September 2019 Consultant of the Month
London native Toby Skinner transplanted to the San Francisco Bay Area to work as director of marketing for art auction house Bonhams and Butterfields. Who would have predicted that mobile weather apps would soon become his forte? That was the beginning of a flourishing consulting career. His sweet spot is in growth marketing, especially for early-stage startups. Here’s Toby on his consulting journey and what he’s learned along the way.
What type of work do you do?
I come from a traditional brand marketing background, but I’ve always been a jack of all trades. I enjoy the variety of doing a PR campaign one day, buying media the next, or leading a client through a brand workshop. More recently, I have focused on growth marketing, specifically with native mobile apps.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished an EM project with A3 Ventures, AAA’s innovation lab. The initial engagement was for a car-sharing app they launched, called GIG Car Share. After that I worked on AAA House Manager, a home maintenance service. For both of these ventures, I was responsible for driving user acquisition at the top of the funnel, in addition to retention, re-engagement and revenue optimization.
I put marketing tech stacks in place to test different acquisition channels and attribute which media partners, tactics, or ad creative were driving the most valuable users. The tech stack tools were very different for each venture, as one (GIG) was a native mobile venture and the other was traditional web (AAA House Manager).
For both, we recommended that they use Segment to facilitate consistent data and event tracking that could easily be sent to other tools within the tech stack. For GIG, I helped integrate a new MMP (Mobile Measurement Partner) in Adjust to help with attribution. We set up an integration with LeanPlum for User Lifecycle management including email campaigns, push notifications and in-app messaging. For AAA House Manager, we used Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager for attribution along with HubSpot, which enabled us to set up automated marketing workflows to send out emails based on user behavior and lifecycle stages.
Recently, I’ve started working with a friend of mine to grow a London startup called Kindeo. It’s a way for families to create digital biographies of loved ones by helping parents or grandparents record the stories of their lives so future generations know who their ancestors were. It might even help you understand why you have certain personality traits! I love the fact that as a consultant I can pick the companies I find truly interesting.
What was your path to becoming an independent consultant?
First and foremost, I’m quite a creative person (I studied art in school). That’s why I got into marketing. Now that we live in this digital age, luckily, I have fairly good left-brain, right-brain balance. I find it amazing how much data we have now. I worked in the days when you could drop £100,000 on a full page ad in the London Times and keep your fingers crossed. No one was asking you about ROI or LTV or CAC. In a way, it was easier back then, but it’s far more fascinating now.
My digital marketing career really took off when I took a job as VP of Marketing for Weather Underground, a startup which eventually got bought by the Weather Channel. Going from a small startup with 60 people to a thousand-plus people was a good introduction to the corporate world.
Three years after the acquisition, the Weather Channel went through some layoffs. I had an option to stay on board and move to Atlanta, but I wanted to stay in the Bay Area. So I was laid off and jumped straight into consulting. I can’t say it was intentional. Within days of leaving Weather Underground, another weather startup reached out to me to see if I could consult with them to provide strategic guidance as well as mentorship to less experienced people who were executing user acquisition campaigns.
While I knew what to do on the marketing side, I didn’t have experience in consulting. Negotiating the right rate, invoicing, calculating taxes, figuring out what costs I could expense against revenue — this was all new to me. But it gave me my first taste of the consulting perks of working from home and managing my own time. Eventually, I started to really like consulting. I realized that my experience allowed me to offer real value, especially to early-stage business owners who don’t have the resources to hire full-time marketing people.
When you’re in between projects, suddenly you have time to be sociable or have lunch with people. In a hectic leadership, nine-to-five role, you don’t have time for that. This kind of networking led to another consulting opportunity that came about with a person I used to work with who had started an ad tech company. That’s when I started thinking seriously about being a consultant full time and asked for advice from a former colleague who had set up his own business. Rightly or wrongly, I set up my own LLC so that I could make sure I was writing off my expenses.
Through a recruitment agency, I found my third client, Pinger, a messaging app developer. Initially, they were looking for a full-time employee, but we arranged a consulting gig. After three months, they persuaded me to take on a full-time role and equity. In a sense, I took a two-year sabbatical from consulting, though I was still working as an advisor for a previous client for one to two hours a month.
