“Product Managers have to be in-house employees.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that followed by a myriad of varying reasons why. A consultant won’t be as invested, someone part-time/fractional wouldn’t be able to immerse as well, consultants always have one foot out the door, it’s too short-term, and the list goes on. The problem is none of that is true. The reality is that product management success has far more to do with the person than it does with their employment status or the number of hours they work. I’ll break down a bit of my thinking here.
Experience & Relevance
First, it’s about a PdM’s level of skill, experience, and most importantly, their ability to apply the most relevant of these skills to each role/company/situation. You could have a full-time, in-house PdM, but if you’re an early-stage startup with a PdM from an enterprise background, that could be a really poor (and costly) fit. The startup landscape is scrappy, moves fast, and often involves many competing priorities and less-than-ideal resource availability (think lean). If this PdM can’t adapt to their circumstances and drive the right work forward, at the right time, and with the right urgency, they aren't going to be successful. And then you’re back to square one spending hours on interviews, with a huge gap in product support and the lasting negative impacts from a poor PdM-company fit.
Another key area where varied experience is very helpful is in working directly with founders. If a PdM hasn’t had tradeoff discussions with a founder about ideas that are passionately important to them, they may take every new idea and make it the top priority (think shiny objects, lack of cohesive product strategy and constantly shifting priorities). If they’ve never taken a product from 0->1, there are many nuances in that process vs. iterating on an existing product with a proven product-market fit. The ability of a PdM to bring a breadth of relevant approaches, knowledge, and experience and apply them effectively in each situation is the key. An experienced product consultant that excels in these unique and challenging situations is far more valuable than having a full-time/in-house PdM who can’t navigate them effectively.
Efficiency & Flexibility
Next, it's about efficiency, which applies in a few areas. The first is time management, both for the PdM and for the cross-functional teams they collaborate with. The balance between executing current work and planning future work is often challenging to find. Various factors also fluctuate over time, making it even harder to get right. The velocity of developers, the required participants/stakeholders, and the scope of discovery (is it highly technical vs. pretty straightforward, does it require a lot of UX/UI work, are external vendors or teams involved, etc.) can all vary. There are many moving parts, making this a constant challenge for PdMs. Product consultants typically have a greater breadth of experience honing these skills in different environments. They bring that knowledge to each client and apply it more effectively and with better results, avoiding costly trial and error.
Another piece of the efficiency puzzle relates to effective meeting management. Meetings, meetings, and more meetings, we’ve all had roles with this issue. How effective a PdM is at managing their own calendar (and by default, a part of those they meet with) makes a huge difference in their overall success. Probably also helps their mental health, but that's another topic for another time. If every day is filled with meetings, when does other work happen? If the PdM is burned out, their performance suffers, work quality declines, and ultimately the impacts are felt across the org. Effective calendar management and prioritization of time are key skills for PdMs, especially because they interface with nearly every part of an organization. Product consultants often approach their role with more confidence and autonomy and set better boundaries with their time and scope. These boundaries promote increased efficiency, more focused and productive meetings, and better business outcomes.
The consultant mindset also brings with it a flexibility component that in-house PdM’s don’t. Consultants don’t expect in-house leadership to support them or grow their careers, they are used to being an army of one. They bring an objective view with their experience and can step into challenging orgs and spot immediate opportunities. They don’t expect a mature strategy, process, or structure, but rather bring with them the tools to help clients get there faster. This mindset, coupled with a fresh and experienced set of eyes/ears, adds immediate value to both the team and the product.
Lastly, consultants onboard & immerse more quickly, in part because they do it so often. In-house PdMs typically don't switch jobs nearly as frequently, so they don't onboard to as many companies or teams over time. Consultants do this regularly and therefore have perfected how to efficiently immerse and accelerate their impact, adding value from day one.
The Human Element
Lastly, I believe that a PdM’s dedication, commitment, and investment in their work is far more about the person themselves than their employment status on paper. I’ll use myself and my work history as an example. I consider myself an all-around good human (very imperfect but well-intended, kind to children & animals…you get the idea). I’ve also been a product consultant for over 10 years after being in-house/full-time for almost 10 before that.
Being a consultant has never had an adverse impact on my dedication to the client, team, product, or project I worked on. I treat each as if it were my own, and work with the same (or more) drive and focus I would if I were an employee. I’ve been with multiple clients for years at a time, and my teams often forgot I was a freelancer because I was embedded and dedicated just as they were. Any company can have employees that are subpar, or consultants that are fantastic, but it has everything to do with the person and their work ethic rather than their employment type. There is far less risk and cost when working with consultants, and they bring an immense amount of flexibility and value with their experience.
The key takeaway is that fractional/freelance product management consultants are just as effective, if not more so, than in-house PdMs. Applying a greater variety of relevant experience, more effectively managing time and priorities, and the ability to handle many types of teams and people successfully are valuable strengths that product consultants bring. Companies have more flexibility, without the costs and commitments associated with in-house hiring. And they can avoid the impacts of gaps in key roles, like product management. Consultants are easy to onboard, easy to offboard, bring an objective and new perspective, and can accelerate their impact in ways in-house employees typically don’t. It’s a win-win and can produce some really impactful outcomes. Every startup should make it a must-have.
(P.S. I believed this long before co-founding The Product Consult, and it proves more true by the day as I see the impact our PdM consultants make with every client. If you could benefit from some of this product magic, get in touch with us.)