Rob Fitzpatrick – The Mom Test

My Opinion

I’ve been positively surprised how well written and thought through this book is. In a very structured and precise approach Fitzpatrick describes how to have successful customer conversation.

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

The danger of the wrong conversation. Bad customer conversations aren’t just useless. Worse, they convince you that you’re on the right path.

Only facts matter. The measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers’ lives and world views. These facts, in turn, help us improve our business.

Don’t mention your business. 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.

Rules of thumb: 

  • Opinions are worthless. Only facts matter. Only the market knows if something will work out.
  • Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie.
  • People will lie to you if they think it’s what you want to hear.
  • The more you’re talking, the worse you’re doing.

Mitigation: To avoid these biases, use 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.

Dig deep on focus on the past and present. Ask how they currently solve X and how much it costs them to do so. And how much time it takes. Ask them to talk you through what happened the last time X came up. If they haven’t solved the problem, ask why not. Have they tried searching for solutions and found them wanting? Or do they not even care enough to have Googled for it?

Rule of thumb: People know what their problems are, but they don’t know how to solve those problems. That’s your job. 
The questions to ask are about your customers’ lives: their problems, cares, constraints, and goals. You humbly and honestly gather as much information about them as you can and then take your own visionary leap to a solution. Once you’ve taken the leap, you confirm that it’s correct (and refine it). 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. 

Rule of thumb: You’re shooting blind until you understand their goals.
Mitigation: “Why do you bother?” It’s great for getting from the perceived problem to the real one.
Example: Some founders I knew were talking to finance guys spending hours each day sending emails about their spreadsheets. The finance guys were asking for better messaging tools so they could save time. The “why do you bother” question led to “so we can be certain that we’re all working off the latest version.” Aha. The solution ended up being less like the requested messaging tool and more like Dropbox. A question like “why do you bother” points toward their motivations. It gives you the why.

Rule of thumb: Some problems don’t actually matter .
Mitigation: “What are the implications of that?” Good question. This distinguishes between “I-will-pay-to-solve-that problems” and that’s-kind-of-annoying-but-I-can-deal-with-it“ problems. Some problems have big, costly implications. Others exist but don’t actually matter. 

Rule of thumb: Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies really are , not where the customer thinks they are .
Mitigation: “Talk me through the last time that happened.” Whenever possible, you want to be shown, not told, by your customers. Learn through their actions instead of their opinions. Being walked through their full workflow answers many questions in one fell swoop: 

  • How do they spend their days, 
  • What tools do they use, and who do they talk to? 
  • What are the constraints of their day and life? 
  • How does your product fit into that day? 
  • Which other tools, products , software, and tasks does your product need to integrate with?

Rule of thumb: If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours.

Mitigation: “What else have you tried?” It’s easy to get someone emotional about a problem if you lead them there. 

Example: “Don’t you hate when your shoelaces come untied while you’re carrying groceries?” “Yeah, that’s the worst!” And then I go off and design my special never – come – untied laces without realising that if you actually cared, you would already be using a double – knot.

Rule of thumb: 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.

Mitigation: “How are you dealing with it now?” Good question. Beyond workflow information, this gives you a price anchor.

Two questions to end every conversation with: 

  • “Who else should I talk to?” 
  • “Is there anything else I should have asked?”

There are three types of bad data: 

  • Compliments 
  • Fluff (generics, hypotheticals, and the future) 
  • Ideas

Don’t listen to opinions. With the exception of industry experts who have built very similar businesses, opinions are worthless. You want facts and commitments, not compliments.

Ignoring compliments should be easy, but it’s not. We crave validation and ,as such, are often tricked into registering compliments as reliable data instead of vacuous fibs. 

Rule of thumb: Compliments are the fool’s gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless.

