The Rise of the Fractional CPO

How I found my calling in Product
In recent years, there has been a rise in the fractional Chief Product Officer (CPO) role. Fractional CPOs are experienced product executives who work part-time or on a project basis with multiple companies. This trend has become increasingly popular as more companies realise the benefits of having a CPO on their team without committing to a full-time hire. In this blog post, we will explore the rise of the fractional CPO and the benefits and advantages they bring to the table.

Since founding ProductMagic in 2021 I have been inspired by working as a fractional CPO. It has allowed me to move between board level strategic planning, hands on ideation with product teams and even visiontyping using design tools. The varied nature of the companies I have been working with as well as the incredible people I’ve met along the way has helped me also become a better coach.

The Fractional CPO Trend

Recently companies have recognised the value of having an experienced product executive on their team without committing to a full-time hire. Fractional CPOs can bring a lot to the table, including expertise, experience, and strategic thinking. In addition, they can provide a fresh perspective and objective insights, which can help companies identify opportunities for growth and improvement.

According to a report by McKinsey & Company, the demand for fractional executives has increased significantly in recent years, with the number of companies hiring such roles doubling since 2017. The report also suggests that companies that engage fractional executives can achieve significant cost savings compared to hiring full-time executives.

Benefits of Fractional CPOs

Fractional CPOs can bring significant benefits to a company, start up or agency, including:

Expertise: Fractional CPOs are typically experienced product executives who have worked across multiple industries and companies. This often means seasoned start up veterans who can provide invaluable insights at the various stages of a product lifecycle. 

Flexibility: Fractional CPOs work on a part-time or project basis, providing companies with the flexibility to engage them as needed. This can be especially beneficial for companies that do not require a full-time CPO or cannot afford a full-time hire.

Cost Savings: Fractional CPOs can provide significant cost savings compared to hiring a full-time executive. According to McKinsey & Company, fractional executives can cost up to 75% less than a full-time executive.

Objective Perspective: Fractional CPOs can provide an objective perspective on a company’s product strategy and identify areas for improvement. This can be especially valuable for companies that may be too close to their products to identify opportunities for growth and improvement. I have found it far easier acting as a fractional CPO to drive meaningful growth rather than be entrenched in the politics of the exec team.

Advantages for the CPO

Thinking about leaving your full time gig and trying the fractional route? There are many advantages, some not immediately obvious.

Variety: Fractional CPOs have the opportunity to work with multiple companies across different industries and product categories. This can provide them with a diverse range of experiences and challenges, which can help them develop their skills and expertise. Working with different teams is also hugely rewarding and enriching.

Flexibility: Fractional CPOs have the flexibility to work on a part-time or project basis, providing them with the freedom to work on multiple projects simultaneously or take time off between projects.

Network: Fractional CPOs can build a valuable network of contacts across multiple companies and industries. This can help them to identify new opportunities and stay up-to-date with the latest product trends and innovations.

Why has this happened?

The rise of the fractional CPO role can be attributed to several factors, including:

The Increasing Importance of Product: In today’s digital economy, product is king. Companies recognise that having a strong product strategy is essential to success, and are willing to invest in experienced product executives to help them achieve their goals.

The Changing Nature of Work: The rise of the gig economy and remote work has made it easier for experienced practitioners to work on a part-time or project basis. This has created a pool of talented professionals who are willing to work as fractional executives.

Cost Pressures: Companies are under increasing pressure to reduce costs and maximise efficiency.

CPO at the C-Suite table: Many companies are still hesitant to invest in a full time CPO. They often don’t ‘get’ product and hiring a fractional CPO allows them to test the water. See my talk on this from the PLA CPO Summit.

Long Story Short

Moving to a fractional CPO role isn’t for everyone. Working across multiple disciplines, clients, teams and organisations is a unique challenge. I have found new vigour and inspiration from the intense context switching that a fractional role demands. I have worked with stealth start-ups, big brands, small incubated teams and venture builders over the past two years. Every week presents a new challenge – something I have relished and been successful at.

A fractional CPO role means that you’ll need the capacity for continual and everyday learning, rapid absorption of business strategies and the ability to move quickly between high level strategic thinking and tactical execution.

If that sounds like fun then you’ll find that switching to this way of working could be the most rewarding decision in your product career.

The richness of talent that I’ve worked with over the past two years and the newfound knowledge I’ve gained in so many areas means that every month I’m able to bring something new to the table for my existing and prospective clients as well as the teams I’m working with day to day.

If you’d like to work with me simply drop me an email –  I’d love to hear about your organisation or products.

TIPS for making the jump to a fractional CPO role

🤔 Be realistic, can you act as a solo powerhouse moving between many orgs / teams / projects?

🙇🏽‍♂️ To deliver value across many different teams you’ll need to ensure you are super organised. Build your own Notion template and tooling set so that you’ve got everything you need quickly with as much parity across clients as you can (e.g. Links to analytics, data platforms, design files, documentation, org charts and so on).

🕵🏼‍♂️ Hone your hiring skills. You will not be able to do everything and often companies would like your experience in building teams that can slowly become autonomous from the fractional CPO.

🖤 Make time for yourself. It is easy as a fractional CPO to become burnt out. Product management is a very involved occupation. Doing this at multiple levels across many teams is not for the faint hearted but by ensuring you’re rested and healthy will drive your daily success.

💪 Build a strong product background – you’ll need to ensure you can match experienced senior PMs in strategy, product development and product marketing.

📈 Develop a deep understanding of the market and target customers – research outside your comfort zone or area and keep analysing and stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends.

😃 Be flexible and adaptable, you’ll often need to pivot quickly.

🎯 Focus on results – set clear goals for yourself and the teams and track your progress along the way.

🎓 Continuously learn and improve – this is key.

🎉  Have fun!