Featured Maker: Anna Li

  • 24 November 2021
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Featured Maker: Anna Li
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This is part of our bi-weekly series profiling some of our community members at Product Makers. If you’re interested in reading others, check out our previous Featured Makers.

This week we’re featuring @banannastories who’s a Product Manager at Mentorly.

Starting in Product Management

How'd you get started making products that matter?

I have a background in neuroscience, with a major in human cognition and behaviour and have worked in a lot of different roles such as information design, project management, operation optimization, client success, eCommerce, pharmaceutical, and event planning. Each of the companies I worked for had a SaaS product and I was always advocating for our customers — listening to their feedback, frustrations, confusions, and feature requests with a deep interest in giving them a seamless and positive experience with the product. During that time I got to work on some special projects (essentially product features) and worked cross-functionally to deliver some new capabilities.

I started working at Mentorly in a consulting capacity. Their product was a marketplace for industry leaders to mentor/coach/teach their skills to people looking to acquire those skills in a specific area of expertise. Later, Mentorly expanded to include a B2B product (which allows large enterprises to leverage their own senior leadership team as the mentors that mentor/coach/teach the junior staff at the same company). Mentorly gave me an opportunity to become a PM and I jumped at the opportunity to apply my skills and help with the product. I started reading and learning more about product management (books, videos, and podcasts and other resources) using Productboard, and even found a PM mentor that I discovered on Mentorly.

What's one piece of advice you wish you'd had when you started working in product?

I work at a startup where I am the only product manager. I work directly with founders/co-founders/C-level executives who don’t always have product-related hard and soft skills. Being new to the product role, I wish someone told me that it is normal to work with HIPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), RHINOs (Really High-value New Opportunity), ZEBRAs (Zero Evidence But Really Arrogant), WOLFs (Working on Latest Fire), and Seagull Managers.

I only found out about these terms when I started using Productboard, and instantly related to the fact that all product managers deal with these types of “dangerous animals.” I think if I’d known about these earlier, I wouldn’t have felt so alone and that that I was the only person dealing with them.

I recently read Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection and it had a chapter on self-compassion, and it noted that “common humanity” and “isolation” are reverse-coded with each other, meaning that when you feel others are going through the same struggles as you, you won’t feel as isolated which brings out more compassion to the self. 

At the end of the day, many of us are faced with the same challenges no matter where we work, and we can overcome these “animals” and find ways to work together to deliver great products. It comes down to prioritization and making trade-offs amongst all seemingly important and urgent things we need to build. 

Product management today

What do you like the most about your work?

Keeping everything on track and being critical to a company. I feel like I’m the gear in the middle that touches every part of the company, and I need to have this well-oiled so the entire machine runs smoothly. It feels rewarding to contribute this way.

What do you like the least about your work?

Saying no. It’s naturally hard to say no, yet for product managers, it’s our job to say no, and to say “no, (maybe later)” is the default answer no matter who we’re saying it to. Because a lot of product features are all seemingly important and urgent to do, PMs need to be ruthless at prioritizing, hence say no (to most things) so that we can actually DO and SHIP the things we say yes to.

What has you excited about the year ahead and your product?

I’m excited to take a class on product management, continue to get better at my job and have opportunities to learn as much as I can from my mentors (both my actual mentor and a future boss and Head of Product).

On the product side, I’m excited to have a really stable product, show our clients what we’ve made and how it’s solving their pain points, and be able to proudly show off our product.

Tell us about something you shipped/launched recently…

We recently launched a matching algorithm to match mentors and mentees together as recommendations. 

Before this, clients were using spreadsheets and spending days and weeks, manually making the matches. Our matching algorithm constantly scans through the data points, making recommendations amongst all program participants with a compatibility score, almost like a dating app.

We also allow the program managers/admins to vet and edit the matches, to give a human touch if they know something the data doesn’t, before dispatching the matches to everyone. This has reduced the time spent on the admin’s end from weeks to hours.

Who do you most often collaborate with when planning, executing and bringing new things to market?

I work closely with our dev team, design team, customer support, sales, and marketing teams.

I gather customer insights, feedback, and prospect questions from the CS and Sales team. 

After prioritization (saying no, not yet, and yes), we then come up with product feature specs and documentation (including user stories, flows/paths, success metrics, etc.). 

The design team and I work together on wireframes, bring in development’s perspective, review and iterate, and then the development team builds in sprints. We QA and fix, plan for release dates, and I also work with the marketing team on announcement strategies.

How does Productboard help you in your role?

I use Productboard to prioritize feature requests and build my product roadmap.

