Product Management Consulting Q&A with Women in Product
On July 7, I had the pleasure of talking product management consulting with several folks from the Women in Product group. This is a cleaned-up transcript of our conversation.
What's great about consulting
There's a lot to love! There's the obvious one: the freedom. When people think about running their own business, they often think well, you set your own hours. Which is true, although the hours end up being, you know, all of the hours. But if I need to take some time in the middle of the day or whatever, I can totally do that. That's fine.
I also have the freedom to do more or less what I want, without constraints from a boss or corporate policy. I had a long corporate career and you know, if your boss says no to you, the answer's no. You can push back gently, but ultimately too much argument is a career limiter. Now, if someone says no to me, I can just go to the next person. And people still say no to me, all the time, but I just go okay, thanks, now I’m going to talk to someone else. Eventually I find the person who says yes.
If there's a conference that I think is interesting, I just buy a ticket and go. I don't need approvals or anything like that, which is great.
I can show up how I want, which has been incredibly freeing. No more corporate mask of conformity - not that I’m some kind of hardcore rebel, but it’s really nice not to have to have that thought process constantly of, is this look going to be acceptable for my management? What are the consequences if I just speak my mind?
One of the biggest things for me has been the growth. I learned more in my first two or three years consulting than I did in maybe a decade before that. The leveling up is ridiculous. And some of that has been in the product sphere and some of it's been in the business sphere.
If you want to laugh at me, let me tell you how I started. I thought I was going to post on LinkedIn and say, hey I’m a consultant now, and then sit there while people handed me work. And that obviously is not how it works. So I've learned a lot, a lot of trial and error, a lot of asking questions from people who are way better at this than I am. A lot of lessons learned the hard way, and some lessons learned more easily. But yeah, me now, compared to me five to seven years ago - not even the same person.
I am one of those people who needs a lot of variety. If you are a product manager and you enjoy it, you are also probably that kind of a person. I love all of the variety and diversity and multidisciplinary work of product. But also, I'm running a business and I wear all of the different hats because it's just and I kind of love that every day is different. Someone asked me to do a day in the life at one point and I couldn't, because no two days are the same ever and so I get to do client work I get to do you know, operational stuff, accounting, sales, setting up my home office, I get to do all of it. And I really, really enjoy that because I get bored easily and I don't generally get bored doing this job.
What I don’t love about consulting
A closet full of hats
So what don’t I like? Well, I do all the client work and I do all of the business work, and it gets to be a lot sometimes. There are definitely aspects of it that I could do without.
Being an island
I'm here in New Jersey. There are definitely a couple of tech hubs in New Jersey but most of my clients have been outside the state, often New York or Boston. And remote work is great, I love it. But here I am sitting in my home office most days, so I am physically alone a lot. It can get lonely.
And then I'm also, you know, really alone. I don't have a team. I don't have a boss. I don't really have co workers. I have clients. I have fellow consultants I talk to, which is incredibly helpful, but it's not quite the same as having a team you work with regularly.
In the last year I just wrapped up an engagement where I actually got to build a product. I had a team for that product, which was amazing. And that was some of my favorite consulting time because I got to actually work with the same specific people every day for close to a year, which is great, and I got to build something. It was a refreshing change of pace.
The other thing that I don't love is there's a lot of hustle. I do enjoy a lot of it, but some days it just takes a lot out of me. Networking is tough as an introvert; I meet lots of great people and have made a lot of friends doing this, but sometimes it’s draining.
Plus, as a consultant, I have to do my job for the client, but I also have to go and hustle just to get the job. It's like constantly applying for jobs. It gets to be a lot. So yes you get to set your own hours, but if I'm not working I'm not getting paid, right? Not everything is hourly, necessarily. But if I'm not doing billable work, and I'm also not out there doing that hustle, that's money I'm not making and so there's this constant guilt of oh, I took some time to hang out with my kid, I took some time to just rest up, now six months from now I may have missed out on the lead I needed.
