« The Mom Test

Rob Fitzpatrick

May 10, 2020 • 15 min read

Book Review

the mom test cover

I finished this book some time last month and compiled these notes earlier this week, without realizing the coincidence that I’ll end up publishing this on Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day to all moms out there :)

The Mom Test is exactly the kind of book that I want to read — short, original, and to-the-point. User Research is a huge buzzword now — folks realize it can save you world of pain if you do it right. “Just talk to your users” is one piece of advice that you can give to any entrepreneur or product person and never be wrong (or more right!), but the sad reality is that nobody really knows how they are supposed to be doing it, or what exactly they are supposed to be getting out of it.

In this book, Rob Fitzpatrick will teach you how to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you. Here are my notes from the book:

The Mom Test

  1. Talk about their life instead of your idea.
  2. Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future.
  3. Talk less and listen more.

Rules of thumb

  • Customer conversations are bad by default. It’s your job to fix them.
  • Opinions are worthless.
  • Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie.
  • People will lie to you if they think it’s what you want to hear.
  • People know what their problems are, but they don’t know how to solve those problems.
  • You’re shooting blind until you understand their goals.
  • Some problems don’t actually matter.
  • Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies really are, not where the customer thinks they are.
  • If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours.
  • People stop lying when you ask them for money. While it’s rare for someone to tell you precisely what they’ll pay you, they’ll often show you what it’s worth to them.
  • People want to help you. Give them an excuse to do so. It boils down to this: you aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is, and in return, they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build. They own the problem, you own the solution.
  • Compliments are the fool’s gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless.
  • Ideas and feature requests should be understood, but not obeyed.
  • Anyone will say your idea is great if you’re annoying enough about it.
  • The more you’re talking, the worse you’re doing.
  • You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation.
  • There’s more reliable information in a “meh” than a “Wow!” You can’t build a business on a lukewarm response.
  • Start broad and don’t zoom in until you’ve found a strong signal, both with your whole business and with every conversation.
  • You always need a list of your 3 big questions.
  • If it feels like they’re doing you a favor by talking to you, it’s probably too formal.
  • Give as little information as possible about your idea while still nudging the discussion in a useful direction.
  • “Customers” who keep being friendly but aren’t ever going to buy are a particularly dangerous source of mixed signals.
  • If you don’t know what happens next after a product or sales meeting, the meeting was pointless.
  • The more they’re giving up, the more seriously you can take what they’re saying.
  • It’s not a real lead until you’ve given them a concrete chance to reject you.
  • In early stage sales, the real goal is learning. Revenue is a side-effect.
  • Keep having conversations until you stop hearing new stuff.
  • Good customer segments are a who-where pair. If you don’t know where to go to find your customers, keep slicing your segment into smaller pieces until you do.
  • If you don’t know what you’re trying to learn, you shouldn’t bother having the conversation.

