Ask Women in Product: How would you get started in Product Consulting?
Answer from Katie McCann, Startup Consultant & Advisor
When I mention to product people (and non-product people) that I’m a product consultant, I’m frequently met with surprise and curiosity. “Wait, you can do product as a consultant? How does that work?” is a typical reaction. While people are used to marketing consultants, freelance designers, and contract engineers, you encounter far fewer product consultants. And it’s likely that this is the case because you have to do a little extra work to get a product consulting business off the ground.
Note: A lot has already been written about how to start a consulting business, such as choosing the type of business entity to create, getting into financial shape before making the leap, or setting up standard clauses in your contracts. This post will not attempt to cover any of these general consulting issues and instead will focus on providing advice that is specific to a product consulting business.
1. Define What It Is You Do
One of the great things about working in product management is the broad set of skills you develop as you do the work. There’s strategy, roadmapping, UX, user research, the software development process, analytics… the list goes on. That same broad skillset, however, can make it difficult for a prospective client to envision how a product consultant might fit into their organization.
It’s up to you to help someone understand how you can help their business. A very simple way to answer this question is to fill in the blanks of this sentence:
“I help __________ [do] ___________ by ________________”
- I help early-stage startups achieve product/market fit by rapidly iterating and measuring results.
- I help large companies take new products to market by applying lean methods while working within existing processes.
- I help healthcare startups improve the patient experience by identifying patient needs while having a deep understanding of industry privacy regulations.
Stating your focus in this way gives you a framework for pitching how you would engage with a company as a consultant. You can tweak the format — and elaborate on it — based on your needs, but it’s important to (1) know what value you bring to the table, and (2) clearly articulate how that value is unique or at least complementary to the skillsets of the existing team.
Take the time to prepare several versions of these statements. Make sure that each one accurately represents one of your core strengths, skills, or experience. When a consulting opportunity presents itself, it should be readily apparent which version of these statements best matches the needs of the company you’re pitching. Use that version to explain how you’re a great fit for what they need.
2. Decide How Best to Package Your Service Offering
In my experience, most product consulting engagements fall into one of these two types of consulting gigs:
- Fixed-scope. Fixed-scope projects are ideal for situations where the company has a specific project they want to complete but lack the headcount or the skills to work on it. Such projects typically involve discrete tasks with a specific deliverable, such as researching new markets for a product, scoping out a new feature, conducting user research, or analyzing the performance of an existing product to propose recommendations. If you are adept in the skills needed for the project, you are in a position to make a big impact in a short period of time.
- Part-time PM: In this type of consulting engagement, you have a generalist “product manager” role within a company on a part-time or fixed-duration basis. Companies enter into this type of engagement to fill a gap (e.g., while an employee is on a sabbatical or parental leave) or while the company is hiring someone to fill the role on a permanent basis. In some cases, the company needs a PM but isn’t ready for a full-time employee just yet. This type of gig lets you use your full range of product skills, and can also be a nice “try before you buy” situation if you’re considering a full-time role down the road.
Regardless of which type of engagement it is, you’ll need a clear idea of how to specify your scope of work, how much you will charge for that work, when and how you will get paid, and how any additional work that is outside the original scope will be billed.
3. Make It Easy for Your Network to Help You
Almost all of my consulting projects have come through my network. When you’re ready to make the leap to freelancing, let everyone in your circle know that you’re looking for consulting work. Post it on LinkedIn. Send an email to relevant contacts. Shout it from the rooftops.
The key to this step is to be specific. A couple of months ago, I got an email from an acquaintance that just said, “I’m looking for a new job, let me know if you know of anything.” This individual was someone I knew through an organization I was a member of; I had never met him in person, and I didn’t know his background. I didn’t know what kind of job he was looking for, and I didn’t know what kind of skills he could bring to the table. When you don’t provide specifics, you limit your network’s ability to help you.
Here’s what I make a point of covering when I ask for leads from my network:
- First and foremost, cite your “what you do” statement from Step 1
- State what type of consulting work you are looking for
- Indicate the type of companies you would want to work for
- Highlight your expertise — functionally, within an industry, and/or within a domain
- State your availability — in hours per week for part-time, or weeks/months for full-time
- Include where you are willing to work. Are you open to remote work? Travel?
4. Make It Easy for People to Learn More About You
When you reach out to your network, be sure to attach a resume or include a link to your personal website or LinkedIn profile so your connections can easily forward it on.
Structure your resume or LinkedIn profile to make it clear that you are a consultant. My recommendation is to put a single “Product Consultant” entry as your most recent job, then include your favorite (or broadest) “what you do” statements, along with a representative list of supporting projects you want to highlight.
Keep it brief and to the point; you don’t need to go overboard with the project details here. The purpose of your resume or LinkedIn profile is to make the reader interested enough to get in touch with you. The simplest way to do that is to emphasize the value that you provided your clients through those projects.
5. Cast a Wide Net
I recommend casting a very wide net; you may be surprised where your leads come from. One of my favorite consulting gigs came through someone I had worked with over a decade earlier — when I lived 400 miles from where I do now — and he now works for a company 3,000 miles away. The consulting project started out as a three-month, fixed-scope engagement to develop a product strategy for one of the company’s primary verticals. It later morphed into a year-long consulting “Head of Product” role while they were looking for the right person to take on the job permanently.
I don’t often see postings that specifically look for product consultant roles, but you can use full-time job postings (or recruiters reaching out to you about full-time jobs) as consulting leads. I’m currently engaged in a product consulting gig that came about when the CEO of a startup (in a vertical where I have deep experience) reached out to me because they were looking to fill a full-time role. I proposed a consulting arrangement instead; while he still needs to hire a permanent person for the position, bringing me on as a consultant let him fill a need in much less time, and allowed the company to make progress on its product roadmap while recruiting for the permanent hire continued.
Product Consulting is an exciting career path, but it’s not for everyone and getting started on this path takes dedication and work. It all starts with having a clear idea of what it is you do as a consultant and why your work would be valuable to a client. You’ll then need to decide how you will package and price your services. You’ll have to choose what type of projects to pursue, and you’ll have to tap your network to market yourself online and in person. It’s also worth noting that you need to be mentally prepared to bounce back from rejection when your proposals are not selected, and you’ll want to be in strong enough financial shape to survive the inevitable periods when your billable hours are low.
Having said all that, product consulting is a wonderful way to do what you love — product management — on your own terms. I hope this post helps you get started if you do decide to explore product consulting as a career path. Good luck!
Thank you to Tanya Elkins for editing this piece.
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