At the same time, because no one is going to scold you for missing time at work, as long as you’re getting your client work done, everything else feels like a choice. Which means looking your kid in the eye and saying “no I can’t spend time with you, I have to work”, knowing that you won’t specifically get in trouble for not working. Work/life balance is easier because of the flexibility, but the guilt is real.
(Yes, I feel guilty for working and guilty for not working. I’m just always feeling guilty, or more accurately, like I’m not doing enough. It’s been my greatest strength and my greatest weakness most of my life.)
There's a lot of expenses and overhead in running a business. It’s not too onerous right now, but there is truth to the saying “you have to spend money to make money”. My equipment, furniture, insurance, marketing tactics, memberships, conference tickets - no one provides those for me, I have to pay for all of that.
And there is additional tax to pay when you’re your own company. So you’re spending money to make money and then paying more taxes on that money. Your earning potential isn’t capped by the salary bands at your employer, so there’s a higher limit to what you can earn - but it’s harder and more complicated to break even.
What stresses me out about consulting
A lot of the stress is money, obviously. When people used to ask how I liked consulting, I would tell them well, I worry about money way more than I used to, and I worry about everything else way less. And that's still true after five years.
Having the freedom to find and pursue opportunities, show up authentically as myself, and solve problems my way are incredibly relieving. But all of that comes at the cost of not necessarily knowing where my money’s going to come from next month, quarter, year – or how much it’s going to be. I’m working on my pipeline, and it’s looking solidly decent, but things can change in a heartbeat, so who knows?
Capacity management is a big one. If I have four companies all interested in me, I can't work with all of them. Most likely, at least one will not work out, but I don’t know how many of them will close, or exactly when. Will I be able to handle all of this work at once? Do I need to find somebody who can come in and help with some of that client work? It’s a frequent juggling act of trying to guess what the pipeline will do, which is very stressful.
A higher volume firm has more flexibility, more wiggle room to shift things around, ramp up and ramp down, move people to different projects. Obviously, I really can't do that.
I had a period a couple of years ago where I actually had two clients at once, which was a lot. And I had a third in the pipeline that was seeming very, very promising and I thought no way will I be able to handle all three. So I went to the Women in Product group, and I said who can subcontract because I’m going to need help. I talked to a whole bunch of great people, made a list of these great product managers that I could put in front of a client. And then the lead fell through. And one of my clients said okay, we don't need you anymore, and I had a deep bench of people to help, but nothing for them to help with.
Niche is hard
The other thing that stresses me, less than the other stuff, is that you really are supposed to have a niche. You know, “I do only b2b SaaS” or “I only do FinTech” or “I only focus on roadmapping”. Because as an independent consultant, or any small business really, you can't market to everybody, right? So the advice you get is always to be hyper-targeted. And I'm not good at that! I want to do lots of different things for lots of different clients in lots of different industries. That’s what makes this work fun and exciting and challenging! So it’s a little stressful sort of going against the small business grain, but it hasn’t been too much of a problem so far.
Q: I've been in product roles for for a long time. And basically I think what I get annoyed with is politics, and lots of politics in the product role. And I've been thinking about starting on my own, but like my basic thing is how do you source these kinds of jobs?
Because product is so intrinsic. You work in engineering and the engineering team will belong to the company. You don't come with an engineering team. So people may not want to, you know, to hire somebody from outside so I think that that's the biggest question I've had.
A: That's a really big question.
If you're talking about business development and how you get clients in general, you know, there's a few different ways people do it. For me, the best approach has just been lots and lots of networking. I am in a bunch of groups, I talk to a ton of people, just always trying to find ways to meet new people, and really form and develop those relationships. And that's the hustle part I talked about, really going out, making friends, keeping friends, so that when someone you know has a need for a product consultant or they know someone who has a need, they go oh, that's Laura, talk to her. But you have to stay top of mind with people which is a lot of work.
