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Why it’s Not Impossible to Be a Freelance Product Manager. And Why it Should Be Easier.

I didn't spend more time surfing since I became a freelancer - but drumming. (Photo of me, by Strangeworks Visuals)

I didn’t spend more time surfing since I became a freelancer — but drumming. (Photo of me, by Strangeworks Visuals)

In 2016, Maxime Braud (who went on to co-found the product strategy and design collective Mozza) published a piece on Medium titled Why It’s Impossible To Be A Freelance Product Manager. And How I Did It.

Sometime in 2018, I stumbled upon this piece while googling “Freelance Product Manager” (it’s still among the top results for that query). Captivated by the “against the odds”-narrative, I read through what would be a pivotal, eye-opening bit of information for me (merci, Maxime!).

Why that article is great — and why I decided to follow up to it

Maxime’s art is honestly painting a challenging situation, followed by strong and creative suggestions on how to address it. Obviously well-versed in strategy, he doesn’t offer a detailed blueprint (which wouldn’t work anyway, since this isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation) on how to become a freelancer in product management, but rather uses his experience to influence a strategy that pretty much anyone would technically be able to adapt for themselves.

If you rather love blueprints, catch Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

As you can tell, this article has been highly influential to me — so I obviously recommend that you read it right away if you haven’t yet.

Since it came out about 5 years ago, I’d like to take the opportunity in 2021 to revisit some of its aspects — a few things have changed since then, but a few other things remain an issue.

Time’s tight again? Maybe you should slow down — in the meantime, here are the TL;DR takeaways:

  1. Freelancing in product management has gotten a bit more traction — but remains a rather fringe topic. Accordingly, breaking into it still requires a strong game plan.
  2. The ‘strategy to success’ still involves rapid leveling up — both laterally (‘hard skills’, i.e. basic design & development) and longitudinally (building domain expertise).
  3. It should still be easier today — because we believe that distribution of employees v.s. freelancers in product management, which currently feels like 99:1, should be more around 80:20.

Wanna indulge instead? Let’s go 👇

“Product Managers must be full-time employees!”

Maxime’s opening line still holds painstakingly true in 2021; despite a solid amount of change and development in the market, his core argument that product requires at least some full-time stronghold in a company is also still valid from our point of view. 

“We’re like, one big family! LOL” Photo by Windows on Unsplash

The issue at hand is that to this day, the discussion still isn’t nuanced enough — it’s not about freelancers vs. FTEs, it’s about what the optimal mix is. Maxime knew this ahead of time and dedicated some effort to re-focus regarding what he would offer clients, bearing the first crucial learning from his recount:

Proposing value as a freelancer works quite differently from proposing value as an employee.

We’ve already offered some thoughts on this in previous pieces like How Freelancing Brought Me in Touch With My Inner SalespersonHow Freelance Product Managers Help You Scale Your Product Organization and Scoring Your First Client as a Freelance Product Manager, so I won’t elaborate further on this; I’ll just leave the following here:

  • Employees are team members. They are intended to support solving all kinds of challenges the team may face.
  • Freelancers are resources. They are intended to solve a specific challenge.

On Hacking Job Interviews

Maxime described applying for ‘regular’ (i.e. employed) product manager positions, pivoting in the final interview to offering only freelance capacities. Of 2 companies, 1 opted into that offer.

I love this one so much & really, really had to steal it – hope that’s okay, Maxime Braud! 🤞Source: medium.com/mozza-io

My respect goes out to him for pulling this off — I’ve tried this a few times, and so far, it has never worked. Nevertheless, in certain cases this might be a good gamble, and at the very least a solid placement of the cause, i.e. placing the general concept of freelance product managers.

On Selling Hard Skills

Maxime also referenced honing his design & development skills to demonstrate value in pursuit of clients.

While I feel that nowadays, the concept of freelancing in product management is a little less étrange, the underlying concept still holds water — especially for those with less track record, being able to put together a small website, a small online store or an app prototype (e.g. using ‘no-code’ apps like WebflowZapier and Airtable) and showing that can be very crucial to kickstarting their freelancing careers

Don’t know what the hell this guy’s doing? Time to skill up! Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Which brings us to Maxime’s next point — 

On Leveling Up

Defining a set of rules, values and methods you put at the top of your toolbox (and publishing around it) is still highly valuable to this day.

In Maxime’s case, he posted a slideshow on LinkedIn’s Slideshare product (yes, that still exists, lol — it was a much hotter topic back in 2016) that quickly gained over 60k views. 

While that’s awesome for him (kudos!), especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the online space has gotten much more crowded, so it’s much tougher to stand out from the crowd nowadays — meaning, the likelihood of hitting that kind of numbers with product management content is rather slim in 2021.

Silver lining — you can make an impact with a lot less. The key: niche content.

 Grab a coffee & an empty notebook, and just go at it! Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

Remember — everybody’s darling is everybody’s fool. Our most successful peers are the ones that are most specialized and focused. 

Use your previous experience to your advantage and start talking/publishing/presenting on what you know. This doesn’t merely help you by establishing yourself as an expert in a specific field to others, but also by refining your own positioning, coherence and quality of presentation!

To quote Brian Chesky (Airbnb co-founder — but I’m sure as a proper product nerd, you knew this!):

“Build something 100 people love, not something 1 million people kind of like.”

To translate this — if your blog only gets ~50 reads per post, but 5 of those readers are people that might give you their business eventually, that post is worth a lot more to you than e.g. some viral piece of media that got millions of people’s 15 seconds of attention but no one cared about the next day (this is a big issue with TikTok especially, where virality is extremely ephemeral and building a following remotely worth anything takes an incredible amount of professional and consistent work).

On Why It Should be Easier

So, yes — it has become less impossible to freelance in product management.

Which is awesome! Photo by Good Faces on Unsplash

But at Freelance Product Manager, we believe there’s still quite a bit ahead of us; as outlined in How Freelance Product Managers Help You Scale Your Product Organization, we believe that the overall distribution of employees v.s. freelancers in product management, which currently feels like 99:1, should be more like 80:20, or maybe even 60:40 in some cases.

Freelancers can add a great deal of value to product teams, organizations, and companies — the biggest challenge is convincing those in charge of that.

By publishing regularly about the subject matter, we aim to tip the scales — and every read, every share, every comment of yours supports us tremendously!

We ♥ our readers — so much that we’d show you thru this corny stock image! Photo by Kelly Sikkemaon Unsplash

So, how about it?

Did you also read Maxime’s post? Do you agree that a few things have changed since then? And — did you also manage to hack an interview? (We’d be really curious to hear about that!👀) We’d love to hear from you, please leave us a comment below!👇

Interested in more stories around freelancing in Product Management? We publish regularly to our Freelance Product Manager publication & would appreciate a follow! 👆

And as always,

Thanks so much for reading!

We acknowledge that with the 7 minutes, you could’ve literally done anything else, and we’re very honored that you decided to dedicate them to our piece! ❤️

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