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 questions are:

  • “Would you ever?” (of course they might. Someday.) 
  • “Do you ever …”
  • “Would you ever …” 
  • “What do you usually …” 
  • “Do you think you …” 
  • “Might you …” 
  • “Could you see yourself …”

Be specific. While using generics, people describe themselves as who they want to be, not who they actually are. You need to get specific to bring out the edge cases.
Example: Let’s say you’re building a mobile loyalty app to help stores give deals and discounts to their most loyal customers and you hear the guy in line in front of you complaining: A bad conversation (pitching and accepting fluff): 
Them: “Which idiot decided it was a good idea to make me carry around a thousand cafe loyalty cards?” 
You: “Ohmygosh hi! I just so happen to be building a mobile app to help stores give out discounts to their most loyal customers so you’d never need to carry paper cards again. Do you think you would use something like that?” This is pretty much as bad of a question as you can find. You’ve revealed your ego and asked a “would you ever ” question. You’re begging for a false positive.

Startups are about focusing and executing on a single , scalable idea rather than jumping on every good one which crosses your desk .

Rule of thumb: Ideas and feature requests should be understood, but not obeyed.
Mitigation: When you hear a request, it’s your job to understand the motivations which led to it. You do that by digging around the question to find the root cause. Why do they bother doing it this way? Why do they want the feature? How are they currently coping without the feature? Dig.
“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?” 

The main source of compliment – creation is seeking approval, either intentionally or inadvertently. Doing it intentionally is fishing for compliments. In other words, you aren’t really looking for contradictory information. You’ve already made up your mind, but need someone’s blessing to take the leap. Symptoms of Fishing For Compliments: “I’m thinking of starting a business … so, do you think it will work?”

Rules of thumb: 

  • If you’ve mentioned your idea, people will try to protect your feelings.
  •  Anyone will say your idea is great if you’re annoying enough about it.

Mitigation: In short, remember that compliments are worthless and people’s approval doesn’t make your business better. Keep your idea and your ego out of the conversation until you’re ready to ask for commitments.

Rule of thumb: You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation .

Rule of thumb: Start broad and don’t zoom in until you’ve found a strong signal, both with your whole business and with every conversation.

Two types of risks: 

  • 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?

Example: 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?” Practically 100 % of the risk is in the product and almost none is in the customer. You know people buy games. If yours is good and you can find a way to make them notice it, they’ll buy it. You don’t need to rediscover people’s desire to play video games.
Implications: 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 the product earlier and with less certainty than if you had pure market risk.

Rule of thumb: You always need a list of your 3 big questions .

Separate your meetings. In Steve Blank’s original book on Customer Development he 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. In practice, however, this might be difficult. To even find a suitable number of users to talk to, Steve recommends starting with friendly first contacts. 

The power of casual conversations. Instead of scheduled meetings, casual conversations on meetups or conferences (or even some kind of private gathering for that matter) work just equally well. The conversations become so fast and lightweight that you can go to an industry meetup and leave with a dozen customer conversations under your belt, each of which provided as much value as a lengthy formal meeting .

Rule of thumb: Learning about a customer and their problems works better as a quick and casual chat than a long, formal meeting.

Rule of thumb: Give as little information as possible about your idea while still nudging the discussion in a useful direction.

Two concepts to differentiate between:
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 purchasing.

First customers are crazy. Crazy in a good way. They really, really want what you’re making. They want it so badly that they’re willing to be the crazy person who tries it first. Keep an eye out for the people who get emotional about what you’re doing. There is a significant difference between: “Yeah, that’s a problem” and “THAT IS THE WORST PART OF MY LIFE AND I WILL PAY YOU RIGHT NOW TO FIX IT.”

Steve Blank calls them earlyvangelists (early evangelists). In the consumer space, this is the fan who wants your product to succeed so badly that they’ll front you the money as a pre-order when all you’ve got is a duct – tape prototype. They’re the one who will tell all their friends to chip in as well. They’re the person reading your blog and searching for workarounds.

Keep your early customers close. Firstly, when someone isn’t too emotional about what you’re doing, they are unlikely to end up being one of your crazy first customers. Keep them on the list and try to make them happy, of course, but don’t count on them to write the first check. Secondly, whenever you see the deep emotion, do your utmost to keep that person close. They are the rare, precious fan who will get you through the hard times and give you your first sale.

