Freelance Consulting and Product Management – Time to Join the gig Economy?

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When should a start-up hire its first product manager? What responsibilities should this role include? These are common discussions, with many views, and no right answers – it depends on the founding team, current funding situation, industry focus, and product offering. But it’s likely there will always be a fair bit of product management work at any start-up, and some of it will exceed what the current team is capable of doing. Therein lies the opportunity for a product management consultant.

Consulting on a part-time and freelance basis may be a viable option for you, depending on where you are in your career. It can be a good way to join a growing start-up before they are ready to make a full-time product hire.

So how do you serve as a product management consultant, how do you decide if such a move is right for you, and how do you frame the services you can offer?

What Does the Opportunity Look Like?

Even if you’re only thinking about it as a temporary move, it’s important to think about the goals you may have as a consultant.

  • Consulting on a limited basis gives you much more visibility into a firm than any amount of interviewing.
  • Alternatively you might be interested in becoming a product manager for the first time, and picking up a project or two will aid in that transition, especially if you have a more flexible primary job – freelance product designer, for example.
  • You may be an experienced product manager looking to move into a different industry or start a new company, and consulting is a good way to earn supplemental income during this time.
  • In other cases, there may be an opportunity to build a permanent, independent business based on product management consulting, though this may not be clear at the outset.

Thinking about the goal of consulting will help you identify projects that fit: if you’re looking to find a new full-time role, a 30 hour per week opportunity with a promising firm could be a very good move.

Skills Beyond Product Management

Being a product management consultant is similar to other types of consulting: the seller-doer model is common. Skills beyond product management are important, and include:

  • sales and business development to find opportunities
  • negotiation to align on project scope and cost
  • marketing acumen to promote the nascent consulting business.

These additional skills may be good professional development opportunities for product managers. Using your network of former colleagues, partners, and other contacts will jump-start these efforts, help to build skills, and make it easier to identify prospective consulting projects.

Of these non-product management skills, negotiation of scope and price may be the least familiar to you. One solution for this is to find mentors who have provided consulting in the past to provide guidance. In general, investing time in scoping pays dividends: it is better to avoid taking on a hard-to-complete project before you’ve invested time drafting a proposal, schedule, budget and perhaps even starting to do some of the work. The more conversations that take place with prospective clients, the easier it will be to scope these projects.

How to Decide if you Should do it?

There are a few tactical considerations before you jump in:

  • Is there enough work? Is there demand for what you are supplying? A good rule of thumb is that only 30-50 per cent of the work that is discussed will happen. This percentage may get closer to 50 per cent once some projects have been started, but you should make sure you have a surplus of project work before you start consulting.
  • Are your earnings assumptions based on a realistic cost for your services? It may be hard to price your services, especially for the first few projects. Building some flexibility into what you can charge will be important. In the early days, it may be better to discount your rate to get work in rather than skip what would otherwise be a good project.
  • Are you comfortable with the lifestyle? To be a consultant is to be “untethered”: work relationships are not as consistent. The independence can be exhilarating or it can be scary. And the work is less consistent – some months may be very busy, while others may be quiet. These are important considerations if you look to consulting as a longer term move. Other considerations can be industry-specific. For example, in my industry – building and energy management – many innovative firms are small and lack a dedicated product management team. But given the fragmentation and rapid technology shifts in this industry, there is a need for product management. It was hard to quantify, but I saw that firms would consider outsourcing some product management tasks. I assumed this meant that at least a handful of opportunities would turn into actual consulting projects.

What Services Should a Consultant Offer?

Typical product management consulting opportunities fit into one of three buckets:

1. Smaller companies that have a roadmap and a strategic direction, but do not have any staff to work on the rest of a product management role: competitive analysis, market sizing, research on potential new, long-term opportunities, and messaging/positioning. In this case, a consultant could take on one or a few of those tasks and report back to full-time staff. This work can be outsourced more easily than management of the roadmap because it doesn’t require an ongoing cadence and a strong, direct relationship with developers. Some firms may appreciate an outside view on what is happening in the market. This is especially true when the consultant has a strong background in the industry and brings significant past experience.

2. A second option is to work with a firm that is trying to incubate a business but is not ready to make full-time hires. This type of consulting engagement will probably last at least a few months and requires a wider set of tasks: the consultant acts as a temporary product manager, conducting market research and competitive analysis work, but also translating this into actual requirements and a proposed roadmap. The business that hires a consultant to incubate a new unit will probably look for someone with strong product management background and subject matter expertise. If the firm decides to invest in the business after the consulting engagement, it may want the consultant to become one of the first hires.

3. The third option for a product management consultant is to focus on projects that can be more easily conducted by an independent party, like user feedback testing and interviews, where industry knowledge is helpful but not required. An independent contractor can find it easier to interview current company clients and gather information on what they like about its products and what needs to be improved. When I was a full-time employee, I once worked with a consultant who conducted detailed interviews with a handful of our customers – the feedback was provided anonymously by users. The conclusions were extremely valuable, and a permanent employee would have been unable to collect such compelling feedback, as most clients would have been hesitant to open up.

When proposing and scoping potential consulting opportunities, it can be helpful to frame them within one of the options above. This framework can be useful to coach and guide a prospective client towards a project scope and help to bound the discussion and move it from discussing problems to identifying a desired solution. How you position your consulting services is an important consideration – Rich Mironov wrote a very good post on this topic.

Product management consulting can be a good way to fill in time between job opportunities, develop new skills, or generate some income while working on a new business. It’s becoming increasingly common and may provide professional development benefits, open the door to new full time opportunities, or become a long-term entrepreneurial venture.

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  • Albanypark

    Direct, to the point, and valid. Also, neither overly optimistic about consulting prospects nor too wary. Speaking as someone who has freelanced in a different industry I’d say the hard part is not getting discouraged; it’s not a lifestyle that everyone can handle, but the advice and options presented here are a good start.

  • A fourth model – one I’ve basically been doing for the past 12 years is player-coach. Both helping with some of the heavy lifting and helping the team develop and improve. Sometimes the team is pure product folks, sometimes it is more of a transformation project, helping other groups work more effectively with a product team.

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