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In today's fast-paced and competitive business environment, product managers need to leverage the right tools to effectively manage their products and achieve success in the market. In this interview series, called “5 Tools That Should Be in Every Product Manager’s Belt,” we are talking to experienced product managers, industry professionals, and thought leaders to share insights from their experience about the most important tools a product manager needs to succeed. As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Frederick Li.

Frederick Li

Frederick Li is the VP of Product at BlackLine, the leading financial operations management SaaS platform. As a B2B product leader, he has launched numerous products in Accounting, E-commerce, Mortgage, and Real Estate. Fred is an expert in building scalable teams that transform “nice-to-have” products into “must-have” products that benefit some of the most well-known companies in the world. By focusing on the strategic needs of customers to create more capacity and improve business performance, he and his teams have generated over $500 million in annual recurring revenue growth.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve had a lifelong interest in software and wanted to learn how to build great products. Product Management wasn’t a well-known discipline when I started out, so I looked for opportunities to learn how software products are built and launched. My journey led me to understand that great products are a result of great people supported by good processes and great leaders. It has now become my passion to build great teams that can build great products, empowered by processes and leaders that make a meaningful difference for people.

It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

Early in my career as a consultant, I was at a client's office to present the strategy we developed for them. The night before, I needed a USB drive to store the presentation file, and the only available USB drive I could find happened to be one with their competitor's name and logo on it. Our client saw the USB drive when I went to plug it in. Needless to say, they were not impressed that their proprietary strategy was saved on something that looked like it belonged to their competitor. Since then, I've learned to pay attention to small details like that, as they can impact people's perceptions.

What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?

I always thought B2C businesses were the places to learn about innovation as they tend to get more media attention. Yet it was a B2B company that I worked with, BeBanjo, that introduced me to leading innovation practices. They set me on a trajectory to seek out other places that follow practices like test-driven development, continuous integration, and continuous delivery. I've come to appreciate how much innovation happens in B2B software, where problems can be more complex, and the impact on individual users is very tangible.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times you faced when you started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When starting out, I had jobs that were far from glamorous, and I considered making a change. However, I focused on extracting valuable lessons from each job, prioritizing the objective at hand, and learning everything I could about various businesses. I often think about Andrew Carnegie's early life and how he leveraged every experience to learn as much as he could, never knowing when his acquired knowledge would prove useful. This approach eventually led him to become one of the wealthiest people in history. 

Over time, past experiences and acquired knowledge have often resurfaced, benefiting me in ways I could have never anticipated. For example, I co-founded a startup where I built a proprietary e-commerce website. While that did not turn into a wild success, it led me to my first Product-related role at an e-commerce SaaS platform soon after. There have been more examples like this in my career, giving me confidence that focusing on the learning journey during tough times leads to desirable destinations.

How do you keep track of your team's progress and ensure that everyone is working towards the same goals?

I leverage formal and informal methods to track progress and drive alignment. Formally, I use regular ceremonies and meetings like roadmap reviews, scorecard reviews, planning kickoffs, and departmental meetings. Informally, I focus on having 1-2 scheduled meetings a week with direct reports and discussions every 1-2 weeks with peers across the company. Progress isn’t just about my team; it’s also about making sure the entire company is aligned. As a leader, the majority of my time is spent driving alignment and clarity to reinforce our goals rather than making decisions.

Can you share an example of a time when you used data analytics to inform a major product decision, and what tools did you use to gather and analyze that data?

During the pandemic, we had to choose where we invested wisely. I aggregated data to help make decisions around our products’ strategic direction and where to focus. In terms of tools, I adopted a straightforward approach. I engaged in discussions with individuals closest to the problems we were trying to solve and identified sources of data that I later analyzed using Excel. Although this approach provided key insights, I also appreciate the value of leveraging tools like Heap for product analytics.

How do you stay on top of industry trends and new technologies that may impact your product?

The most direct approach is to hire industry experts whose sole focus is to follow and understand industry trends. Additionally, I have discovered an unexpected method of inferring industry trends—headhunters. Often, when a headhunter reaches out about opportunities, I learn about new companies addressing similar challenges or introducing new technologies to solve problems for our customers.

What are some of the key collaboration tactics that you use with your team, stakeholders, and other departments, and how do you ensure that everyone is on the same page?

I really like using the opportunity solution tree approach popularized by Teresa Torres in conversations. It enables stakeholders to quickly understand that everything is ultimately an experiment and helps to drive focus. It visually represents how investments may be spread too thin or where there may be an over-reliance on a single area.

How do you track and prioritize customer feedback and feature requests, and what tools or processes do you use to incorporate that feedback into your product roadmap?

