September Consultant of the Month
Portland native Colleen Atherton fell in love with tech right after college. She gained broad marketing experience with enterprises such as Tektronix, Microsoft, Intel and HP. After a successful couple years as a solopreneur in real estate, she came back to her passion for marketing. She enjoys the flexibility and learning opportunities of consulting.
What are you currently working on?
At the end of last year, I started working with Adobe on a beta UI/UX design software they introduced in 2017. In late June, I shifted into a Photoshop product marketing manager role, which is also in their Creative Cloud business unit. It’s been a big change moving from a small team proving market fit and testing monetization strategies to their flagship product within a larger organization and much more visibility.
Colleen’s Keys to Success
- Finding inspiration and following where it leads
- Growing deep roots with a company she loved
- Diving into a completely new career to keep growing
- Always networking and building relationships
- Leveraging domain expertise in consulting roles
What path did you take to become a consultant?
I grew up in Portland. After graduating from Portland State University, Silicon Forest was growing so it was a very exciting time. My first job was to promote economic development with the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce. Companies such as Tektronix, Sequent, Mentor Graphics and Intel were really developing there. I immediately fell in love with the challenge of marketing new, innovative products and paradigm-shifting technologies.
Next I took an account role in Waggener Edstrom’s creative services group, working with Microsoft to grow their then-fledgling Windows software products. As Waggener diversified their client portfolio, I took on business development and client management roles with Intel, HP, ADC Kentrox, and Radisys.
I loved working with HP imaging and printing products and the people, and eventually joined the company. The next 15 years included global marketing roles across a range of consumer, SMB, and enterprise products, services, and solutions. The last couple years I started feeling curious to explore new horizons, wanting to try something totally different and entrepreneurial.
I considered new industries, organizations, and other options while building a set of criteria to guide my decision. My love of architecture, interest in sustainable building, and community development moved me in the direction of real estate.
After consulting with several realtor friends and running through financial models, I decided to go for it. I got my real estate license and joined Windermere Realty Trust. I enjoy meeting with people in person and connecting with my local community. My expertise in marketing and strategic business development enabled me to quickly ramp up my business. But I found that I did not love being a solopreneur and all the administration that went with it, on top of all the contractual administration with real estate.
I missed the creativity, strategic nature, and collaboration of marketing. Since I still had real estate clients in my pipeline, I thought consulting would be a good way to get back into marketing. I consulted with HP through an agency in Boise on and off part time.
After closing real estate transactions for my final buyers and sellers, I looked for permanent marketing roles and landed a contract with a large local utility company. That helped me realize that I did not want to work in a highly regulated industry and the value of contracting as a way to explore new industries and companies.
“I love working with larger companies because of the
complexity of cross-functional collaboration, the opportunities to have a global footprint, and the strategic opportunities in marketing a large, diverse portfolio of products.”
I looked around Portland, which is composed mainly of startups to mid-sized companies. Even though I had a large and dynamic network of contacts, I kept hearing that I was overqualified for mid-level roles and under-qualified for executive roles, or that they wanted someone with startup experience. Through my network I got connected to a consulting opportunity with an interesting cybersecurity company in Virginia for about six months. The combination of CEO and board changes with COVID quickly wound down this work.
I was toying with the idea of moving to another market to be able to work with larger companies. I love working with them because of the complexity of cross-functional collaboration, the opportunities to have a global footprint, and the strategic opportunities in marketing a large, diverse portfolio of products. One good thing about the pandemic is that it helped large companies be more willing to hire remote workers.
The Adobe opportunity came through EM and leverages the 15 years that I spent marketing imaging and printing products at HP. Since Adobe is targeting the same type of creative professionals and hobbyists that HP did, there's a lot of transferable knowledge I can bring to the table.
What do you enjoy about consulting?
I like having the opportunity to work in a variety of industries, learning about new technologies, and meeting new people. It’s also nice to be a little bit removed from company politics. I do appreciate the flexibility consulting affords when I need it, although I tend to stick to a regular schedule. On weekends, I feel less pressured to check emails and be online unless there’s a specific need to be.
What has been your biggest challenge about being a consultant?
If you're only in a role for six months, it's hard to feel like you can deliver the full value of your domain expertise. In addition to my breadth and depth of marketing expertise, I have a masters in organizational development that has enhanced my ability to assess situations, innovate programs, optimize processes, align stakeholders and marshal troops. I'm loyal and excellence-oriented. I love to continue to raise the bar, and am always thinking about how to get better results and greater performance? When time or budget limit the ability to fully deliver this kind of value as a consultant, it can be a bit frustrating and discouraging.
How do you market yourself?
I do a lot of networking online and offline and stay engaged on LinkedIn. Prior to COVID, I was actively involved with Portland Women in Tech and a mid-career women’s meetup. I still have strong connections with a lot of HP colleagues even though many have since joined other companies. With Adobe, I have focused on developing trusted relationships within my product marketing teams and key partners. When you’re eager to learn, deliver high value, and are collaborative, they want to continue to look for opportunities for you, whether as a consultant or a permanent position.
What are the things you like to do when the work slows down?
I love sports and outdoor recreation and do a lot of hiking, cycling, and running. During Covid, I took up tennis and spent more time gardening. I enjoy crafting, jewelry making, and the arts. I've traveled quite a bit internationally and have hosted international students in my home for about 20 years. Most of the students are college-aged and have come from Japan, South Korea, Thailand, China and with a few from France, Germany, and Argentina. Over the years, I've seen these girls coming to the U.S. with more independence, confidence, and better English — good enough that some can enroll in undergraduate classes after taking a couple months of an English language program. It’s been a joy to maintain close relationships with about 15 students (and their families), and to have traveled to Thailand and Japan for weddings.
What’s one tip you would give to new consultants?
Be authentic about who you are and what your passions are. Be open to the initial opportunities that come, but as you start discovering preferences for types of technologies or business or roles, be true to that. It doesn't mean you always get what you want, but keep pursuing things that are interesting and places where you'll be successful and shine.