Pinger was very good at performance/growth marketing. They placed a lot of emphasis on data with the support of a whole team of data scientists. I was able to really hone my data analytics and A/B testing skills and pushed myself further with native mobile app growth marketing. In many ways, what I learned at Pinger really helped my career.
When I left Pinger, I immediately found a couple of app developers through word-of-mouth networking — just letting people know I was available to consult. One app developer reached out to me through LinkedIn and I got myself a very interesting client, Instasize. These were young kids making millions from a photo editor for Instagram. I helped them get set up with the right MMP (Adjust) and managed user acquisition tests on Facebook and Google Ads.
When I was at Pinger, I had used EM Marketing to find an app developer, and it was around this period of time when I thought, I should talk to Ken at EM Marketing. I signed up and they hooked me up with A3 Ventures.
What do you like about being a consultant?
I did my time going up the career ladder and became VP of marketing. I loved managing people and playing a mentorship role. But I ended up spending my time doing PowerPoint presentations and having to justify everything my team did. They would be off doing brainstorms while I was in back to back meetings from nine to five.
By being a consultant, I could still roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. After 20 years, I found that I actually had a bit of experience to share, especially with early stage startups. The smaller companies I like consulting for typically wouldn’t have the funding or are not at the stage where they’re going to hire a VP of marketing. But they still need high-level strategy and experience.
Consulting is a less stressful existence. I had back surgery a few years ago, so I have to be very careful. In my last full-time role, I was commuting from San Rafael to San Jose. Even if I left at 3:30PM, it would take me two and a half hours coming back every day. It was not good for my back being stuck in a car for that long.
I wanted to go back to consulting, and on LinkedIn, I found a nonprofit in San Rafael that was five blocks away. They were looking for a full-time marketing head. I persuaded them that with their budget, 20 hours a week of my experience was better than 40 hours with a less experienced person. And I could walk to work. After I laid down the strategy, I helped them find an amazing young college grad to implement the tactics. I am currently still working with them as an advisor to the board.
I like having a lifestyle where I can actually paddleboard, spend an hour on the yoga mat or do my physical therapy exercises.
Consulting allows me to spend time with my son. He started school last year and I’m able to do the school runs in the morning. I don’t want to miss out on that.
The flexibility of consulting has given my wife and I an opportunity to launch our own business. She and I have been casually buying artwork for the past decade or so. A few months ago, we realized our long-term dream of running our own online gallery called Portfolio.
Finally, why consulting works so well for me is the flexibility to travel home a lot more. I just managed to pick up my first London-based client and I hope to get out there at least once a month.
What has been your biggest challenge about being a consultant? How have you addressed it?
I’ve been lucky to have a few times where I’ve had almost too much work and have to say no to projects. Ironically, the more successful you are as a consultant, the more risk the perks can go away if you take on too many clients.
Right now, I’m not working at full capacity, which I’m not too worried about. I embrace the lean times because two weeks from now, it could be completely different.
It’s also hard because my wife is now self-employed, running our family art business where neither of us has a salaried income. I’m now consulting for my own business, which is super exciting. But putting in your own credit card into Facebook Ads Manager is a bit scary.
How do you market yourself?
I’ve invested in LinkedIn Premium, which allows you to flag yourself as available for opportunities and boosts your visibility in their search results. I spent time making sure my profile was up to scratch and had the word “consultant” in it. I always ask colleagues (the more senior, the better) to provide a recommendation when I move on from any company. That seems to work quite well. I have recruiters looking at me all the time and I’ve had several leads from LinkedIn.
I found that my website, tobyskinner.com, helps because I can showcase the highlights of my past work and control how I position myself to potential new clients. I created it early on to help land full-time roles, but have since adapted it to position myself as a growth consultant.
What’s one tip you would give to new consultants?
In the past, I’ve regretted not making the most of downtime. As I was learning the ropes of being a consultant, I was so preoccupied about finding my next paycheck, I didn’t allow myself time to enjoy the important things in life: my family, my health, etc. Now, I have enough consulting experience and confidence to know that there will be opportunities around the corner, so I try to take advantage of any quieter periods. For new consultants, I would say make the most of the flexibility and downtime by enjoying life. You only have one.