I am the first to admit I have a rather dislike for the word “agency”. Personally it conjures up memories early in my career of having to endure high cost, low return engagements with large consultancy agencies who typically charged a premium for senior staff (when selling their services), yet when the engagement started, send in their interns to do the majority of the actual work. Whilst I accept this is not always the case, and these large consulting agencies are not the only businesses to utilize interns in this way, needless to say my experience overall was not positive and my love of agencies is somewhat shall we say, troubled.

A consultancy perhaps?

So I now find myself in the throws of building a professional services business, Digital Product Labs™, that provides product management services to startups and early-stage businesses. So the question begs, are we actually an agency? Or rather are we considered a consultancy? As with many things related to product, I feel the correct answer may well be (and not surprisingly) that it simply “depends”.

I asked this very question to my mentor recently and his answer only further muddied the waters; in his definition an agency delivers “marketing services to its customers”. In part, this certainly sounds like Digital Product Labs™ but I feel the definition of an agency is beyond that of just marketing services. One recent definition of a consultancy I read was “a business that provides professional advice on a services basis”. This too in part matches our service offering (we routinely offer product strategic advice to clients as an example), yet this definition leaves me feeling unsatisfied about the deliverable; that is, it is not tangible enough for my liking (I.e. whilst we offer professional advice, clients I feel want something more tangible such as actual results). So where does that leave us? And does it really matter? Likely, it doesn’t matter as regardless of what we call ourselves (and others), our company goal remains the same:

  1. To deliver real, tangible value to startups and early stage businesses through expert product management.

  2. To be an agency / consultancy / call-us-whatever-you like that you and your team actually wants to work with.

We don’t just execute

I feel this is certainly our UVP. All of what we do at Digital Product Labs™ is through the lens of an experienced Product Manager. As such, when we have clients approach us requesting we “build an app” for them, we don’t just send them a proposal for the build and then execute. It’s simply NOT in our product blood to just implement (and frankly there are thousands of other agencies willing to do so). Instead our approach is always driven through that of what an experienced Product Manager would approach his product; to first understand the problem the client is trying to solve, their hypothesis around the solution tot his problem, how far along that journey of finding market fit they are (I.e. does anyone care), and what their overall product vision and strategy is. Without understanding all of this, the risk to the client of spending excessive funds in pointless product builds or features, is simply too high. So we encourage all of our clients to invest upfront in an exploratory product strategy session as part of the initial engagement.

There is an exception of course

There are exceptions to the “don’t just execute approach” of course, the main one being when we provide clients with an experienced Product Manager to slide into an existing project / team to assist with project / roadmap workload. This PMaaS approach to product management allows our clients to have access to a seasoned Product Manager to join the team, hit the ground running and simply deliver to an existing plan, all within a known, predictable cost. PMaaS engagements can also span the entire breadth of a typical Product Manager role including conducting user research, product management, roadmapping, sprint management, running beta, (more on our services) etc.. and importantly all services provided are on a as-needed basis. That is, need a Product Manager for just one month? No problem. Need a Product Manager to fill in for maternity leave and deliver an existing project? Of course, you got it. In addition, whilst we simply never try to reinvent the wheel (typical to the approach of many traditional consultancies) of an existing process, we will always provide advice and recommendations on where things could be improved if the product development process. 

Better than a freelancer / contractor

Our team have all been freelancers and contractors over the years of our careers for companies / projects both large and small. In fact we actively hire freelancers ourselves at times to assist with project workload. So I feel it’s a reasonable question for clients to ask us, why don’t they just hire a freelancer / contractor rather than work with Digital Product Labs™? The answer we feel is is simply this

Working with Digital Product Labs™ you get access to a collective view of product management experience spanning over 30 years.

All of our Product Managers are product veterans, with a breadth of experience across B2B and B2C businesses across the globe. As a team of product people, we also discuss and review the progress of all client projects together, running our client account portfolio as what we call a “product sprint” each week. Yes of course our clients have one dedicated Product Manager for their project or product, but on all client engagement include this team approach and the collective product minds. This is something that hiring a freelancer / contractor simply cannot provide.

Some final thoughts

Whatever we call ourselves, at the core of the Digital Product Labs™ mission is to help startups and early-stage businesses succeed, and we firmly believe that one of the best ways to increase your startup’s success is by ensuring your business has access to expert product management. If this sounds like you and you feel your emerging business could need some product help, please reach out to myself and the team.