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Product Management , Strategy — 10.09.2020

Agency or In-House: Tips for Choosing the Right Product Talent for Your Digital Product

Austin Westerfeld, Business Development

The events of 2020 caused corporations to move digital up on their business roadmap. If executives were previously considering a new venture through digital innovation in five years, they likely accelerated that goal to three years, if not sooner. 

We know many corporations are considering how to add new revenue streams to their business through digital. This could be as simple as complementing existing revenue streams by adding an online purchasing option, or as complicated as creating a brand new digital product. For businesses with existing digital products, maybe you’re considering an upgrade to modernize the user experience and increase adoption, or you’re investing more into your product than you expected and are in need of support. 

No matter what your digital product is, it’s going to require excellent product talent to build and market it. Where will you find that talent? How should you structure your product teams? When should you consider an agency vs in-house product talent? These are important questions that should be defined before you start investing your business profits into a new (or refreshed) digital product. 

What you’re going to need in a product team

In terms of “jobs to be done,” you’ll need the following capabilities on a product team, when either building new or renovating your digital product:

  • Research and Synthesis: It will be important to have qualitative insights from prospective and/or current users, whether internal or external, to understand the problem space. You’ll need people who can conduct interviews and synthesize this type of information to generate the right insights that will lead to requirements. Beyond that, you’ll want research into the market and competitors
  • Ideation: You’ll need both domain expertise and knowledge of what’s happening in the world of technology to come together in order to generate forward-thinking, feasible, and scalable products.
  • Prioritization and Planning: Much like any project, a digital product needs a manager who can  work with multiple stakeholder groups to generate a prioritized list of requirements and plan it over time. Don’t make the mistake, however, of treating the product like a traditional project – software is flexible, iterative, and scalable, and so requires someone who understands the “minimal viable product” concept and who can plan a product in an agile way.
  • Design: Proper user experience design has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have in relatively short time. You need designers who understand information architecture, UX best practices, as well as how to create attractive visual look-and-feel. 
  • Positioning and messaging: Regardless of whether your product is new, existing, internal, or external, your product needs to be explained to the people who are going to either use it, buy it, invest in it, or be asked to support it in a way that makes sense to them. You’ll need people who understand how to get into the heads of the audience and use the right language to explain benefits, not technical nuts and bolts.

Generally, these skills shake out in the following roles that make up a product team:

Product Owner (PO) or Product Manager (PM) — The role that leads the product vision and strategy, owns the product roadmap, is responsible for socializing the product’s vision internally and externally, and owns the product’s go-to-market strategy. 

Product Designer — The role responsible for designing the product’s user interface and user experience. 

Product Marketer — The role responsible for the product’s go-to-market strategy. While similar to the marketer in charge of your physical product line, this marketer must translate technical “product speak” to messaging that your buyers will understand through product positioning and buyer personas. 

Product maturity matters 

The stage your product is in matters when it comes to evaluating the available product talent options. In the early stages or in stages where forward-thinking vision and planning are at play, the heavy lifting tends to be more strategic, political, and design-heavy. You need a team that can set the right direction based on vision and business goals, get an engineering team enabled and rolling, and introduce the new or renovated product to the world. 

Once the product is in market or in use, your needs become more focused on day-to-day maintenance, growth of the product, and customer experience. 

Your biggest consideration: Risk

So where to find the right product talent to fill these roles? Different sources of talent carry different areas of strength and risk inherently, and where and how you use them will depend on how you plan your needs:

  • Existing teams: Your in-house team are domain experts and they know your existing systems inside and out. But that also means that their time is already spoken for and that they may not be up to speed on current trends and best practices for creating digital products.
  • Hiring experienced talent: Especially in the early stages, it will be expensive and require extensive search time to bring in experienced, in-demand people to fill these roles, especially when the talent needed to build may not be the same talent that’s needed to maintain and grow.
  • Hiring new talent: Younger talent or people who are newer in their fields will be less expensive, can be molded to the way you work, and can have fresh ideas. However, they’ll require a great deal of training, are untested, and carry a lack of experience in the field that makes their performance hard to predict.
  • Outsourcing: Whether it’s an agency, a consultancy, or a staffing firm, bringing in outside talent can reduce risk in some ways, while introducing it in others. The right agency that understands digital products, your business, your goals, works alongside your team, and is a partner with you will carry you a long way. In addition, your relationship should be structured in such a way that you can ramp up and down with different roles as your needs change.

How to find the best product talent solution for you

Having worked with more than 150 companies over the agency’s lifetime, we have seen some winning patterns that we would strongly recommend. 

For strategic work involving research, capturing vision, setting direction, and high-level planning, we recommend starting with a team from a trusted outsourced partner, ideally a digital product agency. There are a few reasons this tends to work well:

  • These skills are typically ones you won’t have full-time in-house
  • They’re resources that are traditionally very expensive and hard to find
  • The need for them is greater only at certain stages of the lifecycle of the product, so it makes sense that these resources would be temporary as opposed to full. And they can partner with your existing teams so that when they transition off, the transition is smooth. 
  • By leveraging a shorter term but strong, experienced team at the outset, you de-risk the effort and also give your developing team a good foundation to grow from.

As the product lifecycle continues, your needs will change, and a transition to a longer-term in-house team makes sense. Whether they come from your existing employees or are hired in especially for these roles, having the dedicated resources ensures continuity. 

No matter which solution you select, a digital product agency can both evaluate your existing product or product idea and offer suggestions for your next steps. There’s less risk of hiring an external agency then there is to changing existing business operations. If you’re ready to start a conversation, send us a message through our contact page and we’ll walk you through your best options. 

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