Highlights

  • Trying to learn from customer conversations is like excavating a delicate archaeological site. The truth is down there somewhere, but it’s fragile. While each blow with your shovel gets you closer to the truth, you’re liable to smash it into a million little pieces if you use too blunt an instrument.
  • The Mom Test is a set of simple rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about.
  • The measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers’ lives and world views.
  • Until we get specific, it always seems like a good idea.
  • If you just avoid mentioning your idea, you automatically start asking better questions. Doing this is the easiest (and biggest) improvement you can make to your customer conversations.
  • There are three types of bad data: Compliments Fluff (generics, hypotheticals, and the future) Ideas
  • Most of your meetings will end with a compliment. It feels good. They said they liked it! Unfortunately, they’re almost certainly lying.
  • With the exception of industry experts who have built very similar businesses, opinions are worthless. You want facts and commitments, not compliments.
  • 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 worst type of fluff-inducing question you can ask is, “Would you ever?” Of course they might. Someday. That doesn’t mean they will. Other fluff-inducing questions include:
  • “Do you ever…” “Would you ever…” “What do you usually…” “Do you think you…” “Might you…” “Could you see yourself…”
  • You can’t help but laugh when you overhear these exchanges. “Someone should definitely make an X!” “Have you looked for an X?” “No, why?” “There are like 10 different kinds of X.” “Well, I didn’t really need it anyway.” Long story short, 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.
  • Questions to dig into feature requests: “Why do you want that?” “What would that let you do?” “How are you coping without it?” “Do you think we should push back the launch to add that feature, or is it something we could add later?” “How would that fit into your day?”
  • Questions to dig into emotional signals: “Tell me more about that.” “That seems to really bug you — I bet there’s a story here.” “What makes it so awful?” “Why haven’t you been able to fix this already?” “You seem pretty excited about that — it’s a big deal?” “Why so happy?” “Go on.”
  • As we’ve seen, compliments are dangerous and sneaky. So if we can nip them in the bud before they bloom, so much the better. The main source of compliment-creation is seeking approval, either intentionally or inadvertently.
  • Keep your idea and your ego out of the conversation until you’re ready to ask for commitments.
  • Once you start talking about your idea, they stop talking about their problems.
  • In addition to ensuring that you aren’t asking trivialities, you also need to search out the world-rocking scary questions you’ve been unintentionally shrinking from.
  • The best way to find them is with 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 its answer could completely change (or disprove) your business.
  • You’re not here to collect compliments; you’re trying to learn the truth. Their lukewarm response already gave you that.
  • Understand the nature of their apathy. Is the “problem” not actually that big of a deal? Are they fundamentally different from your ideal customers? Do they not care about the specific implementation? Are they worn out and skeptical from hearing too many pitches?
  • Zooming in too quickly on a super-specific problem before you understand the rest of the customers life can irreparably confuse your learnings.
  • We don’t always need to start the conversation from square one of “do they care at all?” Sometimes we already know the problem exists as a top priority and we can safely zoom in immediately.
  • When it’s not clear whether a problem is a must-solve-right-now (e.g. you’re selling a painkiller) or a nice-to-have (you’re selling a vitamin), you can get some clarity by asking cost/value questions.
  • “How seriously do you take your blog?” “Do you make money from it?” “Have you tried making more money from it?” “How much time do you spend on it each week?” “Do you have any major aspirations for your blog?” “Which tools and services do you use for it?” “What are you already doing to improve this?” “What are the 3 big things you’re trying to fix or improve right now?”
  • Product risk — Can I build it? Can I grow it? Customer/market risk — Do they want it? Will they pay me? Are there lots of them?
  • Video games are pure product risk. What sort of question could you ask to validate your game idea? “Do you like having fun? Would you like to have even more fun?”
  • 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.
  • Pre-plan the 3 most important things you want to learn from any given type of person (e.g. customers, investors, industry experts, key hires, etc). Update the list as your questions change.
