Why It’s Impossible To Be A Freelance Product Manager. And How I Did It.
Product Managers must be full-time employees!
I hear that a lot. CEOs know that their product is the core of their business. They can’t see themselves giving it to someone who works half the week at a nearby cafe.
And they’re right: setting deadlines and managing development on a daily basis are full-time jobs. Back when I was a full-time Product Manager for startups, it was mine.
But now that I want to work as an outsider, I can’t do this anymore.
Good news: I didn’t like that part of the job.
Instead, I have to get my hands dirty and create mockups, invent ways to tackle the problems my clients have, do more user testing. Surprisingly enough, that’s something classic Product Managers often don’t have time to do. And this makes the work way more interesting!
A freelance product manager sounds like a new species. Nobody wants new stuff. It’s risky. But I managed to become one.
How did I find people willing to pay me to work on their product as a freelancer?
I hacked job interviews
First, I pretended to be looking for a job.
I created a profile on Hired and got 10 interview proposals. I chose 3 that seemed to match both my skills and expectations. At the end of the hiring process, 2 companies offered me a job as a full-time Product Manager.
That’s when the tricky part began. I spent 80% of the last interviews explaining why I wanted to work as a part-time freelancer, and how the startup would benefit from it.
One said no, the other one said yes. I worked for 3 months, 2 days a week, as a Product Manager for a cool B2C startup — one of the best work experiences I ever had.
I sold hard skills to get my foot in the door
It’s hard to sell soft skills. Product sense is a soft skill.
So I began by selling hard skills: designing an app, coding a landing page. I’m not the best UI designer or developer, but I can handle a first version. Some companies hired me as a freelancer to do that.
I did write some code, but spent my free time thinking on how I could re-invent their main feature. I asked to talk to real users, organized user testing sessions to understand usability problems, and quickly spent 80% of my time being a product guy and not a hard-skills-guy. My clients loved it. I loved it too.
I leveled up, and talked about it
Few people know what working on a product really means.
After being a PM for both startup and big tech companies, I didn’t know much more. Sure I had worked on products, but each one of them was different. I had failed into developing a common methodology to guide my steps in the process of making them better.
So I took a week off, and flew far from home to think about my previous experiences, read a lot and talk to people making products I liked. 7 days later, I came back with a precise methodology I could use for my next missions. A friend of mine told me to share it on Slideshare because it could help other people working on products.
A few weeks later, my set of slides had been seen by 60k people including thousands of employees from Twitter, Yahoo and Amazon. I was amazed.
Thanks to this, I was able to:
1. Explain easily how I can help a startup (all steps are described inside).
2. Look more legit.
3. Get new clients among the viewers of these slides.
I had never shared my work before that. Taking a week off and thinking about how I could bring value to others is one of the best things I ever did. Try it!
I started working on the best products
When a new cool app is released, I download it and talk about its main features with my friends. When I find an awesome product, I spend hours trying to understand the little details that make it so great.
But I don’t have external pressure to do it. And I don’t get paid for it.
So I decided to start doing that in a more professional way. Every week, I try new apps, film myself doing it, and shoot the result to their makers.
It helps me stay at the edge of what’s being done. And maybe someone will get bored with my emails and hire me as a freelancer so I stop sending them.
Ever wish you could do your dream job on your own conditions?
Everyone said it was impossible to be a freelance Product Manager, but it wasn’t. All I had to do was stop waiting for permission and live my life on my own terms.
CEOs were right: Product Managers must be full-time employees. But they didn’t say the employer couldn’t be me.
If you can’t find your dream job, it’s time to create it.
Edit 2019: Since then, I created my own Product crew, Mozza. If you need some UX design or want to work as a freelancer with us, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org :)