I have not had luck really with any kind of advertising or anything like that. Anything I do that’s supposed to be any kind of lead magnet pretty much never works. But I'm still trying new things.
In terms of engagements, there's a couple types: one is a sort of actual fractional product manager, which I think is what you were primarily interested in. That's what I just spent close to a year doing. There was a firm that wanted to build an internal product. They actually had strong product expertise on their team but not the bandwidth to do it. And so they brought me in and just kind of said here's your team, have at it. Tell us what you need. And I got to be a product leader on that team.
With those kinds of roles, you know, they're going to be temporary. They're not quite as common, I think. You'll see them usually more in building something new and early scaling because they don't have the team yet, or they don't know exactly what they want or need. A lot of times it's a very young startup, where they have a couple founders and maybe a few other folks, they’ve built their product and got some funding or a big customer, and they panic because they realize they’re running a product business and they don’t know how to run a product or a business. So they'll call in someone like me to kind of get them sorted out and get them on the right track and be that product manager in the interim. And then I help them hire their head of product and set them on their way.
The other thing that I wind up doing a lot is just teaching people how to do it. Not so much in a classroom type of way, but more so hey, if you're flailing, call me. And I'll figure out what the problem is and what you need to do about it. Sometimes they have a UX or onboarding problem, sometimes they need to define their MVP, sometimes they need a whole practice created for product management, or help aligning the team, they’re all a little different. And I’ll explain what they need to do differently and how to do it, maybe provide a little 1 on 1 coaching, and get them back on the right path.
Q: I was curious. I had a similar follow up question. It’s helpful to know what kind of engagement you get. I'm curious how long are the typical engagements and you mentioned that some types of gigs are less common than others? Like, what's your breakdown of the types of gigs you tend to get?
A: It’s a tough question to answer. I've been doing this for five years, most of the engagements have been on the order of a couple to a few months, I'd say I've had engagements that are two weeks, and I've had, you know, I've had a couple that lasted over a year. Those are more retainer type. Things where they're just paying me month to month to be available for when they have questions or they need something done. That is where most of my money is coming from right now.
I like that because it’s more steady. But I'm trying to find more of a balance where I can have something that's a longer term, very reliable, steady income, while also picking up these little small ones that are honestly a little bit more fun. That's my aim. When I started I was just taking literally anything anyone would give me, which is fairly common. And now I am fortunately in a position to be a little more selective and say, okay, you know, here's the kind of thing that I want to do, and I can turn down work that’s not a good fit. So I'm finally at the point where I am trying to sort of organize some offerings and maybe even productize some of my services. But at the end of the day, it just comes down to whatever clients need.
Q: What is a typical client?
A: As with so much of this, the answer is all over the place. I've worked with a couple of companies now that started as consulting firms, they developed software to help them with their own consulting and they realized, oh, we could actually productize this and sell it to our clients. One of those did really well. One of them just never gave their product the kind of attention it needed, and they kind of fizzled out earlier this year, which was a shame. But that was a two person team, it was too much for two people to run a consulting firm AND a build a product.
I've worked with startups that were more around the 15 to 50 employee mark, and then I've worked with some larger organizations that are more consulting firms, or my client right now is a PE firm that specializes in B2B tech. And an Ivy League university. So it’s all over the place. Like I said, I would work with anyone who wanted to give me money, but really trying to specialize more on the B2B side especially and probably SaaS just because that's where most of my experiences are, that's where I seem to add the most value, and I find their problems more interesting. But that's me personally.
When I’ve done more of a direct PM role, usually my objective is ultimately to put myself out of a job by hiring my more permanent replacement. And then I have a little moment where I'm slightly of jealous of my replacement. And then I realize they offered me the job and I said no, because I want to consult.
And that is something to keep in mind too. You're around just long enough to form relationships and get really passionate about a product and a team and a company, and then you have to go away, and that sucks.
Q: How did you first decide to jump into consulting?
