🐧 Becoming a fractional executive | Mark Mullinix

INSIDE: From AMEX to Loyalty Expert, Fractional Business in Singapore, Pricing and Packaging, Biggest Mistakes
March 17, 2024

Introducing Mark Mullinix, fractional head of strategy and growth.

Today, in 10 minutes or less, you’ll learn:

  • 💳️ Mark’s career journey from American Express to founder of a loyalty consultancy (acquired) to fractional executive
  • 🇸🇬 How Mark started his fractional business in Singapore and found his first clients
  • 📆 Mark’s engagement models, pricing, and time management approach
  • 🫶 Biggest mistakes Mark made along the way and his advice to aspiring fractional workers

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🙋‍♂️ Becoming a fractional executive | Mark Mullinix

Mark Mullinix is a fractional head of strategy and growth working with startups and early stage companies.

He’s passionate about getting deep into businesses and retooling them for greater success, whether that means strategy, prioritisation, or establishing a more effective working culture.

He’s also a loyalty and consumer psychology expert, having spent almost 20 years working on designing, developing, and implementing great loyalty programs for airlines, hotels, banks, and retailers.

Born and raised in the United States, he’s made Asia his home since 2006 and is based in Singapore with his wife and 3 kids.

Tell us about your career journey.

I’ve always been interested in how things work behind the scenes. I decided to do an MBA to get a more formal exposure to business theory and tried out a more traditional career path, joining American Express as my first post-MBA job.

After seven years at Amex, I decided to set out on my own and in 2013 I founded a loyalty consultancy, Loyalty Advantage, to help companies quickly execute on their loyalty strategies. We built or revamped programs across the region including launching a program for a low cost carrier in Hong Kong.

Loyalty Advantage was eventually acquired by Ascenda Loyalty, a SaaS loyalty platform provider, and over the course of the next 3 years we grew the company from about 40 to nearly 200. I expanded my role from consultancy to take on responsibility for all partners globally, leading a team of 15.

I left Ascenda in 2021 when I had the chance to join the founding team of yuu Rewards Singapore, a multi-partner coalition loyalty program being launched by Singapore’s government linked investment fund and the market’s second largest retail conglomerate.

After launch, I once again decided to go solo and leverage my startup and growth experience in a new way.

How did you decide on your first fractional or consulting offering? How did you find your first few clients?

For me, thinking about fractional was a bit of an evolution. I took some time at the beginning of 2023 to engage in a bit of “life design,” reverse-engineering the way I wanted to work from the way I wanted to live.

In Singapore with its high costs, families often make sacrifices when it comes to children and home life, because income has to be the priority. My wife and I decided that for us, the kids came first, and that ruled out traditional full time jobs at my level fairly quickly.

I realised that in smaller companies, my experience was disproportionately valuable because I’ve been through so many of the challenges they are facing, and that in a few hours a week, I could accelerate their problem solving process substantially. This became the basis of my fractional and advisory offering.

My first fractional clients came through my existing network. I bumped into a former classmate at an event and started talking with him about what I was doing, which turned into an engagement, and I also checked back in with some startups I’d partnered with in the past in my various roles, which turned into another.

What’s your current engagement model and pricing? How did you arrive at this pricing?

My engagement model is fairly flexible—I find that while I’m focused on startups and early-stage, their needs still do vary quite a bit. I can engage as an advisor/mentor or as a true fractional role, heading up an initiative or providing team leadership. The advisor role might add up to about 1-2 days a month, whereas the fractional role typically is closer to 1-2 days a week. Typically, advisory is more ad-hoc and month-to-month. Fractional has a minimum commitment of a few months, because a true fractional role is embedded in the team and generates more benefits over a longer time period.

Regardless of the time commitment, my main focus is on pricing relative to the value the company sees, not on an hourly billing basis. This incentivises me to deliver efficiently and helps the company have certainty both on costs and on benefits.

Underlying this value-based pricing, I do have a rate card, but it’s used entirely for calculating my time and money budgets and ensuring that I’m not underpricing an engagement relative to the amount of time I realistically expect it to take.

How do you manage time and prioritize work effectively when juggling multiple client engagements? What tools do you use to make it easier?

Honestly, this is still a challenge, and I think it always will be. It takes a lot of discipline and mental flexibility to juggle client responsibilities across multiple clients, industries, and types of assignments.

For me, I started by using rigid time blocks, for instance telling a client that they had Monday and Wednesday as their dedicated time. While that worked reasonably well, it still created some conflicts where issues couldn’t wait to be addressed during dedicated blocks. In 2024 I’ve moved to a hybrid approach where some time is specifically dedicated to one client (weekly strategy meetings, for instance) but the remainder of the week is more free-form. It’s proven more productive this far and I feel less stress.

Since I’m not billing hourly, I don’t have to use time tracking software, but I do keep it installed and periodically I audit my work week to see if I’m meeting my goals—especially when it comes to spending time building the business rather than just on client work. I also use Notion to keep me on track with meeting notes and projects. The rest of the tools are typically whatever the client uses internally.

Before (Time Block Per Client)

After (Hybrid-Part Time Block, Part Flex Time)

What was the top mistake you made while building your fractional business? What would you have done differently?

Two mistakes I can highlight from my first year as a fractional:

The first was not being clear enough about the value I provided. I’ve always been a generalist, so it’s tempting to list the ways I can help clients and then narrow down. I’d have been much better off spending more time up front establishing client pain points and aligning the value I bring to the business outcomes before jumping in.

For 2024, I’m launching a low-cost up-front assessment to make this process easier without committing the client to a larger engagement. I like to quickly narrow down the client challenge to one (or more) of the big three areas I see startups struggle with: People, Processes, or Plan. Most clients have a clear need which comes out in the initial conversations, and we build the engagement to address that.

Related to that, I’ve become more selective in which clients I work with. While my niche is still startups and early-stage leadership teams, the most important predictor of a successful engagement is the willingness of the leadership team to engage in this new style of working. It requires both a clear alignment of the work to be done, and a level of trust within the team, and when these are missing the assignment becomes more challenging for both sides. Looking back, there were prospective clients where my gut feel was that they weren’t ready for this kind of working style, and I should have ended those conversations earlier.

What counterintuitive or non-obvious advice would you give to professionals looking to start a fractional business of their own?

My advice is to start small and build from there—it’s easy to have things come crashing down if you’re over-committing to multiple clients. This is especially true in the marketing, strategy, and leadership space where the deliverables have more variation as compared to coding or finance.

In a fractional business you end up with more bosses, more wildly conflicting demands on your time, and less ability to work with those bosses to set priorities, as compared to a traditional one-employer lifestyle. It’s only once you build your framework for delivery and get your ideal clients dialed in, that this dynamic reverses and you unlock the freedom and variety that successful fractionals love to talk about.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

My goals for 2024 are to become more active in advocating for fractional work, especially within Southeast Asia where it’s not yet common. So coming soon, a LinkedIn series giving more tips, a web page with resources for fractionals, and hopefully a directory and community of those who are available for fractional work.

In the meantime, though, best is to connect with me personally on LinkedIn or book an intro call. I’m always happy to discuss these topics in more detail!

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Dexter Zhuang

Dexter is the founder of Money Abroad, a website and newsletter on building wealth for global professionals. Over the last 10 years, he's been a product leader, product manager, consultant and coach at companies like Dropbox, Xendit, and growth-stage startups across the US, Asia Pacific, and Latin America. His work has been featured in global publications like Business Insider, CBS, US News & World Report, and Tech in Asia. He graduated from Dartmouth College.

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