Having colleagues as Contributors to submit feedback to Productboard is a great tool for us, especially with the Slack integration. It’s super easy to push all kinds of inputs from emails, Slack, meeting notes, etc. I then process and map the insights to features.

We use “drivers” such as UX, end-user engagement, buyer engagement, closing new business, and strategic value to come up with a total value score, divided by Effort, which helps us prioritize the features that are small effort but big value. 

The User Impact Score also helps to track all users that want the same features. So even if something is on the back burner, we’re able to add Insights to that so eventually when there is enough demand, we might reassess.

Soon we’ll be digging deeper into the Roadmap and Portal features. Productboard is a super powerful tool and we’re still exploring it!

A bit about Anna outside of product management

I do my best thinking when…

I’m alone and have a few hours to do deep work. Whether on a long train ride (between Toronto and Montreal), on a flight, or at a meditation retreat while strolling in the woods. That’s when my mind is free and creative.

Favourite emoji?

✨ for dream-chasing and at other times something sparkly that’s nice to look at -- like a new product feature or an inspirational quote.

What product would you absolutely love to work on?

I’d love to work on Yoni circle, which is an app that provides a safe space for women to tell stories (ie. a virtual women’s circle) that is focused on mental health, deep connection, and healing.

The UI is quite different from normal apps:

  • Instead of everything being rectangular or in grids, most buttons and flows are in circular shapes and artsy (like an outpour of stardust coming out of a mouth to represent a podcast is playing, rather than a simple play/pause button).

  • Music plays in the background while you’re in the app (e.g. while you’re in a waiting room and before entering a circle (which is a video call session). The music is done by the users who use the app, who are all talented women. 

What's a product you'd love to fix and make better?

Craigslist. I’d make it more visually welcoming for people to continue to use it. Start by adding some styling and design. At least get it to Wikipedia’s appearance level as an MVP.

Outside of work you'll find me…

Gardening, walking my dog Pika, painting acrylic on canvas, yoga, travelling, and writing about my side project @thehosteljourney

It’s my dream and plan to have a hostel. I love to travel and have been to about 250 hostels/guest houses/BnBs, and I was an Airbnb host for 10 years in Montreal and Toronto and hosted hundreds of guests from all over the world. Living out of a backpack/suitcase is not sustainable for years on end for me, so when I settle down, I’d love to invite people to my hostel and still feel like I’m constantly travelling, meeting new people, exploring different cultures, and hearing the stories of others. 

Who's a person that you most admire and why?

I really admire Liz Lambert who started Hotel San Jose. I read about Liz in the book “In the Company of Women” and fell in love with her story. Liz basically took a grungy motel and turned it into @hotelsanjose which then gentrified an entire neighbourhood and city, and then she repeated this with another eight or so hotels/locations, ie. Bunkhouse. Tim Ferriss interviewed her in his podcast about her journey and Liz also made a documentary called “Last Days of the San José” about the people of the original motel. She was then ousted from her own company Bunkhouse but started another empire. Everything about her is an inspiration to me. Someone asked me what my 5 to 10-year plan is for the hostel project and I said, basically Liz Lambert = goals, but I’d be happy if I could just open one hostel in my lifetime!

Insights on the Product Makers Community

How has the Product Makers community helped you thus far?

The fact that this exists already makes me feel like I can succeed in the product world. So far I’m just tuned into announcements, following some conversations, signing up for a few online events, and observing from the sidelines.

What do you get the most value from in the community?

I’m still new to this so there is a lot to explore! I’m impressed at Scott's responsiveness. I may have posted or replied once or twice, but Scott was quick to introduce himself in a DM, which later led me to do this Featured Maker.

Is there anything you would like to see happen next in the community?

I’d love to have a chance to get together with others in the Product Makers community -- either IRL or online. Recently I attended an IRL event for Product Managers in Montreal and it was really nice to interact in person with about 20 people, it’s just so different from attending a Zoom meeting.

As the Product Makers community grows, it’d be nice to have country or city leaders that host events to bring the community together. Relating this back to my love of travel, when I was hosting on Airbnb I attended a lot of events in Toronto as a “veteran host” to share my experiences and answer questions from people who wanted to become hosts but hadn’t yet. I made amazing friends from this group even after we stopped hosting. It was a great way to meet people and bring the community together. 

👉 Interested in being a Featured Maker? Check out all the details and apply and you could be selected as one of our upcoming featured makers.


1 reply

Awesome article. Thanks for being such a rockstar PM for Mentorly, Anna. ✨