The role of a product manager seems so inherent to any technology organization that people are often surprised that product management consultants / freelancers even exist. But indeed they do! I’ve been working as a product management consultant for over 3 years now, and haven’t been kicked out of my apartment or starved quite yet…
What kind of work does a product management consultant do?
Typically, companies hire product consultants rather than have a full-time employee do the work in the following cases:
The executive team has a vision or a desire to explore opportunities outside their core business or current focus area(s) and is looking to flesh them out. Key reasons to prefer a consultant may be:
- People internally don’t have enough bandwidth for the project.
- Executives don’t want to distract their teams from the primary business priorities and prefer to run the project on a completely separate track until they have a clearer direction or confirm it’s worth doing. This is especially true when the project is highly experimental or may create some internal resistance or conflict (e.g. cannibalize an existing business).
- They want a true strategic expert – someone who knows how to come in and immediately understand the project in the context of the company’s broader business, without any attachment to a particular outcome, and then quickly and efficiently assess the opportunity.
Strategy work may include market research, customer interviews or surveys, competitive assessment and analysis, market sizing etc. While this work is usually externally-focused, it could also include an internal piece -usually interviews with stakeholders to assess company capabilities or potential approaches to execution.
The company is looking to acquire (or acquihire) another company. The reasons to hire a consultant are usually similar to those in the strategy case: Internal bandwidth, desire to avoid internal distractions, or a need for specific expertise (vertical, technology etc.) that doesn’t exist internally.
In that case a product expert could assess:
- The target’s technology team (PMs, engineers, designers, data scientists etc.): How well is it organized and run? How well does it work with other parts of the company? How well qualified are individuals (especially in product and/or leadership roles)? How advanced is their vision for the product and how well are they prepared to execute it?
- How well can the target’s existing product(s) and/or technology address the acquirer’s goals in the acquisition? This analysis is usually focused on the customer’s perspective, though if the consultant is more technical there could be a deeper technical assessment that includes architecture, scalability, performance, adoption of best practices etc. If machine learning technology is involved, the assessment should also include a deep dive into the models, data sources, features, feedback loops, performance measurement, future improvements etc.
Coaching and Mentorship
An experienced product consultant can be brought in to improve the effectiveness of an organization:
- Identify gaps and breakdowns in cross-team operation and communication within the org. For example, in companies without a strong product culture, I’ve seen cases where the product team is relegated to the position of “technology order taker”, which usually results in very poor team morale and outcomes. A consultant can come in, identify the gaps, and suggest ways to bridge them.
- Help product teams improve communication and implement best practices or processes when there isn’t a strong team culture or leadership. One case where I’ve often seen the need for such training is in teams implementing machine learning technology where the PM doesn’t have much ML experience and the data scientists haven’t worked much with PMs. Both sides feel intimidated and are afraid to ask questions, which results in poor communication and execution. A neutral party can address these fears and get the team to collaborate more effectively.
- Coach product executives or PM managers on a variety of topics – from strategy to managing people, working well with other teams or executives etc.
A Full-Time PM Substitute
Companies typically bring in a product consultant to perform the role of a standard PM when:
- They have a hard time finding the right talent or are still unsure as to the exact profile they need for the role and don’t want to commit yet.
- There is a finite (usually short-term) project with a clear goal that will not require a full-time PM in the long term (e.g. a temporary marketing tool for an event, an internal system etc.).
- They are a small startup, need an experienced PM but can’t afford to pay their full-time salary, so make do with a part-time freelancer.
As expected, the scope of work could be anything a typical standard PM does – from customer interviews to product requirements to execution and launch.
How Do I Find These Projects?
- Many opportunities will come from your network and word of mouth. Sometimes friends will chat with a stressed-out executive and hear about some problem you might be able to solve for them and offer to connect you, even if the executive didn’t think about hiring a consultant before. Naturally networking is very helpful, but you’ll be surprised how many projects will come your way just through your industry friends and, over time, current and former clients. This is the reason I wouldn’t recommend launching a consulting business without several years of industry experience and a decent network to start from.
- Get your name out by publishing content. While many people do this, a common mistake is writing generic content that is not particularly unique or memorable and gets lost in the sea of content on the interwebs. What kind of companies do you want to work with? What areas of expertise do you have? Think about your unique experience (by technology, industry, type of customer, company, level of experience, philosophy etc.) and what you could contribute that hasn’t already been shared broadly. Write content that sits at the intersection of your expertise and the problems your desired clients have. People ask me what posting cadence they need to establish – my answer is the cadence at which you can manage to write interesting content. It doesn’t have to be long-form. Maybe you are the person who posts one killer sentence every day and that’s what you become known for – amazing! But if you’re just repeating what everyone else is saying you’re wasting your time.
- There are various job boards and freelance sites such as Toptal, Clutch, Upwork and Crossover, but I’ve never used any of them so can’t comment on the experience or the chances of getting hired.
The Key to Success Is Mindset
The work of a product consultant can be very interesting, exciting and rewarding – you see and solve many different problems, work with different types of clients, see your work transforming organizations and mindsets, have the freedom to decide which projects to take on and which to decline, and set your own schedule.
The flip side – and the biggest downside for most people – is the lack of stability. You could have a month where you’re so busy you work 18 hours a day including weekends, and then two months where you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for something to materialize (no, these are not made-up examples). You obviously have to take that into account in your financial planning, but that’s not the most difficult part. The biggest challenge here is mental – not being phased by the periods where things are quiet and you’re not sure where your next project is coming from, staying motivated and confident in your abilities, and knowing something will turn up (believe me, it always does). It is even harder to stay positive and hopeful when you start getting questions from friends and family or even actual pressure to get a more stable job.
As you keep working on your mindset and trust that things will work out, this will get easier over time, but know this is a very real challenge you’ll most likely have to face, and ask yourself if this is what you really want. If it is, keep reminding yourself why you want this during the difficult periods – don’t let any temporary fears or discomfort get in your way.
Another challenge for people transitioning from standard product roles to consulting is the lack of ownership. In many cases, you end up handing a plan to a client or giving advice for a few hours, while the decision whether to take your advice or how to execute the plan is entirely in the client’s hands. It’s a big mindset shift from being fully responsible and accountable to being ok with stepping away. Be honest with yourself – are you going to be happy doing that?
If so – best of luck!