From Zero to One: The Story of a New-Grad Product Manager at Mercari
Hello everyone, my name is Bruce. I’m a Product Manager at Mercari and I currently work in the JP Product Division, specializing in creating UX features that improve the purchasing experience of our customers.
Over the past few years, Mercari has made large strides in expanding its growth both domestically in Japan and internationally. As part of its efforts to grow as a business towards a global standard, Mercari has recruited many new talents from countries outside of Japan, including those who have just graduated from university.
I write this article today as one of those new-grads coming from abroad, where I was given the chance of a lifetime to come to Japan and work for a company looking to make a real difference in the world. Through my own experience in joining and working here at Mercari as my first company, I’d like to offer some hope and inspiration for my peers and the next generation of new-grads who may struggle with the same anxieties and insecurities of working in a foreign environment as I did.
This is the story of how my career was born at Mercari.
*Face mask was temporarily removed for photos
Featured in this article
Bruce LiangCurrently works as a Product Manager for Mercari JP. Born and raised in the United States as a first-generation Taiwanese-American, he grew up in a multicultural environment since the time he was born. In 2017, he made his first visit to Japan for an internship at eBay Japan. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego in 2018. Although he had no prior technical experience and limited Japanese proficiency, he had a keen interest in creating valuable products with an emphasis on improving user experience, and joined Mercari JP as a new-graduate Product Manager in October 2018.
“I’m gonna be fired.”
I’ll never forget that these were the first words that I told myself on the first day on the job. At the time, I had just moved to Japan a couple weeks prior and up until that point I didn’t quite realize the gravity of the situation I was in. In the beginning, I thought moving from my home in the U.S. to a new country like Japan to lead a new life and work in a new environment would be a simple and pleasant experience. I suppose at the time I still had the mindset of a student, where I subconsciously expected everything would somehow turn out okay in the end and I didn’t have too much to worry about. I figured moving into adulthood with my first full-time job would be just like attending a new school.
I continued to assume so, until the day I was first introduced to my team. My mentor at the time, @kimchan, was very patient and gentle in onboarding me with all of the documents and basic expectations of what a Product Manager (PM) would be doing on our team. She even used English when speaking with me to make sure I was comfortable and understood everything. The team I was assigned to was called Buyer UX, where the PM’s main responsibilities would revolve around creating features and projects that would be released on the live production app to increase customer purchases, and ultimately Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV). A PM there would need to draft proposals for project ideas and be able to translate those ideas into developable specifications that are given to engineers to implement, and lastly analyze the results of those project releases. On top of the work responsibilities themselves, the manager of the team was @tommy, who I later found out was the cofounder of the entire company. On paper, I had all of the opportunities that I could have ever asked for, especially for the start of my career.
The problem was all of the documents and onboarding material were in Japanese, and I couldn’t understand any of it. I kept a calm demeanor on the outside, but I silently panicked. Only a week prior to that, I had already struggled with basic training due to being the only new-grad PM who needed English interpretation and translation help. I figured that if I couldn’t even pass the basic training without assistance like my peers, there would be no way that I could be put into the responsible position of a Product Manager in a Japanese company where I would have an entire team relying on me. I realized at that point what it meant to carry the responsibilities of a real working adult, and how different it was compared to what I imagined. I was desperately afraid of not only disappointing my team and coworkers in this new environment, but also all of the friends and family back at home who cheered me on and put their faith in me before I left my country. I didn’t want to let anyone down. At one point, I broke down in front of my instructor from basic training in a private room with those thoughts. In its own way, it was like a wake-up call for me to finally enter into the grown-up world.
I took my work day-by-day, constantly asking questions and receiving guidance from my mentor and manager, like a flightless chick unable to feed itself. It wasn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do, but to compensate for my clear lack of experience and language skills I would spend countless days staying in the office until midnight in an attempt to learn about things like SQL and basic product management. Oftentimes though, I only ended up falling asleep on my desk from exhaustion.
