Working Backwards

Lately I keep running into instances where different worlds coincide with a common theme. The theme I’m running into lately is flipping the funnel. Sometimes when you hit a stumbling block, it helps to flip the funnel and work the problem backwards.

For example, consider these three topics:

1. Improving e-commerce sales.
2. Reducing manufacturing cost and lead time.
3. Bringing a software product to market.

Focus on Checkout

In the first case – selling products online – it’s a common mistake to work the process from the front end. The standard logic goes: get more traffic, which will result in more downloads, which will get customers to the purchase page, which will result in more sales.

When you start out, this makes sense. But once you have a steady level of traffic, driving more traffic is expensive. Then you must put more effort into optimizing the landing page to drive downloads. Then, you continually improve the product to drive visits to your checkout process. Then you get the improved revenues, right?

But if you look at it in reverse, you would start with your checkout process. According to Closed Loop Marketing, the average drop-out rate during the checkout process is nearly 60%. What if, instead of driving 10% more traffic to your site, you fine-tuned your checkout process to convert 10% more customers?

If you put advertising money into driving 10% more traffic, you will need to pay that every month. And not all the leads would be well qualified. But putting the effort toward improving your checkout process provides a bigger payoff. The visitors are pre-qualified (after all, they already were interested enough to click your buy button), plus the rewards will be felt long after the improvements are made.

Fishing in the Value Stream

In the second case, I’ve been re-reading Learning to See, a book about Value Stream Mapping. Value Stream Mapping is a tool to analyze manufacturing processes (and recently service-based processes) in order to reduce cost and lead time. The process steps are laid out from start to finish, but the analysis works in reverse order. This is an over-simplified description, but essentially you start with customer demand and work your way back upstream to determine what you need from the preceding process and identify areas to reduce waste.

Write the Press Release First

The third case has to do with my own efforts to develop a new product. I wrote the spec, then started developing to it. It’s hard to describe, but there was something missing. It just felt like bits and pieces of related functionality without any glue.

Then I came across an old blog post by Werner Vogels, CTO of In it, he lays out 4 steps to the product definition process:

Step 1 – Write the press release. He says, “Writing a press release up front clarifies how the world will see the product – not just how we think about it internally.”

Step 2 – Write the FAQ.

Step 3 – Define the customer experience.

Step 4 – Write the user manual.

Normally, I’m like many developers who market there own products. The press release is practically an afterthought. After coding and testing is done, you want to say, “Phew! That’s a relief. I’m done.” But you’re not. There’s a lot of work left to do, and having to write the press release afterward hits you when you’re running out of steam.

So I took Werner’s advice and did steps 1-3. (OK, so I skipped #4. So sue me.) Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it to have a dramatic impact, but surprisingly it did. I was able to refine what my marketing message would be. In doing so, I was able to refine what the user experience would be in a way that was much more logical and congealed.

I was less impressed with writing the FAQ, because those questions are always contrived until you actually get asked real questions by real customers. But overall, I would definitely recommend steps 1 and 3. It’s one of those things that people read about then forget, but if you actually try it, you’ll be glad you did.

You Might Have Guessed This Was Coming

Yes, I’m currently revamping the BreezeTree checkout process. Not only do I want to improve conversions, but I also need a system that works better for multiple product offerings because I’m working on the product that I pre-wrote the press release for. And, of course, it just happens to be a Value Stream Mapping edition of FlowBreeze.

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