A: You know, I've always wanted to do some kind of business ownership. My parents ran a business together when I was a kid. They were not in tech; they sold electric guitars and guitar strings and effects pedals and all kinds of cool rock and roll stuff. And sunglasses, and specialty paper. But you know, I got that entrepreneurship bug from a very young age, always wanted to have my own business.
I did a lot of freelance work during college, and worked for very small agencies, so I really only knew the small business environment. After college I went into the corporate world and had extreme culture shock. I had to wear that corporate mask, that costume, of dressing and talking and acting a very certain way; you had to fit a certain mold.
Worse, all of a sudden I was getting scolded for not staying in my lane all the time. I was so used to jumping in wherever I could help, and in a huge organization they wanted me focused on one or two very specific things. I wanted to do everything! But my job was always one little part of that everything. These days, some of those larger enterprises are getting better about product management, at least on paper, but during my time it was it was not like that at all.
So I got frustrated and kind of said, this corporate environment just isn't for me. I was very fortunate that I had money saved up, I got health care through my partner, like I was able to do it, which is a privilege that obviously not everyone has. And like I said, spent a couple of years flailing a little because I had no idea what I was doing. But that was kind of how I got into it, and I’ve figured out a lot in a few years.
I would not be opposed to going back to a full time job, I would probably not go back to a large corporate environment though. It just not a great fit for me. You have to be at such a high level in order to be able to do the rounded work that I want to do that your job becomes just politics. I’d consider going to a startup or something like that, that’s probably the next step for me at some point, but I will almost certainly end up consulting as like a semi retirement if nothing else, because I really do enjoy it.
Q: My question was a little bit around sort of how to set the boundaries for your own success with each of these contracts. Obviously, when you're in a big company, you have the whole life of OKRs and somebody's goals and all that stuff. When you're working with these different clients. Is your success correlated with just like the timeline of the project? Or were each of them? Are you kind of sending different metrics in terms of saying, purchase my services, here is how I will deem to be successful and is that way that's kind of like can shake on?
A: That's a great question. It's typically an outcomes based thing. I haven’t had a lot of specific metrics in place. Some of that is because the work is not really metrics focused. Typically, I'm really working on a fairly focused problem. And so my success is: did I solve the problem for them?
What's interesting is that, yeah, if you are working for a company, you're getting a review, where someone else tells you how you did, so if you did a bad job, you're gonna know because they told you, and if they tell you you did a good job, you did a good job. And while clients would hopefully tell me if they’re not happy with my work, I don’t always have a great indicator beyond knowing whether I solved their problem.
Of course, in my mind I always did a bad job. I can have the CEO of the company singing my praises to everyone they know and telling me I did great and they love me and you know, I'm going to recommend you to my friends. And I'm sitting here thinking of all the things I could have done better. So that's really tough, but it’s good to have some kind of objective thinking where you do your own performance review and find some takeaways for next time. I’m good at what I do but there’s always more to learn, things to improve, and this job is a true forcing function.
Q: The question I have is for smaller companies, especially ones that you know, where you might be the first PM they're ever interacting with, and they don't really have a product mindset just yet. How do you kind of bring them to the idea of product as a mindset before you even start to you know, get to achieving anything?
A: So there are definitely clients who kind of get it. They already have the mindset, they just don't know what to do next. And that tends to be the case a lot when they bring me in, because if they're bringing in a product person it's usually because they understand they have some need around the product. They just can't put their finger on it.
Often, a client sees the symptoms of a problem and calls me in to fix those symptoms, and I insist on doing a deeper dive, because sure, I want to alleviate the symptoms, but really I want to fix the underlying root cause. I’ve had clients where I say something like, okay, you keep asking me to review your UX, but you can’t tell me who your customer is and specifically how they will want to use this product. That’s where the product mindset comes in, and I have to coach them on that along the way and get them to look at their product as, you know, a product. So we’re going to back aaaaall the way up, and write down what is your product, what problem does it solve, what does your feature set look like, etc.