  • Don’t stress too much about choosing the “right” important questions. They will change. Just choose whatever seems murkiest or most important right now. Answer those will give you firmer footing and a better sense of direction for your next 3.
  • There’s overlap and repetition, but you don’t need to repeat the full set of questions with every participant.
  • When you strip all the formality from the process, you end up with no meetings, no “interviews”, and a much easier time all around.
  • 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. It works better as a chat.
  • The Meeting Anti-Pattern is the tendency to relegate every opportunity for customer conversation into a calendar block.
  • When you fail to push for advancement, you end up with zombie leads: potential customers (or investors) who keep taking meetings and saying nice things, but who never seem to cut a check. It’s like your startup has been friend-zoned.
  • 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 purchasing.
  • 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.
  • The major currencies are time, reputation risk, and cash.
  • The big error you can make here is to mistake this compliment-stall for a pre-order (“He said he’ll buy it when it launches!”). To fix it, look for a commitment you can ask for today.
  • If you are very early stage, you might ask for an introduction to his boss or tech team or the budget-holder so you can “make sure you fully understand their needs.” The point is just to find something to ask for that they are going to think twice about giving you.
  • “There are a couple people I can introduce you to when you’re ready.” Nearly a good meeting, but right now it’s bad. There’s some data here, but probably not as much as you initially hope.
  • Knowing what “ready” means can also give you a better sense of your short-term goals.
  • But with next steps in your pocket, you’ve got a fighting chance. Keep an eye out for non-committal next steps such as to “think” or “check with the team” or “find a time to chat.”
  • As always, think in terms of currency. What are they giving up to try it out? If your trial is too “cheap”, you can try to increase its cost. For example, you could ask to write a case study about them after they’ve spent 2 weeks using it. Or you could get them to promise to try using it with their team for at least a week.
  • A lost meeting can often be saved by just pushing for a commitment at the end while you’re being brushed off with a compliment.
  • Steve Blank calls them earlyvangelists (early evangelists). In the enterprise software world, they are the people who: Have the problem Know they have the problem Have the budget to solve the problem Have already cobbled together their own makeshift solution
  • What does it mean if you reach out to 100 people and 98 of them hang up on you? Well, nothing, except that people don’t like getting cold calls. No surprise there. More importantly, it means you’ve now got 2 conversations in play. Unless your plan is to sell your app via cold calls, the rejection rate is irrelevant.
  • The only thing people love talking about more than themselves is their problems. By taking an interest in the problems and minutia of their day, you’re already more interesting than 99% of the people they’ve ever met.
  • The practical downside is that no matter how well the chat goes, it’s impossible to transition into a product or sales conversation, since doing so reveals your initial deception and destroys trust. When I open with an excuse, I tend to consider the chat to be a throwaway for one-time learning instead of an ongoing relationship.
  • Paul Graham suggests that generic launch can be a solid start for the same reason. Get your product out there, see who seems to like it most, and then reach out to those types of users for deeper learning.
  • Organise meetups: Nobody ever follows this recommendation, but it’s the first thing I would do if I moved a new industry or geography. It’s the fastest and most unfair trick I’ve seen for rapid customer learning. As a bonus, it also bootstraps your industry credibility. Speaking & teaching and Industry blogging are also great avenues for finding your users.
  • Framing like, “Can I interview you” or “Thanks for agreeing to this interview” both set set off alarm bells that this meeting is going to be super boring.
  • The framing format I like has five key elements. You’re an entrepreneur trying to solve horrible problem X, usher in wonderful vision Y, or fix stagnant industry Z. Don’t mention your idea. Frame expectations by mentioning what stage you’re at and, if it’s true, that you don’t have anything to sell. Show weakness and give them a chance to help by mentioning the specific problem that you’re looking for answers on. This will also clarify that you’re not a time waster. Put them on a pedestal by showing how much they, in particular, can help. Explicitly ask for help. Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask.

