What Elon Musk teaches us in Conversion Rate Optimisation

by David Mannheim

posted on: March 23rd 2018

CRO is a niche industry—but it can’t afford to focus on niches. We need to take inspiration from expert generalists like Elon Musk to drive the industry forward.


I’ve followed Elon Musk for many years now…

He’s inspirational, improbably intelligent and bordering on meta-human
Elon has risen to the top of his field in four separate industries (software, energy, transportation, and aerospace)

It’s probably this article here that really made me step back and think about things in such an intense light.


There’s a lots of theories for his success:

85-hour work weeks, healthy attitude to failure, the guts to make seemingly impossible gambits and think of crazy ideas (never mind Mars, we’re talking about the man who conceived of this: https://www.boringcompany.com/)

But the main driver is his approach to knowledge. Elon is an expert generalist.


What are expert generalists?

Voracious appetite for knowledge, ability to combine different fields of research to make new connections… DaVinci, Einstein, Jobs, Musk…

Being an expert-generalist allows individuals to quickly adapt to change. Research shows that they:

  • See the world more accurately and make better predictions of the future because they are not as susceptible to the biases and assumptions prevailing in any given field or community.
  • Have more breakthrough ideas, because they pull insights that already work in one area into ones where they haven’t been tried yet.
  • Build deeper connections with people who are different than them because of understanding of their perspectives.
  • Build more open networks, which allows them to serve as a connector between people in different groups. According to network science research, having an open network is the #1 predictor of career success.

(Read more here)


The concept of Expert Generalists feeds into our ethos of T-Shaped Collaboration

In a T-Shaped conversion optimisation team, each team member has a broad and ever expanding understanding of CRO, coupled with and a cavernous depth of knowledge in their specialist field.

Like a sports team, everyone has a different role to play but works together seamlessly to increase the score line (or in this case, the bottom line).The model is naturally suited to industries with numerous interlinked disciplines such as marketing and CRO

We wrote a whole article on this and also advocate it throughout our ethos.

And because there is so much nonsense out there…

The echo chamber

Beware conventional wisdom. Repeat anything for long enough and you’ll believe it.
CRO is a notorious echo chamber.

Marketing is bad enough. But CRO is still pretty young and the chamber is much smaller. And this job attracts some pretty assertive individuals.

That means the loudest voices are even more deafening and the echoes are everywhere. But what are they actually saying?

There are a million different problems and challenges for individual sites. But there’s a tendency for the solutions to end up looking the same…


Optimisers respect market leaders… And unconsciously (or consciously) copy them:

If you have limited time and resources, are you going to look far beyond your leading competitors, let alone sites from completely different industries?

But market leaders are not always the best examples

Be careful of copying your competitors:

  • Their tactics are probably random (or they copied someone else)
  • It might not work for you—it might actually reduce conversion
  • Most people don’t know what they’re talking about
  • Most action is opinion driven—not backed up by data
  • Sites made by committee (or HIPPOs) are not likely to be shining examples of CRO
  • Web designers are not CROs
  • What’s the right thing to copy? What else is making it work? And will it actually work for you?
  • Are your competitors outdoing you? They could be spending more on ads, have a better product (!), more brand profile etc

This insularity is bad for CRO

Users get wise/desensitised. The uplifts stop.

Where does progress come from?

Avoid the Chamber

Expert generalists avoid the echo chamber because they have wider networks and can draw on lots of different types of knowledge

Broader networks bring deeper insights

Think about what Elon did by reading lots of books when he was younger. He applied knowledge of other areas and practices to his own – engineering. This allowed him to push his own industry forward without being or feeling constricted by archaic practices or the “I don’t know what I don’t know” mentality.

Now apply this to CRO. Why don’t we learn from the pharmaceutical industry who test and experiment every day with sample sizes we can only dream of? Or the arts industry where creativity flourishes not wanes? Or the psychological industry where understanding human behaviour is vital to applying practices?

“The bottom line? According to multiple, peer-reviewed studies, simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success.” [Reference]

How do you absorb and apply all this new knowledge? And in doing so become an Expert Generalist/T-Shaped Collaborator?

Elon explains:

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” [Reference]

How do we push the industry forward?

CRO takes commitment

There’s an opportunity cost to being a pioneer—you never know what you might learn each time. It might be nothing.

That’s why you focus on getting the culture right…

… preferably hiring mini-Elons who are already passionate about lots of different things, and crucially, work together to share their insights and create unexpected solutions to problems.

Yes, it might be tough. But as Elon says:

“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.”

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David Mannheim

David is an experienced conversion optimiser and has worked across a series of core optimisation disciplines including web analytics, user experience and AB & MVT testing.

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