One of my favorite parts of my job is to identify underlying root causes behind problems and get founders and executives to understand we need to solve for that first, and then solving those problems so the client has a way more solid foundation to build on. Most founders have thick skin, they know they need help, so I can speak to them very directly and we get to jump right into the work.
Q: Do you find yourself sometimes kind of falling into this role of project manager, where they're like, okay, we have this new person here helping, they should just help with everything and, you know, throwing on stuff that you feel, maybe you didn't sign up for this and it’s not what you want to do.
A: That did happen to me once. And I left that client a little early because I was not able to add value. Typically during the sales process, we have several conversations about their needs, their problems, and I’ll explain what I think they need and how I’d approach it. It’s a little bit of guesswork but my guesses are pretty good as long as they’re up front about the situation. So by the time I come in, there's already at least a general understanding of what I'm going to do for them.
But I did leave one client a little early because they were not entirely forthcoming about what they needed up front, and I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to add value. This was a larger company, and they told me they were looking for portfolio strategy and help organizing their product practice. Then I got there and they just kind of said, well, we had a couple of people leave suddenly so you're kind of a warm body floating around doing whatever we need. We brought you in because we knew you could just handle whatever we throw at you.
And I said, well, yes, but I'm not going to add a lot of value that way. Then they just had me nagging people about OKRs, which they weren't even doing in a way that was useful to them, and did not want to hear about a better way they could do them, or anything else. When I'm not adding value, I'm not happy or fulfilled, and from a business perspective, I’m clearly not going to get a good testimonial or referrals out of this client. So I essentially fired that client. And now I’m much more discerning up front about what I will be doing and which clients I take.
Q: Do you charge by the hour for the project, retainer, combo? How do you decide how to charge for each engagement?
A: That's a great question and the answer is all of the above. In the beginning, I tried doing only a flat fee per engagement. That works really well when you have a very well defined scope of work, you know exactly what you need to do, what you need to deliver, you have enough detail to estimate what it's going to take you, and you're in control of the engagement and the project. I like a flat fee because for some weird reason, companies can see oh, this project is going to cost $30,000 And they're fine writing a check. But if you divide that 30k by the number of hours you're doing and you tell them it's going to be X number of dollars an hour, something about that is harder for them to stomach.
I had an early engagement that I overestimated. I used a pretty low hourly rate but thought the work would require more hours than it actually did. It was a flat fee, so in essence I actually made about twice the hourly rate I had used. The client was happy to pay the flat fee. Then they asked me for an hourly rate, and I told them the rate they had actually paid - the higher number. They said “wow you’re too expensive now” and walked, even though they’d paid me that same rate for the first project!
On the other hand, if I can’t control the factors involved, hourly is much safer. I remember subcontracting for a larger firm, where they were running the project and owning the end client management. The end client requested three vital things, and the larger firm ignored one of them despite my urging not to. Of course that client was deeply unhappy when they saw the result, and we had to rebuild most of the product from scratch. Had I charged a flat fee I would have eaten several months of work. But since I was hourly, it was just extra billable hours. So this is a consideration for every engagement, of what is the type of work, how much do I know, how much is under my control, how much risk am I willing to take on, what’s my relationship with this client, and of course, what is the client willing to do.
I am working on productizing some services, the things where I know the work involved and have done it enough times pretty much the same way that I can charge a standard fee for it every time. Currently I have an audit I like to do with new clients, where I look at their product and their product management practice, as well as any broader context like organizational politics outside the product team. For most organizations that’s a fairly standard set of work and my findings report takes the same format every time, so I know what I’m getting into. I want to find more things like that, where I can point to a service and say “I will do X for Y price and it will take Z number of weeks and you will get W deliverable”, and then everyone knows what we’re getting into.
Q: Product managers are usually salaried, permanent employees. How would you say compensation compares as a consultant?
A: As long as you can do the sales, I’d say it comes out about even; the biggest difference is consistency. As a salaried employee, you get a paycheck on a regular schedule, that paycheck is always the same, and you know what that number is going to be before you take the job.