Rules of thumb: 

  • If it’s not a formal meeting, you don’t need to make excuses about why you’re there or even mention that you’re starting a business. Just ask about their life.
  • If it’s a topic you both care about, find an excuse to talk about it. Your idea never needs to enter the equation and you’ll both enjoy the chat.

Testing your value proposition via landing pages. The value of these quantitative metrics might be doubtful. But they are certainly a great way to collect emails of qualified leads for you to reach out to and strike up a conversation with.

Generic launch. 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. For marginally more effort than attending an event, you can organise your own and benefit from being the centre of attention. Nobody ever follows this recommendation, but it’s the first thing I would do if I moved to 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.

When asking for user interviews: Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask

  • 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. 

Example Hey Pete, I’m trying to make desk & office rental less of a pain for new businesses (vision). We’re just starting out and don’t have anything to sell, but want to make sure we’re building something that actually helps (framing). I’ve only ever come at it from the tenant’s side and I’m having a hard time understanding how it all works from the landlord’s perspective (weakness). You’ve been renting out desks for a while and could really help me cut through the fog (pedestal). Do you have time in the next couple weeks to meet up for a chat? (ask)

Pay attention to your types of customers. 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.

Rule of thumb: Keep having conversations until you stop hearing new stuff .

Focus! They say that 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.

The danger of being too broad. If you start too generic, everything is watered down. Your marketing message is generic. You suffer feature creep. 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. Evernote helped moms save and share recipes.

Rule of thumb: If you aren’t finding consistent problems and goals, you don’t have a specific enough customer segment .

Mitigation: Before we can serve everyone, we have to serve someone. Otherwise, every debate over a new feature could be won by claiming , “Well , those guys would love it.” The reverse argument could be made to prevent any feature’s removal. Progress cannot be made. 

Example: Imagine that we’re building something for “students”. I’ve got a picture of an American undergraduate in my head, and maybe you picture a British grad student, but we manage to agree on features and start building.
We conduct 20 conversations with our customers. The feedback is inconsistent. Problem: We had conversations with 20 different types of customers. 

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?

Rule of thumb: 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 there isn’t a clear physical or digital location at which you can find your customer segment, then it’s probably still too broad.

Three criterias for your target customers. You’ll broaden your segment back out later. But your learning will go faster (and be more useful) for now by choosing someone who is specific and who also and meets the three big criteria of being reachable, profitable, and personally rewarding .

Don’t do it alone. A common anti – pattern is for the business guy to go to all the meetings and subsequently tell the rest of the team what they should do. Bad idea. Telling the rest of the team “What I learned” is functionally equivalent to telling them “What you’ll do.” Therefore, owning the customer conversations creates a de-facto dictator with “The customer said so” as the ultimate trump card.

When preparing, ensure you know your current list of 3 big questions. Figure them out with your team and make a point to face the scary questions.

Create a skeleton in advance. 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. You’ll probably be wrong, but it’s easier to keep the discussion on track and hit important points if you’ve created a skeleton. If you have an appropriately focused segment, then you’ll only rarely need to do this.

Rule of thumb: If you don’t know what you’re trying to learn , you shouldn’t bother having the conversation. All you’re really trying to figure out is: What do we want to learn from these guys?

How to share the results? On a logistical level, some teams have a quick chat about the results of each meeting as soon as they get back to the office. Others have longer weekly meetings to go through all the week’s notes and learnings.

How many participants for a user interview? Meetings go best when you’ve got two people at them. One person can focus on taking notes and the other can focus on talking.

How to take notes? 

  • When possible, write down exact quotes. Wrap them in quotation marks so you know it’s verbatim.
  • Use symbols for emotions 🙂 Excited 🙁 Angry 😐 Embarrassed
  • Use symbols for other key elements: ☇ 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)
  • Use symbols for further important information: ⇪Feature request or purchasing criteria;$Money or budgets or purchasing process; ♀  Mentioned a specific person or company; ☆ Follow – up task

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 
  • 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

Getting back on track (avoiding bad data): 

  • Deflect compliments 
  • Anchor fluff 
  • Dig beneath opinions, ideas, requests, and emotions

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