The Mom Test: how to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea when everybody is lying to you - Rob Fitzpatrick
The truth is our goal and questions are our tools
Is this book for you?
Talking to customers is hard
my first company, Habit
We were building social advertising tech and I was distraught. We'd spent 3 years working our hearts out
I’d been talking to customers full-time for months. And then, after innumerable days of slog and an exhausted team, I learned I’d been doing it wrong. I may as well not have bothered
Why another book on talking and selling?
Firstly, I’m a techie, not a sales guy. I’m introverted and naturally bad in meetings
A note on scope & terminology
CHAPTER ONE The Mom Test
let's look at two conversations with mom and see what we can learn about our business idea: digital cookbooks for the iPad
Failing the mom test
Passing the mom test
What’s the last thing you did on it?”
I didn’t know there was an app. What’s it called?
Where did you find out about the other ones you use?
The Sunday paper has a section on the apps of the week.” You can’t remember the last time you cracked open a paper, but it sounds like traditional PR might be a viable option for reaching customers like your mom.
Hey, by the way, I saw a couple new cookbooks on the shelf — where did those come from?”
They’re one of those things you just end up getting at Christmas. I think Marcy gave me that one. Haven’t even opened it. As if I need another lasagna recipe at my age!” Aha! This answer is gold dust for 3 reasons: 1. Old people don’t need another generic set of recipes. 2. The gift market may be strong . 3. Younger cooks may be a better customer segment since they don’t yet know the basics.
What’s the last cookbook you did buy for yourself?” Attack generic answers like “I don’t buy cookbooks” by asking for specific examples.
Now that you mention it, I bought a vegan cookbook about 3 months ago. Your father is trying to eat healthier and thought my veggies could benefit from a pinch more zazz.” More gold: experienced chefs may still buy specialised or niche cookbooks
A useful conversation
The measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers' lives and world views
Our original idea looked like this: old people like cookbooks and iPads. Therefore, we will build a cookbook for the iPad. It’s generic.
With an idea this vague, we can’t answer any of the difficult questions like which recipes to include or how people will hear about it.
After just one conversation (with our mom, of all people), we have a higher fidelity vision. We now see that there are at least 2 specific customer market segments we might serve, each of which needs a slightly different product. We’ve also identified some major risks to address before we commit too heavily.
Mom was unable to lie to us because we never talked about our idea.
That’s kind of weird, right? We find out if people care about what we’re doing by never mentioning it. Instead, we talk about them and their lives
Here are 3 simple rules to help you. They are collectively called (drumroll) The Mom Test:
The Mom Test:
- Talk about their life instead of your idea
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
- Talk less and listen more
It’s called The Mom Test because it leads to questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about
Good question / bad question
"Do you think it's a good idea?"
Awful question! Here’s the thing: only the market can tell if your idea is good.
"Would you buy a product which did X?"
Bad question. You’re asking for opinions and hypotheticals from overly optimistic people who want to make you happy. The answer to a question like this is almost always “yes”, which makes it worthless
How much would you pay for X?"
Bad question. This is exactly as bad as the last one, except it’s more likely to trick you because the number makes it feel rigorous and truthy
How much does the problem cost them? How much do they currently pay to solve it?
What would your dream product do?"
Sort-of-okay question, but only if you ask good follow-ups
You don’t want to just collect feature requests
Why do you bother?"
Good question. I love this sort of question. It’s great for getting from the perceived problem to the real one.
A question like “why do you bother” points toward their motivations. It gives you the why
You're shooting blind until you understand their goals.
What are the implications of that?"
Good question. This distinguishes between I-will-pay-to-solve-that problems and thats-kind-of-annoying-but-I-can-deal-with-it “problems”.
Talk me through the last time that happened."
Folks can’t be wishy-washy when you’re watching them do the task in question. Get as close to the real action as you can.
What else have you tried?"
Did you google around for any other ways to solve it?” He seemed a little bit like he’d been caught stealing from the cookie jar and said, “No… I didn’t really think to. It’s something I’m used to dealing with, you know?”
Would you pay X for a product which did Y?"
How are you dealing with it now?"
Where does the money come from?"
Good question. This isn't something you would necessarily ask a consumer (though you might), but in a B2B context it’s a must-ask
Who else should I talk to?"
