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Engineering a Product Marketing Consulting Career: Meet Carolyn Clute

By Leilani Yau

November 2019 Consultant of the Month

After getting an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA, Carolyn Clute launched her career in management consulting, then moved into product management for multiple Bay Area tech companies. Due to an economic recession, she was initially forced into consulting, but ultimately chose it to enjoy the flexibility it offers, as well as being able to offer her clients a broader perspective than an internal person might have.

What are you currently working on?

Through EM, I’ve had a six-month product marketing contract with Adobe on Lightroom, a photo editing, editing, organizing, storing and sharing platform.

Carolyn’s Keys to Success

  • Keep expanding your skill set
  • Let your network know you’re available 
  • Be specific about what you are seeking
  • Do good work even in a tough environment
  • Know what you like and don’t like and don’t settle

Because of technology changes in the photography world, we’ve been thinking about how to future-proof the business and continue to have a meaningful value proposition. Research tells us that hardcore photography enthusiasts want to get better so we're adding tools to help them. My Adobe contract has recently been extended to start a community where people can learn from one another.

Community building is a different angle after working in product marketing and management for so long, and I’m happy about the change. I may not have gotten that opportunity if I hadn't worked at Adobe already and gotten to know the team. With consulting, you can build credibility by figuring things out and getting things done. You can create opportunities to move into adjacent spaces that are new and interesting to you.

What was your path to becoming a consultant?

I have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. While it isn’t really related to  software product development, I gained good analytical and deductive reasoning skills and an understanding of basic physics, and that has conferred a legitimacy to people who are looking to hire.

After getting an MBA, I worked as a strategy consultant for a spin-off of management consulting firm Bain & Company. I learned more there than in business school. You work with different clients at a very high level. You had to come in, understand the business, the industry landscape, the key drivers, competition, and economics, as well as what’s going on from a regulatory or technology standpoint. That experience has been foundational for everything I’ve done in the business world since.

While I loved the intellectual challenge of management consulting, I felt like a bit of a fraud telling people what to do but not having responsibility for those recommendations. I was much happier when I switched to product management after moving to the Bay Area. I “learned by doing” and didn't hesitate to ask a lot of questions. Along the way, I’ve taken courses to expand my skill set. If you learn things adjacent to your work, you can have better, more intelligent conversations with stakeholders. I've gone in and out of consulting twice. The first time was out of necessity. I was head of marketing and product management for a boutique financial services technology firm that did education lending. During the Great Recession, we could not get money to lend anymore and we had to shut down.

I “learned by doing” and didn't hesitate to ask a lot of questions. Along the way, I’ve taken courses to expand my skill set. If you learn things adjacent to your work, you can have better, more intelligent conversations with stakeholders.

I ended up consulting on a project in financial services at Wells Fargo. After having been part of a small startup, it was maddening to work in a huge company. It was so hard to get anything done. I took one more full time role at an SEO technology company. Eventually, the opportunity for the company flattened out, plus I needed more flexibility because of family circumstances.

At that point, I started picking up various consulting projects. For example, I worked on sales enablement and developed sales collateral for an Industrial Internet of Things company in San Francisco. I worked on getting a financial services firm’s robo-investing product off the ground. I also did a competitive secret shopping project for another firm. I’ve been an independent consultant full time since 2016.

What's been your biggest challenge as a consultant? How have you addressed it?

I’ve been in a situation where employees in a startup did not agree with a board member’s decision to bring consultants in to review the product strategy. The stakeholders were not on board with the assignment and did not think they needed help. It was difficult to develop relationships and understand the workflow.

The best you can do in that situation is to do good work and do your best to involve the folks that are part of the full-time team. Ultimately, you have ownership of the execution.

What do you love about consulting?

Product management has been endlessly entertaining. There’s always a new challenge doing different kinds of assignments with different people in different companies, but many of them boil down to the very same things: getting customers, keeping customers, dealing with politics and having the information you need to make decisions.

When you know a wider set of people and how companies work, it gives you the opportunity to learn best practices, which you can suggest or introduce in another place. Besides hard work and horsepower, you bring an outside perspective.

How do you market yourself?

I have not created a website because it’s hard to showcase the work I do.  Most of the work I’ve gotten is because of connections, transferable skills and similar experience.

For instance, the IoT project came through a managing partner at Khosla Ventures. We belong to the same gym and had been working out together for years. He knew I was at a transition point and one of his portfolio companies needed help.

Through EM Marketing, I was a secret shopper conducting a competitive analysis for an enterprise company. In that role, I used some of my SEO knowledge from my previous full time job. The difference between me getting selected for the project from someone else was that I actually understood the context of what they were trying to achieve. It made the learning curve easier.

Where do you work?

It depends on the project, the company culture, and how they tend to work. I am all for virtual work, but a piece is missing when you don't have face-to-face interactions. Those quick hallway conversations or things overheard in an open office can be tremendously helpful.

In general, I like being around other people during the day. It's fine to work from home one or two days a week, but after a while, it gets too quiet so I might go to a co-working space downtown if I don’t have a client office to visit.

Do you have any favorite productivity hacks? How do you manage your work?

As a consultant, you are there to meet or exceed client expectations. I am always clear on the objectives and deliverables for the engagement. If there are any questions, I always clarify as soon as practical. On bigger or more ambiguous deliverables, I try to check in early and often to make sure the work is going in the right direction. It reduces the amount of time going down blind alleys and increases effectiveness. I also embrace the technology that each firm uses and find it's well worth the time to learn.

What are the things you like to do when the work slows down?

I love to be outdoors. I love to work out. I take care of family and house items that don't get done when working full time. Depending on the financial situation, I might do a little bit of traveling. After finishing up a recent project, I drove to Palm Springs to help a friend finish a house flip, then headed to Sedona to go mountain biking with friends. In the Bay Area, you can't go too far or too long without thinking about income and expenses. So I don't go totally wild on things, but I try to mix it up.

What’s one tip you would give to new consultants?

When I was a new consultant, I tended to undersell myself and say yes to things that I might not have taken had I known the business better. You have to be honest with yourself about what you do and don't like. It's good to get a job, but it's not good if three weeks later, you feel under-utilized, under-appreciated, underpaid, or any combination of those. At the same time, you need to understand your market value.


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About Leilani Yau

Leilani Yau is a digital marketing consultant, specializing in content marketing and social media for small businesses and non-profits, and helps clients L.O.V.E. (Listen, Offer, Value, Engage) their target audiences online.

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