For feedback and requests, I try to keep it simple by focusing on 3 main factors: revenue, customer reach, and commitments.  Commitments could be items promised to close a big sale. I am also a fan of using the value vs complexity prioritization matrix, as it focuses discussion on debating the features relative to one another – see more on this below.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Tools That Should Be in Every Product Manager’s Belt”? 

The 5 tools I recommend correspond to each of the 5 stages of a product lifecycle: Research & Development [Seed], Productization [Incubate], Launch [Launch], Improve Operations & Maintenance [Scale], and Ongoing Feature Development [Drive]. 

1) Research & Development [Seed Stage]

The Seed stage is focused exclusively on rapid and iterative Proof of Values and Concepts of future capabilities–both technical and feature-based–and proving (or disproving) the viability of projects undertaken within this stage.

This stage is entirely focused on "Horizon 3" efforts, meaning future opportunities and business growth, so many of these efforts will have uncertain futures. This is the point of the Seed stage: prove the capability, gain insight into the value and usage, and begin to discern the viability of a given project with Seed.

Key Product Manager Tool: Generative Research for discovery purposes (e.g. Business Model Canvas)

Malcom Gladwell was the keynote speaker at our company event one year.  In his talk, he talked about mysteries—when there is a lack of information, and more data is required to gain more certainty and make a decision.  New innovations often start out this way, and Product managers need to assess ideas to make decisions on what ideas to pursue.  Conducting generative research to then populate a Business Model Canvas is a great way to evaluate key dimensions of potential new products.

2) Productization [Incubate Stage]

The Incubate stage is focused on taking a high-concept or proven prototype from ideation to implementation, with a focus on developing a customer base and business plan around the viability of a given feature or tool.

In short, the primary goal of the Incubate stage is to "productize" and "productionalize." Similar to the idea of technical prototyping in the Seed stage, the Incubate stage focuses on business prototyping, trying to answer a question: Is the product viable from the business perspective? Can it attract a large enough customer base to achieve self-sustainability?

Key Product Manager Tool: Evaluative Research for framing purposes (e.g. Service Blueprint)

Malcom Gladwell also talked about puzzles—when there is an abundance of data and the challenge is filtering out the noise. Evaluative research is a key skill of a good Product Manager, and generating a Service Blueprint can help drive feature-focus when building a new product.  Knowing what jobs a user needs to do and where the pain points lie frames the opportunity and what problems are worth solving.

3) Launch [Launch Stage]

The Launch stage is focused on bringing that one initiative to the market, which has been proven to demonstrate capabilities of market capture, expansion of user base, or revenue recognition.

This stage feeds "Horizon 2" efforts, which essentially implies bringing that one disruptive innovation to scale which has a high confidence rating of returning ROI within 12-36 months.

Key Product Manager Tool: Launch enablement (e.g. Demos)

Bringing a new product to a broader stakeholder group, set of customers, and market requires being able to demo your product.  It’s also critical for internal enablement for other functions in your company to understand your product and prove you know your product, too. This is one of the first things we require new PMs to do when they take over a new product.

4) Improve Operations & Maintenance [Scale Stage]

The Scale stage is focused on dialing in performance, utilization, and full productionalization of the overall application. This is in pursuit of reducing the technical total cost of ownership while also continually optimizing.

This stage is entirely focused on feeding "Horizon 1" efforts, meaning optimizing projects for business growth and, as such, enabling them to sustain innovation and mission-critical activities.

Key Product Manager Tool: Blue Ocean Strategy (e.g. Strategy canvas)

In a previous career life, I helped Fortune 500 companies drive innovation with concepts from the book by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, Blue Ocean Strategy. One of the frameworks in the book is the Strategy Canvas which helps identify where to invest for differentiation.  To oversimplify, a Strategy Canvas is a means to clearly see the factors of competition in an industry.  When scaling a product, knowing your company’s unique value proposition relative to competitors can help drive prioritization. 

5) Ongoing Feature Development [Drive stage]

The Drive stage is the most important at established companies, as these products often drive the majority of existing revenue. This stage is focused on quality-of-life enhancements to customers, optimizations, and driving as much benefit/profit from customers/features as possible.

This zone is acting in "Horizon 1" with a clear focus on material revenue and the goal of ever-lessening needs for support.

Key Product Manager Tool: Prioritization (e.g. Value vs. complexity framework)

At a previous company, this was always the last step after framing a solution and prioritizing individual features.  Helps drive discussion around the debate of value (or complexity) impacting desired use outcomes as opposed to the specifics of features themselves.  This is key in a mature product when various needs might not have the same impactful outcome.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I would love to meet Adam Grant.  I’ve always been interested in organizational psychology and respect how he’s able to distill complex ideas into consumable pieces.  I would love to share my experiences with him and challenge him on some of his ideas over a friendly meal.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.