At the ripe old age of 29, Joshua Neilly is already one of the world’s top experts in digital marketing and growth. Named the Ulster Bank Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2019, he’s carved out a niche for himself in the fast-paced world of online commerce. But if things had gone according to plan, he’d be working in the fabrics trade instead.
“My parents ran a textile mill specializing in linen,” says Neilly, “and I was meant to take over their business.”
He spent long hours working alongside his mum and dad, learning about fabrics and tailoring and a dozen other things that (at first sight) seem largely irrelevant to his current line of work. ‘It was a dying trade,’ he says, ‘but we were slogging to keep it alive.’
Whilst he didn’t take over the family business in the end, those years in the textile industry did give him the skills he’d need to succeed in his chosen field.
“I learned how to think and prioritize more than anything,” Neilly says. He also learned how to recognise untapped opportunities when they came along.
“I was working on my dad’s website,” says Neilly, “and somehow I wound up on the BBC talking about e-commerce. It was clear that nobody really knew what they were doing.”
For an ambitious 20-something from Northern Ireland, this was all the encouragement needed.
Neilly soon parlayed his experience building websites into roles with some of the biggest tech companies in the world. His first stop: the gaming industry in Germany, where he learned how many of the ‘keys to success’ could be found behind the scenes. He also discovered how resistant even so-called modern industries could be to change.
“When you’re younger and you’re coming in with new concepts that go against the status quo of what people are used to for 20-30 years, it can be a challenge,” says Neilly.
“You’re going in and you’re talking to people who’ve spent decades in billion-dollar companies at an executive level. Their concepts seemed out of date to me. The first thing I had to do was to go in and prove out my own concepts.”
And prove them out he did. It wasn’t long before Neilly became vice president of marketing at a company worth $2 million CAD - that operated out of a garage. He stuck with them until their market cap exceeded $1 billion CAD a few years later. At that point, he decided to strike out on his own.
But he didn’t stick to gaming. Instead, Neilly turned his attention to another fast-growing industry: cannabis. He started his own agency, Fat Fish Marketing, that specialised in growing the brands of CBD and hemp companies around the world. The term ‘disruptive’ might be an overused one at this point, yet it’s also the perfect descriptor for what Neilly was able to accomplish.
“A lot of digital growth and marketing teams still segment themselves so much,” says Neilly. “You’ve got your SEO team, digital analytics team, content team. Everything is siloed.”
By breaking down those barriers between groups, he’s been able to achieve results that would seem almost unbelievable in any other industry.
For example, take his success with Herbalize Store, an online retailer that sells vaporizers and accessories. In a single year, Neilly’s team helped the store increase its sales by 250% —which helped ‘prove his concepts’ better than any PowerPoint presentation or slick sales pitch.
As you might expect, Neilly’s ability to attract eyeballs (and customers) in the fiercely competitive cannabis world has made his expertise a hot commodity. Though he says he’s not driven by external recognition—he says his wife’s approval means more than any of the awards he’s won, since ‘she puts up with a lot’—the constant parade of buyout offers and merger proposals does give him a certain amount of satisfaction.
In Neilly’s words, “It feels good when people who’ve made a big success of themselves look at my work and say, ‘this is amazing’.”
As an open-minded entrepreneur who believes in doing his due diligence on any offer that comes across his table, he says that it means a lot when he ‘passes the inspection’ of others with similar values. That includes his own parents: ‘my dad’s recognition means a lot to me,’ Neilly says.
However, Neilly’s not resting on his laurels just yet. Last year, he got involved with a company called Bloom Botanics, helping them to raise £50,000 in just a couple months.
“We’re already receiving offers for the company,” he says. But whilst some would take this as a sign to just continue doing what’s worked so far, Neilly believes change is on the horizon.
“We need a more unified approach to e-commerce,” says Neilly. "Right now a lot of the growth online is coming from exploiting a specific channel, like SEO. But that’s going to get harder as the market becomes even more crowded. We have to take things like analytics, SEO, content, and blend them all together.’
If anyone’s up for such an open-ended challenge, Neilly seems to fit the bill. At some point he’d like to get out of the digital growth game— “If I had the money, I’d open an animal sanctuary and spend my days playing games and creating silly businesses,” he says—but for now he’s looking forward to tackling whatever new twists the e-commerce world can throw at him.
Neilly is also looking to mentor those trying to make a name for themselves in the online world.
“The best advice I can think of is: ‘always push the curves’,” he says. “Coming from the textile industry which is centuries old, I remember going to a place full of PhDs working on textile technologies, and thinking, ‘We’re still doing it like this?’”
The same innovative thinking that helped Neilly stand out in that somewhat staid crowd might be even more useful in a ‘wild west’ scenario like the one he’s in today.
“There’s no real guru for the digital growth industry,” he says. “To be really good at what you do, you have to find tangible ways of checking your impact instead of just copying others or comparing yourself to your competitors.”
Neilly might be a little young to be considered a ‘wise elder’ of the e-commerce world, but if there’s one thing his rise has shown, it’s that getting results matters more than fancy pedigrees.