Failure after Failure
About two quarters of struggling into the new work environment and responsibilities of a PM, I was asked by my manager if I was interested in changing teams because the team I was in at the time might have been too intense for me. At the time, I had actually already experienced my first major failure with my first project release immediately resulting in direct customer inquiries reporting issues with our service.
Nevertheless, I refused the offer to change teams. I remember strongly feeling that changing teams would be like running away, despite the fact that even I knew I clearly wasn’t keeping up with the other PM’s in the team, who at the time consisted of my mentor @kimchan, @hisshy, and @gyotoku. All of them were and are still incredibly talented PM’s in our company to this day.
My manager, @tommy, seemed to respect my choice and instead offered a new challenge for me to take on, which was to focus an entire quarter on learning the fundamentals of QA testing. QA testing essentially means “Quality Assurance Testing”, where a professional is expected to ensure that the mobile application is working correctly as a whole, or the feature itself is working entirely as intended according to the description in the product specifications. I was initially excited and agreed that this would be a good way for me to properly build up my foundational knowledge for app development in general.
Unfortunately, the truth was that as the months went by I learned that QA testing was not something for me. I was able to achieve my original goal of learning more about feature release processes and foundational knowledge of how product features work, but I couldn’t maintain the motivation to continue learning about QA beyond that. I found that my personality leans more towards creativity and collaboration, which I felt I wasn’t able to express by silently testing features for days on end all alone in the office. Towards the end of the quarter I grew increasingly demotivated as I yearned to go back to the creative side of making products for customers, despite still not knowing exactly how to properly do so.
When the quarter came to an end, it was time for my bi-annual performance evaluation. I distinctly remember the look in my manager’s eyes. As he read my evaluation report, he began with the positives of how my performance went as usual, but when he went into the section of areas where I could improve the look in his eyes had changed. He specifically decided to begin by reading aloud the peer reviews of both of the QA members who were in charge of mentoring and watching over me closely for the entirety of the quarter, in which both of them specifically wrote that they weren’t impressed with my performance and motivation. Despite him reading aloud such heavy words, I didn’t hear much of what he said. Rather, I couldn’t stop gazing at the look in his eyes. It was the look of absolute disappointment.
In the end, he said that up until this point he really believed in me, but he wasn’t so sure anymore. This time, I heard those words loud and clear. I remembered how he trusted me enough to share personal details about his own struggles from the past, and that he was always counting on me and my growth. In a way, his success as a manager of the team was dependent on my performance. What hurt most wasn’t the fact that I failed to meet my own expectations and commitments, but that I failed the person who believed in me wholeheartedly from the moment I joined the team, even though he was never very vocal about it.
After the session was over, I accepted my evaluation with my head held down in silence and packed my things to go home for the day. I remember it hurting for a long while after that, but I also remember feeling an intense drive to make things right again. I wanted to prove to him that he wasn’t wrong to believe in me.
Unfortunately, in the end that day never came.
From Farewell, A Promise Was Made
After that evaluation, @tommy gradually became less involved with the team to focus on his own efforts in creating a new Home experience for the app. This was later known as the first major Home Revamp project. Only a few months later after that, he made his announcement that he was retiring from the company. I was heartbroken.
I never got to tell him that I was secretly trying to redeem myself for my failures and prove that his belief in me wasn’t wrong. His trust in me made such a strong and lasting impression that I decided to make a promise to myself the day that he left the company. I promised myself that I would work hard enough at this company to stay and become a manager just like he was, to someday also lead a product team of my own to achieve the explosive growth in business results through significant UX improvements that he was chasing for. I wanted to finish what he started, and that’s what continues to drive me to this day.
As I said my goodbyes to him at his farewell gathering, all I could do was apologize in tears.
My current Slack photo, taken with @tommy at his farewell gathering.
I was assigned to a new manager briefly after @tommy left. My new manager’s name was @yoda, and he has continued to be in my main report line to this day. Similar to @tommy, @yoda wasn’t afraid to put his trust in my potential as not only a PM, but a valuable contributing member for the company.