Good question. Yes! End every conversation like this
"Is there anything else I should have asked?"
Good question. Usually, by the end of the meeting, people understand what you’re trying to do. Since you don’t know the industry, they’ll often be sitting there quietly while you completely miss the most important point.
Using the mom test
none of the good questions were about asking what you should build.
CHAPTER TWO - Avoiding bad data
There are three types of bad data:
Fluff (generics, hypotheticals, and the future)
you don’t need to end up with what you wanted to hear in order to have a good conversation. You just need to get to the truth. Here’s a good conversation with a solid negative result
Did you notice that in the conversations above, practically every response contains a sneaky compliment? They are pervasive, constantly trying to trick us into thinking the conversation “went well”.
Fluff comes in 3 cuddly shapes:
*Generic claims (“I usually”, "I always", "I never") *
Future-tense promises (“I would”, "I will")
Hypothetical maybes ("I might", "I could"
The world’s most deadly fluff is: “I would definitely buy that.”
The worst type of fluff-inducing question is, “Would you ever?”
sometimes these questions can even help you transition into more concrete questioning
that person is a complainer, not a customer. They’re stuck in the la-la-land of imagining they’re the sort of person who finds clever ways to solve the petty annoyances of their day.
anchor them toward the life they already lead and the actions they’re already taking
Dig beneath ideas
take a moment to dig into the motivations behind the request
Maybe there’s an easier way I can help you achieve the same thing.
At my first company Habit, we were adapting our product to sell to enterprise companies. MTV told me they needed analytics and reports for their campaigns
they asked if we could add their logo and colours to the reports
I asked, “Why do you want this feature? What do branded reports get you that unbranded ones don’t? It’s the same data, right?” She replied, “Oh yeah, of course. I mean, nobody even reads these. Our clients just like to get something emailed to them at the end of every week and we think they’d be happier if it was a bit fancier, you know?” I knew exactly.
They had asked for analytics. We had jumped to the conclusion that they wanted to better understand their data. But they had really wanted a way to keep their own clients happy. If we had properly understood that, we would have built a totally different (and much simpler) set of features.
You should dig in the same way around emotional signals to understand where they’re coming from. Just like feature requests, any strong emotion is worth exploring
Stop seeking approval
keep the conversation focused on the other person and ask about specific, concrete cases and examples
Cut off pitches
If you slip into pitch mode, just apologise. You’re excited about your idea
CHAPTER THREE - Asking important questions
you also need to look for the world-rocking scary questions you’re shrinking from. The best way to find them is to run thought experiments. Imagine that the company has failed and ask why that happened. Then imagine it as a huge success and ask what had to be true to get there. Find ways to learn about those critical pieces.
You can tell it’s an important question when the answer to it could completely change (or disprove) your business. If you get an unexpected answer to a question and it doesn’t affect what you’re doing, it wasn’t a terribly important question
in all my early customer conversations, I never asked to talk to their lawyers
questions. I once heard the general life advice that, for unpleasant tasks, you should imagine what you would have someone else do if you were delegating it. Then do that.
Rule of thumb: You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation
Love bad news
You’re searching for the truth, not trying to be right. And you want to do it as quickly and cheaply as possible. Learning that your beliefs are wrong is frustrating, but it’s progress.
The classic error in response to a lukewarm signal is to “up your game” and pitch them until they say something nice. Unless they’re holding a check, the only thing to gain from “convincing” them are false positives
Look before you zoom
Most people have lots of problems which they don’t actually care enough about to fix, but which they’ll happily tell you the details of if you ask them
A (really, really) bad conversation:
You: “How often do you go to the gym?”
Them: “Not really ever.
And could you rank these 4 in terms of which is most important to you in a fitness program: convenience, personalisation, novelty, or cost?” Note that we’re still assuming we’re talking to a person who actually cares about getting in shape. Questions like this don’t actually tell you if the person cares about any of it at all.
Let’s re-run the same conversation, but instead of immediately zooming in on exercise, we’ll start more generic, since we aren’t sure that fitness is a must-solve problem:
You: “What are your big goals and focuses right now?”
we don’t always need to start the conversation from the square one of do-they-care-at-all.
We know that marketing is always a top 3 problem for small businesses, so we can focus on it and start the conversation by zooming in with a question like:
You: What are your big problems with marketing?