The general advice to new business owners is to expect to make nothing, or even lose money, for the first 2-3 years, and while I technically turned a profit, it wasn’t much. I needed time to build up my network and client base. The checks are usually much larger than a standard paycheck, but you might only get a check once a month or once a quarter. And while I have steady work for this year, I don’t have visibility into next year yet, which is one of those stressful things. Part of that is just the nature of running a business, and part of that is that while I’m a great product manager, I’m not a great salesperson, so I don’t have the strong pipeline that I’d like to have.
Additionally, there are no benefits - no healthcare, retirement matching, PTO, etc. So you have to pay through those things separately or get them through a partner. At the end of the day it more or less comes out about even, but again, consulting is just more variable unless you’re excellent at sales and capacity planning.
Q: Do you find yourself saying ok, I’m working these three days a week, or something like that where you set your schedule?
A: I could certainly do that, although I don’t. The client I’m working with now, they have a fantastic work culture and while everyone works very hard, there’s a lot of flexibility. So it’s really just about communicating when I won’t be available and it works fine.
One of the operational headaches of consulting is you do have to manage multiple calendars - there’s yours and sometimes one for each client. Comes with the territory.
Q: What concrete steps would you recommend for getting your first client?
A: Work your network. That’s the biggest and best advice everyone will give you. People you’ve worked with in the past, family and friends who might know someone who knows someone. If you’re anywhere near a city, there are always events going on, incubators will run events, there are pitch competitions. I have two clients from a platform that matches consultants with clients, and everyone else has been a referral. My very first client was a boss of a boss several jobs ago, who had gone on to a startup.
And be patient. I don’t mean sit there and wait for work to come in, I mean be willing to bide your time to make a better sale. I had a client who tried to bring my fee down to a place where I wouldn’t have been able to do enough work to show true value, so I said no, you need this work and this is the price. He took three months to get back to me, and hired me at my original fee and the original scope of work. You’re telling people what they need, and they don’t always quite hear you at first; sometimes it takes time for them to come around.
Q: How do you think about the maximum number of hours or work you commit to on a weekly basis? For a lot of us, the appeal of consulting is having that flexibility to work a little less, a little more, etc. so how do you manage that in your work?
A: A lot of that is you deciding what kind of money you want or need to make, how much do you want to work, what kinds of things do you want to work on. It’s very specific to you. If you’re in this to be a millionaire, work more, but if you're looking for flexibility, you can absolutely do that. I’m sort of half and half: I’m trying to balance making money with having a life, a house, a kid, I want to experience all of that. So I try to cap around 50 hours a week, ish. But I’m a workaholic and I definitely spend additional time thinking through problems and essentially working even when I’m not technically at work.
I've gotten advice to spend 16 hours a week on business development activities. That’s a LOT. But presumably if you’re successful with that, you may be able to bring in more work and hand some of it off to other people and take a referral fee. Or you can go more CEO-style and bring on people to help, whether as staff or subcontractors, and make more money that way. There are also platforms like Catalant that cut down on the necessity for business development, but in my experience they don’t typically have enough product management engagements to sustain a business. But if you’re looking to consult more as a side hustle, and you can just take work when it happens to come your way, that could be a good option.
Last year my client asked if I’d be available to them 40 hours a week and I said of course, no problem. My plan was to do business development and other work on my business from 7-9 and 5-7, and spend the 9-5 hours on client work. That did not last long, it’s a great way to burn out if you’re also trying to live life. The result was that I fell off the map a little; my networking activities fell by the wayside as I focused on client work. It was a fun and lucrative year, but I’m not sure I would do that again.
I know a consultant who does fractional CTO work. His model is he dedicates one day a week to each of five clients. So he spends every Monday with Client A, Tuesday with Client B, and so on. That seems to work for him but I’m not sure how; that’s not really a model I’m interested in, but clearly it's something that does work for some consultants. There's really no limit on what model you choose.