Hey Scott, I run a startup trying to make advertising more playful and ultimately effective (vision). We’re having a load of trouble figuring out how all the pieces of the industry fit together and where we can best fit into it (weakness). You know more about this industry than anyone and could really save us from a ton of mistakes (pedestal). We’re funded and have a couple products out already, but this is in no way a sales meeting — we’re just moving into a new area and could really use some of your expertise (framing). Can you spare a bit of time in the next week to help point us in the right direction over a coffee? (ask)

  • In most situations, I don’t think the added volume is worth the information you lose by not being in the room. I get confused enough by what people are telling me in person. Losing access to their face and body language feels like shooting myself in the foot.
  • The same is decidedly not true on the phone or Skype. People try to squeeze calls in between other activities, wondering how quickly they can “finish with business” and hang up. Folks on the phone are super annoyed when you “just want to chat”. So you need to make the whole thing more formal, which is one of the exact mistakes we’re trying to avoid!
  • Willpower is a finite resource.
  • Under perfect circumstances where your first guesses are mostly correct and you’re in a relatively simple industry that you already understand, then you it might only take 3-5 conversations to confirm what you already believe.
  • If you’ve run more than 10 conversations and are still getting results that are all over the map, then it’s possible that your customer segment is too vague, which means you’re mashing together feedback from multiple different types of customers.
  • It’s not about “how many” meetings. It’s about having enough for you to really understand your customers.
  • Startups don’t starve, they drown. You never have too few options, too few leads, or too few ideas; you have too many. You get overwhelmed. You do a little bit of everything. When it comes to getting above water and making faster progress, good customer segmentation is your best friend.
  • In their early days, Google helped PhD students find obscure bits of code. Paypal helped collectors buy and sell Pez dispensers and Beanie Babies more efficiently.
  • When you have a fuzzy sense of who you’re serving, you end up talking to a multiple customer segments all at once, which leads to confusing signals and three problems: You get overwhelmed by options and don’t know where to start You aren’t moving forward but can’t prove yourself wrong. You receive mixed feedback and can’t make sense of it.
  • There are countless kinds of sales organisations with fundamentally different needs, workflows, tools and goals. But from the outside, they all look like companies who do sales.
  • Even if you narrow it down with a demographic constraint, as these guys did (sales organisations with 25-250 salespeople), you’re still facing impossible amounts of variation. In these cases, an industry expert can be hugely helpful in providing a taxonomy of the industry.
  • If you’re facing a generic or varied set of customer segments, you can use Customer Slicing to pick a concrete starting point. Start with any segment and then keep slicing off better and better sub-sets of it until you’ve got a tangible sense of who you can go talk to and where you can find them. Start with a broad segment and ask: Within this group, which type of person would want it most? Would everyone within this group buy/use it, or only some? Why does that sub-set want it? (e.g. what is their specific problem) Does everyone in the group have that motivation or only some? What additional motivations are there? Which other types of people have these motivations?
  • If there isn’t a clear physical or digital location at which you can find your customer segment, then it’s probably still too broad. Go back up the list and slice it into finer pieces until you know where to find them. A customer segment isn’t very useful if there’s no way you can get in touch.
  • Now that we have a bunch of who-where pairs, we can decide who to start with based on who seems most: Profitable or big Easy to reach Personally rewarding
  • You can’t get the data you need if you’re talking to the wrong people. There are 3 ways to end up fall into this clearly unhelpful trap. You have too-broad of a segment and are talking to everyone You have multiple customer segments and missed some of them You are selling to businesses with a complicated buying process and have overlooked some of the stakeholders.
  • You’ll also need to worry about multiple groups if you rely on an important partner, whether for manufacturing, distribution, or promotion. If your business relies on them, you’d better understand their goals and constraints just as well as you understand those of your customers.
  • When all the customer learning is stuck in someone’s head instead of being disseminated to the rest of the team, you’ve got a learning bottleneck. Avoid creating (or being) the bottleneck.
  • Avoiding bottlenecks has three parts: prepping, reviewing, and taking good notes.
  • It’s easier to guide the conversation and stay on track if you have an existing set of beliefs that you’re updating. Spend up to an hour writing down your best guesses about what the person you’re about to talk to cares about and wants.
  • The goal is to ensure the learning is now on paper and in everyone’s head instead of just in yours. Talk through the key quotes and main takeaways of the conversation, as well as any problems you ran into.
  • Everyone on the team who is making big decisions (including tech decisions) needs to be involved in at least the occasional customer conversation.
  • Meetings go best when you’ve got two people at them. Don’t send more than two people unless it’s group-on-group or you’ve got a particularly good reason to do so. Three folks interviewing someone can be a little overwhelming.
  • Until you’ve got a working business model and a repeatable sales or marketing process, the founders need to be in the meetings themselves.
  • When possible, write down exact quotes. Wrap them in quotation marks so you know it’s verbatim.
  • You can later use them in your marketing language, fundraising decks, and to resolve arguments with skeptical teammates. Other times the details aren’t so relevant and you can just jot down the gist.
  • Someone saying “that’s a problem” can be interpreted totally differently depending on whether they are neutral or outraged.

Symbols for note taking

Emotion symbols

:) Excited
:( Angry
:| Embarrassed

Life symbols

☇ Pain or problem (symbol is a lightning bolt)
⨅ Goal or job-to-be-done (symbol is a soccer/football goal)
☐ Obstacle
⤴ Workaround
^ Background or context (symbol is a distant mountain)

These five “life” symbols are your bread and butter. Combine them with emotion symbols where appropriate. Pains and obstacles carry a lot more weight when someone is embarrassed or angry about them.

Specifics symbols

☑ Feature request or purchasing criteria
$ Money or budgets or purchasing process
♀ Mentioned a specific person or company
☆ Follow-up task

Where to write it down You want to take your customer notes so that they are: Able to be sorted, mixed, and re-arranged Able to be combined with the notes of the rest of your team Permanent and retrievable Not mixed in with other random noise like todo lists and ideas

Before, During, and After

The process before a batch of conversations:

  • If you haven’t yet, choose a focused, findable segment
  • With your team, decide your big 3 learning goals
  • If relevant, decide on ideal next steps and commitments
  • If conversations are the right tool, figure out who to talk to
  • Create a series of best guesses about what the person cares about
  • If a question could be answered via desk research, do that first

During the conversation:

  • Frame the conversation
  • Keep it casual
  • Ask good questions which pass The Mom Test
  • Deflect compliments, anchor fluff, and dig beneath signals
  • Take good notes
  • If relevant, press for commitment and next steps

After a batch of conversations:

  • With your team, review your notes and key customer quotes
  • If relevant, transfer notes into permanent storage
  • Update your beliefs and plans
  • Decide on the next 3 big questions

Don’t spend a week prepping for meetings; spend an hour and then go talk to people. Anything more is stalling.

Conclusion

People love startups. Startups do cool stuff and make their lives better. When entrepreneurs screw up, people want to forgive them. They want the entrepreneur and the startup to succeed.

This is #54 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.