Distilling Product Knowledge

Mark Lorence is the Lead Product Manager at Onovative, a financial technology company in Lousville, KY. Onovative is SaaS company that has built an all-in-one marketing platform for banks & credit unions. Core iQ, their primary software, gives marketing professionals within the financial industry easier access to data, as well as numerous marketing automation tools. It enables financial institutions to automatically onboard & cross-sell customers, members, prospects using email, print mail, surveys, phone calls, and other communications methods.


Intro

Tell us a little about yourself!

I didn't intially start my career thinking about, or even knowing about anything around Product Management or working at a startup. What I went to school for and originally wanted to do with my life is Elementary Education. I went from my Masters in Education to working at a school for a few years. From there, I landed at a statup accelerator right outside of Louisville where I started a coding education program for K-12 students in Kentucky and Indiana. It was a ton of fun and got me hooked into the local startup ecosystem, as well as giving me a taste of working for myself.

From there, I worked for a year and half helping to open a pizza restaurant. Spent a bunch of time literally building a two-story building (less manly than it sounds, at least my part in it) and helping to develop the business and procedures. After the opening of the restaurant, I moved on to my current company, Onovative. Started there as Director of Education in August of 2017 and quickly transitioned to adding a Product Management role on top of that. I now primarily run our product, Core iQ, along with a small team of developers and our leadership team.

How would you describe your role within your company's product organization?

Well, right now I am the Lead Product Manager and I work primarily with a very small team of internal developers to build and maintain our priniple software, Core iQ. Like any Product Manager, I run product meetings, maintain and groom a lengthy backlog, and facilitate discussions around business objectives and technological solutions. I've helped our team transition to Agile/Scrum over the last year, and have taken primarly responsibility for what does and doesn't make it into our software.

What are you working on right now that’s exciting to you?

Our team recently wrapped a highly anticipated feature for customers, which is a prospect upload tool. We work exclusively with banks and credit unions, and if you've ever received a random mailing from a local bank, you know that they love to prospect. So we have expanded our platform to facilitate some basic pipeline management, as well as the ability to upload and prospect to lists of non-customers through Core iQ. It was probably the most requested feature when I first started gathering customer feedback in mid-2018 and we have seen positive feedback from Early Access customers so far.

What is the most important part of your day?

Anyone that has worked at a small startup knows that your days can kind of be a giant mess. So the most important part of my day is checking in with myself to assess what is important for me to achieve during business hours. Establishing my priorities for the day can help me from getting sidetracked by small customer issues or nagging bug fixes in the platform. So I usually take the first 15-20 minutes of work to establish some basic outcomes for the day before digging into Slack messages or customer emails.

What drains you at work?

I love the variability of what I do. It was one of the primary reasons I originally wanted to be a teacher. Doing the same thing everyday for weeks on end sounds like hell to me. So while I do love the variability of a startup, it can still be super draining to walk into a giant dumpster fire when I have a lot on my plate already.


Product Leadership

Do you have a daily routine to stay organized or perform better at your job?

Outside of a quick check-in with myself at the beginning of the day, I typically just operate using basic 'To Do' lists. Each item has to be small and achievable within an hour, at most. Once I have that organized, I can stay fairly focused throughout the day, despite distractions from customers, coworkers, or uncooperative software.

How do you go about gathering customer feedback?

We originally didn't gather customer feedback often. Our startegy for a long time was just talking to customers when they reached out to us or went dark for a while in the software. However, that doesn't give you a great picture of what people are wanting from your software outside of immediate needs. So we now hold semi-regular customer feedback sessions around UI/UX changes, large features that are incompletely outlined, or just to gather feedback on how things are going. I also still run the majority of our new customer training during our implementations process, so I'm fairly hands-on with teaching new customers about our software. Nothing provides better feedback for what sucks about your software than watching new users regularly struggle to do something extremely basic.

How do you make user feedback actionable?

We bake user feedback directly into our Sprint Planning conversations. As I gather feedback alongside our designer, we discuss what went well and what didn't. We change our questions, user flows, and even what we are showing to customers as we go so that we can maximize time with our users. From there, we discuss directly with the product team what our users are saying and not saying. Any time we come to an unknown, we gather user feedback. That way, egos and preconceived notions can't get in the way of moving the Sprint task forward.