Start broad and don't zoom in until you’ve found a strong signal, both with your whole business and with every conversation.
Look at the elephant
Successful startups tend to depend on multiple failure points
It's tempting to obsess over the most interesting of several failure points and ignore the others. It's a great way to miss important questions.
The key phrase of “if you could get me more gigs” is basically shifting the burden from the customer to your product
This situation is easier to spot in the online advertising industry
Similarly with affiliate commissions
In all of these examples, the risk is in your product, not in the market or the customer
I’ve also seen this strike several of the recent companies who want to use mobile/realtime deals to drive foot traffic to bars and clubs
Video games are pure product risk
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t talk to anyone if you’re building something with product risk
What all this does mean is that if you’ve got heavy product risk (as opposed to pure market risk), then you’re not going to be able to prove as much of your business through conversations alone. The conversations give you a starting point, but you’ll have to start building product earlier and with less certainty than if you had pure market risk.
Prepare your list of 3
Always pre-plan the 3 most important things you want to learn from any given type of person
Knowing your list allows you to take better advantage of serendipitous encounters
CHAPTER FOUR - Keeping it casual
In his original book on Customer Development, 4 Steps to the E.piphany, Steve Blank solves this by recommending 3 separate meetings: the first about the customer and their problem; the second about your solution; and the third to sell a product
But once I started doing it, it felt like a bad use of my time
If the solution isn’t a 3-meeting series, then what is it? You may have noticed a trend throughout the conversation examples we’ve seen so far: keeping it casual.
I bump into one at a conference. I’m not going to try to set up a meeting. Instead, I’m just going to immediately transition into my most important question
you can go to a industry meet-up and leave with a dozen customer conversations under your belt, each of which provided as much value as a formal meeting.
The structure of separate problem/solution/sales conversations is critical for avoiding bias, but it’s important to realise that the first one doesn’t actually need to be a meeting
The meeting anti-pattern
Beyond being a bad use of your time and setting expectations that you’re going to show them a product, over-reliance on formal meetings can cause us to overlook perfectly good chances for serendipitous learning
I was considering a product idea to make office managers more efficient. I played with the possibilities on Friday, figured out the big questions over the weekend, and then went to an industry event on Monday. A handful of office managers were there and without any of them realising we’d “had a meeting”, I'd learned that the big problem was really about debt collection rather than efficiency
At their best, these conversations are a pleasure for both parties. You’re probably the first person in a long time to be truly interested in the petty annoyances of their day.
How long are meetings?
Early conversations are very fast. The chats grow longer as you move from the early broad questions (“Is this a real problem?”) toward more specific product and industry issues (“Which other software do we have to integrate with to close the sale?”).
Once you have a product and the meetings take on a more sales-oriented feel, you’ll want to start carving out clear blocks of 30+ minutes
The potential speed of the early conversations one of the big reasons I like keeping it casual and skipping the meeting
Putting it together
Of course, it took me a 2-hour commute to get to those 5 minutes
Sometimes, however, it goes in the opposite direction and everything we learn from customers makes us even more excited. In that case, we stand atop all that we’ve learned and take the visionary leap of coming up with a specific product and business to make our customers’ lives better. And then we ask them to commit to it.
CHAPTER FIVE - Commitment and advancement
Once we've learned the key facts about our industry and customers, it’s time to zoom in again and start revealing our idea and showing some product. The bad news is that this invites nefarious compliments. The good news is that since we have the beginnings of a product, we're now in a position to cut through the false positives by asking for commitments
In sales, moving a sales relationship to the next stage is called "advancement
When you fail to push for advancement, you end up with zombie leads
By giving them a clear chance to either commit or reject us, we get out of the friend-zone and can identify the real leads
They haven't given up anything of value
commitment and advancement are separate concepts which overlap quite a lot and tend to appear together.
Commitment — They are showing they’re serious by giving up something they value such as time, reputation, or money.
Advancement — They are moving to the next step of your real-world funnel and getting closer to a sale.
Meetings succeed or fail
It took me years to learn that there’s no such thing as a meeting which just "went well". Every meeting either succeeds or fails. You've lost the meeting when you leave with a compliment or a stalling tactic.
Rule of thumb: If you don’t know what happens next after a product or sales meeting, the meeting was pointless.
The currencies of conversation