Quora: Is there a market for fractional or part-time product management?

My answer, originally published on Quora.

Q: Is there a market for fractional or part-time product management?

Thesis: Early stage startups could use dedicated product managers, but often can't afford one or don't have the resources to support a full-time PM.

From all the conversations I've had with early stage start-ups, there is definitely a need for such PMs, but since it's not an existing idea within the hiring marketplace, it's hard to get traction.

Also, to get rid of a common objection: It's perfectly possible to absorb company culture in 20 hours a week. You have to be remarkably efficient with respect to scheduling, but I don't see a barrier there.

Sample schedule for a part-time PM working in an agile startup:

  • M: Sprint planning and start requirements gathering / story writing
  • T: Continue story writing, sync with UI team (if extant)
  • W,Th,Fr : 1 to 2 hour check-ins with engineering to make sure there are no questions. UAT as needed, and of course, prioritization prior to sprint planning on the corresponding Fridays.

My Answer

I'm going to disagree with the other answerers. Your question aks whether there is a market for part-time Product Managers, and I'm going to say YES there IS a market. And YES, it is possible to make this concept work. And YES, there are people who want to be PT product managers.

I know this because I am basically a part-time product manager. Most of my clients are startups, and I have been overbooked for over three years. If there were no market, I'd be struggling.

The schedule you outlined is a bit more of a Business Analyst role than a Product Management role. To really get the benefits a product manager can bring, I'd say about 8 hours a week should be directly interfacing with customers/prospects/people in the target market. The rest can be product planning / road mapping, user stories, backlog management, etc.

There are pitfalls to this type of project though. To make this work, I strongly suggest following:

  1. Make sure that one of the founding/leadership team has Product in his/her DNA, and infuses the entire team with the right attitude. The part-time Product Manager does not have the time to infuse the company with a "product attitude" - it needs to be there already.

  2. You'd need other people to cover things like demos, collateral creation,competitive analysis, trade show duty, etc. Your QA team needs to test end-to-end usage flows and not leave this to the PM. You will need to ruthlessly cut wasteful meetings from the PT PM's schedule. Every meeting the PM is involved in should be a decision-making meeting - no status stuff! Ruthlessly scrap the tedious admin work your PT PM might be doing, such as the emails back/forth to set up customer meetings, or requiring he/she do a lot of work to reproduce a bug he/she encountered and reported.

  3. Make sure that your PT product management hire is VERY EXPERIENCED - preferably at a lot of different startups - and is widely recognized as awesome and a quick study.

If you don't know what you are doing, the product management role can indeed take 100+ hours a week, as Andrew suggests; there is a 10x difference in productivity between average and awesome Product Managers, just as there is for developers. Experience makes the difference here, and the ability to pattern match current and past experience can cut hours of time away.

You should strive to find someone who can do 40 hours of "typical" PM work in 20. Someone who has worked on dozens of products, launched dozens of times, etc.

SO.... how do you find these hyper-efficient, experienced rockstar PMs who want to only work part-time?

Try recruiting Moms!

Many of the most gifted product managers drop out of the profession when they became mothers - because the current industry-wide concept of a product manager demands constant travel, working 100+ hours, and that just doesn't work if you have small kids and want to see them grow up. (Yes, I will extend this statement to Dads who are the primary caretaker of their kids). I am one of these Mom-PMs. I started my independent product management consulting business shortly after having my first child.

I applaud you for thinking out of the box on this. I really believe that in PM we squander a lot of awesome product talent with our industry's preconceptions about what it takes to be a great product manager.

Sue Raisty

Product management geek, born-again engineer, adoptive mother of boys, coach & mentor, mountain trail runner, tinkerer, no-bull communicator, wannabe writer, room mother & compulsive researcher.

Silicon Valley, California http://blog.sueraisty.com