aren't canceled, a lot of pregnant women don't want to go to the hospital and risk infection in their sensitive state.
And so tiny had made the decision to offer a lot of these breastfeeding classes for free, and there's been really enormous demand that has been demonstrated. And so once again, we've gotten reassurance that these products really do meet the needs of a lot of moms. So that's a great client case study if you will, and has been a company that I've really, really enjoyed working with over the last six plus months,
Passionistas: What's your definition of success?
Katy: My definition of success is, is balance is just true balance both personally and professionally. And obviously I think that different people have a different balance that works for them. I am in no way saying that, you know, for every single person, it should be 50% and 50% professional in terms of the way you spend your time. But having a balance is the definition of success and is crucially important.
And I think there are a lot of folks, particularly in my generation who have not yet achieved that balance because we are not told that that is the most important thing. We are told that professional success that, you know, the amount of money you make, the prestigious of your job title, you know, working at a McKinsey, working at a Goldman Sachs is success. That's the best thing you can do for yourself. But really success is actually not feeling incredibly overwhelmed with work all the time. It's feeling like you do have very solid friendships and relationships with your family and romantic relationships. If you so choose, and that you have hobbies that you're genuinely interested in and dedicated to that you're able to travel and see the world and broaden your mindset. That balance that comes from not being such a devotee to the hustle-porn culture.
That balance is for me, at least the definition of success and was a big motivation towards me launching my consultancy because I could then better control that balance for myself.
Passionistas: What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to be an entrepreneur?
Katy: Fake it till you make it really, even when you do not think that you are prepared, you are probably prepared somehow, you know, and you're pro you're probably not considering doing something that you are wholly unprepared for because you probably wouldn't be considering it if you're wholly unprepared for it. Like, obviously if you studied, like I did say you studied sociology, you're more of a marketing and businessperson. Then you're probably wholly unprepared to take on like a medical tele-health startup that requires a lot of medicinal knowledge that you don't have, but you probably wouldn't be considering doing that if you were in this position.
So anything that you are reasonably considering doing, you're probably prepared to do because the idea came to your head as something that you could do. And so faking it till you make it and taking those ideas and running with them and seeking the opportunity always saying yes is really the best thing you can do. I think early in your career to learn as much as possible to get a wide and diverse range of experiences that you can then help to triangulate what exactly you really want to do when you grow up, which is probably not what you're doing in many cases when you're 23 and 24 and 25, but having a lot of diverse experiences and, and faking it until you make it specifically in terms of entrepreneurship helps you to be better prepared to make those crucial decisions when they come a bit later in your life and career, that help you actually find that core central place where you'll land
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Katy Dolan to learn more about her business, visit KatyDolan.com.
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