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Should your next Product Manager be freelance?

The pros and cons of who should be in charge

Before we dive into that question, it’s important to have a clear answer to these two questions: What does a product manager do? What should you expect when you hire a freelance PM?

For three years, I’ve worked with one of the most recognizable vehicle brands in the world PMing an iOS app, an Android app, and a website. We’ve been through different phases – the 0 to 1 of an initial product launch, the hectic major releases, and the more operational support periods. My elastic team has flexed from 8 to 23 people, to fit the volume of work needed. My experience may not be universal, but it’s what I would look for if I were choosing a product manager for my company. This is a look into the history of the launch, and a peek into what happens post-launch to help you understand what working with a freelance PM is like throughout a product lifecycle.

In 2017, the client asked Gigster to help explore what type of app would most appeal to their customers. Going to the source, the Gigster team conducted generative user interviews with customers, asking how they perform tasks without a specific tool to help them (e.g., “How do you plan a trip”?). Ideation sessions translated those interviews into features, and the Gigster team built prototypes to demonstrate concepts.

An experienced PM can help you explore ideas

The client also wanted to replace a very old website. As a freelance PM, it was my responsibility to organize and lead this process. I ran a kick-off meeting with the client, where we analyzed the good and bad about their old website, discussed lessons learned, and posed some hypothetical hard questions. We were given existing user research, and conducted more of our own. A designer and I started co-creating wireframes and designs with the client, and then I wrote user stories.

A freelance PM should fuse with existing teams and manage freelance teams

At this point, the client knew the direction they wanted to go. The design team was expanded to include the client’s digital agency, and we all began to work together on a rapid launch. The digital agency brought an intimate knowledge of the brand to the table, while Gigster brought product and development experience.

I took over management of the whole freelance team, and brought in additional product managers, designers and engineers. Four intense months later, we were virtually high-fiving about the successful launch of an iOS app, an Android app, a website and a robust backend. After launch, I guided the building of processes to support our products, and provide a foundation for future projects. As we’ve gone through high-intensity periods related to the launch of new client hardware (e.g., things with wheels) and low-intensity periods of iteratively improving the product, we’ve also refined the processes.

The team structure also evolved over time, and now there are in-house and freelance product managers and designers all working seamlessly with the dynamic Gigster development team that flexes in size as needed. With an experienced PM directing a strong communication cadence, many disparate resources operate as one highly responsive integrated team.

A Freelance PMs can help with the major launches

High-intensity, physical product launches are probably closest to product management in a corporate structure, since departments with budgets define high-level features that freelance teams design, build, and deliver by a set launch date.

The freelance PM focus during this time is:

  • Helping the client scope to time & budget
  • Providing guidance on app store acceptance (e.g., Are you doing things that will block you from releasing to the Apple app store?)
  • Advising on platform-specific human interface guidelines and optimal product design
  • Story writing, road block removal for the dev team, feature acceptance
  • Advising on platform-specific human interface guidelines and optimal product design
  • Keeping the project on track

That includes the obvious things:

  • Grooming the backlog and prioritizing work
  • Reviewing analytics for patterns
  • Analyzing user reviews for repeated mentions
  • Running road map review meetings to discuss what is coming

So Freelance vs in-house product manager?

Ultimately, what is the difference between an in-house and a freelance product manager? In both cases, the product manager is (hopefully) obsessed with the user experience, and the technology that delivers it.  Both liaise with their team and other teams to achieve outcomes.

A freelance PM is likely to be more of a manager for a cross-functional team, including direct control over engineers. This includes administrative duties, such as hiring and handling compensation. A freelancer might also handle more Project Management than an in-house PM.

An in-house PM will be directly responsible for harvesting business value from the digital product. A freelance PM will care about that, but it will not be the PMs primary responsibility. Of course, you always have the option of adding that responsibility to a freelance PM’s duties. In all, there are many factors that go into deciding whether you should hire a freelance or an in-house PM. I hope that this discussion of what is possible with a freelance PM will help with your decision.

Nicholas Kinloch
Nicholas leads an amazing remote team of engineers, designers, and PMs in maintaining the global apps and website for an iconic American motorcycle brand. Every day is focused on driving growth and retention by making the product increasingly indispensable for riders who want to link their machinery with technology.

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