There was a new initiative by the company to slowly introduce the work process Agile, specifically Scrum, to our product development as the company itself was growing larger and more disorganized. As part of beginning its initiative, Agile Coaches specializing in mentoring Scrum were assigned to our product team as a sort of experiment, and my manager Yoda specifically decided to choose me to try out the role of Scrum Master.
Up until that point, our company had never had a real and official Scrum Master with certified training before, so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to handle all of that new responsibility. I wasn’t even completely comfortable with my responsibilities as a PM yet.
Scrum Masters are essentially facilitator-type roles in tech companies where they can be expected to improve the teamwork and development processes of product teams, specifically the teams that release features to real customers. As such, they have a heavy responsibility to always keep the team organized and working collaboratively while maintaining an unbiased perspective at all times. In some cases, this role can have more responsibility than a PM.
At first, I wasn’t entirely open to taking on the position, as I still had my promise to keep on becoming a manager for product development. However, I understood that this was also a rare opportunity for growth that wasn’t very common for people as inexperienced as myself, and I knew that I had a lot to make up for my past failures. With that in mind, I decided to take the chance. I negotiated with my manager to do both roles of PM and Scrum Master at the same time, even if it was going to be tough. In the end, he reluctantly agreed.
Soon afterwards I was assigned to receive personal coaching and mentoring by the two Agile coaches, Tanaka-san and Andre-san, where I was able to learn how to become the company’s first Scrum Master after several months of guidance and trial-and-error. Interestingly enough, becoming a facilitator to bring the development team together to work in a structured process towards a unified goal of releasing meaningful products greatly improved my understanding of product in general, which in turn enhanced my abilities as a PM. From that moment on, I continued to slowly take one step at a time to work on what I could to improve myself in both roles, and it’s had such a profound effect on my skills and abilities that I’m now able to work independently on my own in product management.
In a sense, I suppose I’d finally grown up from a flightless chick to a young bird that’s able to take flight on its own.
Reflecting back on it now, I believe I took away three valuable lessons from this experience:
・ To never back down, no matter how many times you fall.
・ To embrace opportunities as they come, even if you’re unsure and afraid.
・ To believe in the people who believe in you, as that is one of the strongest motivations when you can’t seem to find inspiration to believe in yourself.
From Zero to One, and One to Infinity
Before @tommy left the company, he left me a book that I’ve still kept to this day. The book is called “Zero to One: Notes on How to Build Startups or Build the Future”. It’s a very famous book from the U.S. written by one of the most famous venture capitalists of all time, Peter Thiel. As the name heavily implies, this book was written as a sort of beginner’s guide to understanding what makes startups successful. Although that may be what it was originally written for, I found that keeping the book has had a different meaning for my life personally, especially when I think about the title.
The book describes the most important thing for startups is crossing the barrier of “zero to one,” where a vast majority of startups actually fail, because the most important step to success is always the first one. One example in the book is how the very first iPhone was released. Subsequently all of the other massive successes for Apple that came with the future iPhone models all originated from that legendary presentation that Steve Jobs gave as the first step.
Much like that concept described in the book, I found the most important thing for somebody to succeed in their career is to cross that same barrier of zero to one. Using my own experience as an illustration, the hardest part was overcoming my initial struggles and anxieties to eventually find just a little bit of footing. Once I was finally able to get the hang of things just a bit through my initial trials and failures, my capacity to thrive and learn had grown exponentially from there to this day. That thriving growth hasn’t always necessarily been clean and linear, but I believe after I experienced that specific jump from zero to one, I can now feel that the sky’s the limit from here for my growth.
From not only my own experience, but also the experiences of others that I’ve personally observed during my time at this company, I believe this phenomenon holds true. Nothing is as scary and difficult as that first step, and I sympathize with all of those who are still struggling with this point. Eventually though, all of us will have to go through it if we want to achieve our goals and dreams. After all, I believe we as people all have worthy goals that we want to achieve some day, so the only thing left then is to just have the courage to take that one step forward.
From there, no one can really say what we can achieve. The possibilities are infinite.