What is something you've done recently with your product that was a huge hit with users?

The Prospecting tools have been a huge hit with users thus far, but that is only in the hands of a small group of users. Outside of that, we have done some awesome work updating our 5+ year old software using React and Material Design components. One of the big complaints with the software for a while was just the views that people had into outcomes from things like emails and surveys. So we built some slick looking dashboards to visualize this data and help our customers better understand how their marketing efforts have been going. That has been a fairly popular change so far.


Advice

What advice would you have for someone who is hoping to grow in their product-focused role?

I learned a lot of what I take for granted now by reading a TON of books and just diving into building stuff. Whether it was a business, coding classes, or software, learning all of the different facets of building something is invaluable. Many junior Product Managers don't take the extra steps to understand the Development and/or Business sides of creating a product, and so they get heavily weighted to one side. That typically means that the product starts to get weighted towards features and fixes that fit solely the technical or business objectives for the company. You have to balance the sometimes razor-thin edge between being safe and boring vs irratic and innovate. Great product people are able to ride that wave fairly well, and that comes from practice and consistent failure.

What’s a lesson that you learned the hard way, but would never take back?

When I took over the role as Product Manager at Onovative, we didn't have any processes in place. Every decision on the product was coming from our CEO, and I initially expected to take on way too much at once. I got really frustrated when I wasn't being consulted on every product decision because I felt like I should be the sole gatekeeper for our software. What I hadn't done was build the trust of others to place me in that role, and I had to spend a lot of time earning that trust in order to get to the place where I am now. That lead to some resentment and frustration for a while that caused unease on my part when it came to job satisfaction and overall effectiveness in my position.

What is one piece of advice that had a big impact on your life?

Don't take disagreements or dissent personally. If you take it personally, then emotions come into play and that can cloud your judgement. It's always best to step away from the situation when you start to feel like you're taking things personally. Then come back with a cooler head and address the issues at hand, not how they made you feel in that moment.

Give us one piece of product advice in 20 words or less

Cultivate an environment where people feel safe being wrong and taking risks.

Terry, the T-Rex watches over my office but not his weight

Rapid-Fire Questions

If you could wave a magic wand and fix something about one of your favorite products, what would it be?

I love a good pair of jeans, especially ones that are fully broken in and have the perfect fit for your legs. What I don't love about jeans is the holes they get in the crotch area. So with my magic wand, I'd make it so that every pair of Uniqlo jeans (or any jeans for that matter) would be equipped with magical, damage-proof material. Like a kevlar vest I can wear as pants.

What is one product or company being built in in your region that you think more people should know about (other than your own)?

I'm a huge fan of the guys at a local game development company, Two Scoop Games, that are running a nonprofit called Louisville Makes Games. They are such genuinely good people and they do so much to get kids of all ages and backgrounds involved in coding and making video games. Super awesome people, and super awesome nonprofit in Louisville.

What is a book, podcast, or website that you think more people should know about?

I've been digging into learning about finances and investing, like a gosh darn adult. And Chris turned me onto this book called I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi. It sounds super hokey, but it is an excellent and frank resource on how to get a handle on your finances and master basic stuff that probably should have been taught to us in school. Highly recommend!

What would you do with your time if money was no issue?

I'd probably be doing the same sort of thing I am right now, but with other people I really like (such as Chris). I miss the realm of education every once in a while, and so building a product around kids coding education or even kids game development would be amazing. Either that, or I'd buy every board game possible and just subsidize the lives of me and my friends so that we could make it through an ever expanding back catalogue of cool board games on a daily basis.


Wrap-up

Is there something that you want to plug?

I guess, other than this website, which you are already on, I'd like to plug the guys at Louisville Makes Games. I really believe in what they are doing and if you have kids that are interested in making video games (or are an adult who is interested in that), I recommend checking out their classes and meetups.

How can our readers keep up with you?

I don't really do social media other than LinkedIn, but that sounds boring to say connect with me on LinkedIn... but do so if you want. Also, I have a blog elsewhere called Horses, Not Camels, in which I write about product stuff every once in a while. Check it out if you're into that sort of thing.

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