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Lean Startups! Start Conversion Rate Optimization from Day One

By Hossein Tayebi | Jul 1, 2014

Many startups do not consider conversion rate optimization as a priority activity in the early days. They are, after all, trying to evaluate the market, get funding and pitch to VC’s, build a minimum viable product, get user feedback early on and pivot if required while holding the fort and so many other things. So, who has time for a secondary task like CRO which, after all, is a nice to have and can always be done.

I beg to differ.

You see many tech startups, once they have talked to “enough” people and feel there is a market for their product, build a minimum viable version and put it online. It then boils down to a website or an app to take it from there, hoping that early adopters and maybe some of general public start using it. Now here’s a question: what if there is indeed demand for your product but your website cannot convey your message properly? How can you tell whether there is genuinely no interest in your MVP or it’s just that your website is not good enough to convince visitors to start using it?

Can’t, Won’t, Shouldn’t

I usually hear two reasons from entrepreneurs against this argument. First off, they say early adopters are much more tolerant of faults and if there is enough interest, they use it anyway. Well, I hate to break it to you, but your idea is probably not that extraordinary so that everyone jumps on it straight away regardless of all its issues. In this crowded world of apps and new products, people are spoiled with choice. With some rare exceptions, even early adopters need to be convinced in a relatively short span of time.

The second argument I hear is that entrepreneurs have other competing priorities and cannot dedicate the time required to do CRO properly. Admittedly, life of an entrepreneur is a concoction of urgent matters and do-or-die tasks. Adding yet another time consuming activity is only going to make matters worse. Having said that, a properly designed process of CRO has a great deal of overlap with lean startup tasks you should be doing anyway. As a result, it does not introduce an overhead, but rather acts a practical mechanism to enforce principles of lean methodology.

Conversion rate optimization process has a great deal of overlap with lean startup tasks. Therefore, it can act a practical mechanism to enforce principles of lean methodology.

Let’s see how that can happen.

Two Birds, One Stone

When I talk to people about CRO and a/b testing, I usually get the good old “we changed the text from submit to continue and got 10% increase in conversions” story. If that’s the first thing your CRO consultant is suggesting, I suggest you run for your life. A series of random guesses is not CRO, it’s a shot in the dark that once in a blue moon happens to pay off and makes it to the press and blogs.

What’s the “proper” way then?

Well, one of the first steps in conversion optimization is to do research on the target audience. This is beyond the basic demographics data and focus groups. It’s much more intimate. It’s a study of demographics, fears, uncertainties, doubts, habits, interests, hobbies, etc. This step is so important that Khalid Saleh and Ayat Shukairy have dedicated a chapter of their book Conversion Optimization to it. The end result of this process will be creation of four to seven personas that embody the target audience. Any decisions on design, usability and function of your product will need to consider your personas.

Sounds familiar? If you are practising lean startup principles, it should.

In order to create these personas, you will need to “get out of the building” and get to know your potential market. Who they are, what they want, what drives them to buy/use your product or service and what deters them. By thinking about conversion optimization from the get-go, you not only have a website which introduces your product/service in a way that is more appealing to the potential customer, but also serves you well in validating your assumptions and build something that people actually want.

Therefore, you can exercise CRO and will eventually end up with a product that not only has demand in the real world, but also presents itself nicely to the target audience. As a result, bounce rate and abandonment rate will better represent the disinterest in the actual product rather than the confusion over layout, purpose and usability.

Don’t Get Caught Up

I have talked to many startup owners who are not sure how and when their research on target audience is done. When I present this idea to them, they get quite excited because there is now a step-by-step practical process that culminates in a series of personas normally printed on A3 papers on a wall. This is a good thing.

There is however a danger of getting caught up in the whole CRO process and relying on it too much to attribute success/failure to it. I have seen teams who keep “optimizing” their site believing that the miniscule interest in their product is due to usability issues and not the actual product. This results in churning cash and resources out, legitimized by the notion of “we are just not appealing to the target audience” or “our design is letting us down”. Thus, it’s important to remember that while this approach tends to help get better results, it should not change how lean methodologies are practiced in your organization. Decisions on whether to keep going or to pivot, focus on acquisition or retention, and so many similar ones should be made as it would have in absence of CRO.

CRO Accomplished…Not

Getting started with conversion rate optimization in mind and combining it with other activities will definitely give you head start later down the track, should your startup turns into a business. This does not mean that you don’t have to think about CRO anymore. Optimization is an iterative process and there is always potential for improvement, translating into more revenue one way or another.

What do you think?

About The Author

Hossein Tayebi is a software engineer, web development enthusiast and an entrepreneur based in Melbourne, Australia. You can get in touch with him via his , Twitter or blog.

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