April 19, 2020

The Mom Test summary in five minutes

This is a quick distillation of "The Mom Test" by Rob Fitzpatrick, a book on validating your business by talking to customers who are lying to you (in a nice way). This article summarizes what I found to be the impactful parts of a great book. You should definitely buy the book to see the full picture and get access to a plethora of practical tips, example questions, anecdotes and inspiring quotes that I did not include in this summary.

The Mom Test

Going from not talking to customers at all to having conversations with them is a crucial step in understanding the market, and more importantly the people, you want to serve. However, doing so by asking the wrong questions is potentially more dangerous than not asking anything at all. Enter, 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.

It's called the mom test because it leads to questions that even your mom can't lie to you about

In this summary I have categorized the main points of The Mom Test into three overarching themes, starting with understanding the pitfalls of seemingly helpful conversations and moving on to having more productive, fruitful conversations and finally how to give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding.

Let's get into it.

People are well-meaning liars

Opinions are useless.

People have lots of opinions, that's just a fact of of life. When someone states their opinion confidently it is easy to take it at face value as something act upon. The truth is that no opinion can tell you if something will work, only the market can. Instead, ask about their current approach to solving a problem, the tools they've already tried and what they find most crucial about those tools. This gives you concrete data anchored in past experiences—and that is actionable.

Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie.

The future is a cushy place, if you go by what people will tell you about it. Of course they will buy your thing when you release it! Of course your thing is going to be just what they need! What is easy to miss in those statements is that they totally lack commitment. It doesn't cost them anything to say that, and it makes you feel good. Compliments are a very effective escape hatch from having to make real, lasting commitments—and there is nothing wrong with that, you just have to be able to spot it and adjust accordingly. This is why you don't trust their future intentions but trust their past actions instead.

If they haven't looked for a solution already, they won't look for yours.

During your conversations you will unearth a lot of problems that people face. Some of them are worth exploring further, others aren't. To make that distinction you can ask a simple but very effective question: "What have you done to try and fix that?". If the answer is in the vein of "Well... nothing so far, I'm used to dealing with it" you'll see that the problem wasn't that critical to begin with. Some problems are just easy to whine about but ultimately don't make any difference to the bottom line.

Conversations - A balancing act

We've determined that conversations can be tricky, so what should you be doing? These tips will keep you on a path towards a productive conversation.

Don't zoom too early.

You have to understand the big picture before you focus on the nuances. Many problems are small enough to not warrant a search for a solution by the person experiencing them. If you don't pick up on the signal that tells you that then it is easy to fall into the trap of digging deep into something that ultimately doesn't matter at all. Even worse, if whoever you're talking to is humoring your deep-digging questions with hypothetical answers then you can be lead to believe the problem is much bigger than it is in reality.

Dig into signals.

Something you should dig deep into is the signals people put out. What is a signal? If someone tells you that your product must have X feature, that is a signal. If someone tells you that the worst part of their day is when they have to Y, that is also a signal. The wrong thing to do when you encounter a signal is to write it down and move on. What would feature X allow them to do? Why does having to do Y suck so much? These are the things you should ask instead.

If it turns out that the underlying problem is less important than the signal indicated, you know you can drop it. But if the problem turns out to be a real time thief, a key buying criteria or something as important then that is invaluable information. Understand their motivations to get to the real problem rather then the perceived one.

Why do they bother doing it this way? Why do they want the feature? How are they currently coping without the feature? Dig.

Let them show you the truth.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. If you have the ability to observe someone working through a problem first hand then you get a unique insight into many aspects of their situation: how do they spend their time, who do they talk to and what tools are they most dependant on (think integrations!). If you can't get that close, ask them to walk you through the last time they encountered the problem as this serves the same function but can introduce bias into the retelling.

Pitch mode no more.

It is easy to get excited when talking about your own ideas—after all, they're the reason you started this whole process in the first place. There is a danger to this though: falling into "pitch mode". When in pitch mode you can't stop talking about your product, how great it is, or will be, and how much better it is compared to the competition. This is begging for compliments when you should be focusing on learning. When this happens you should take a moment to apologize for the detour and refocus the conversation on their life and experiences.

Keep it casual.

Learning can happen at any time and in any circumstance. If you try to cram every learning opportunity into a calendar booking you run into the risk of glancing over opportunities for on-the-fly revelations. It also puts ideas into the head of the person on the other side of the conversation about what this meeting could be about, and if you're trying to sell something to them. If you meet someone interesting at an event or by happenstance, catch them in the moment and throw out your questions right there and then and don't worry about the formalia.

Learning from customers doesn’t mean you have to be wearing a suit and sipping ominous boardroom coffee.

Give yourself a fighting chance

Jumping in blind to these conversations can easily lead you down the wrong path. These are steps you can take come in prepared, and with the best possible chance of succeeding.

Know your customer segments.

Your customer segmentation should be specific enough for you to be able to point to a "who-where pair" which tells you who you are targeting and where you can find them. "20 to 30 year olds who like climbing" is not specific enough. Keep narrowing down your segment until you know exactly where you can find and talk to these people. "20 to 30 year old climbers in Stockholm that train at climbing gyms after leaving work" is more like it because now you know exactly how and where to reach them.

Know what you don't know and prepare your three big questions.

You have to know what the missing puzzle pieces are before starting your conversations. If you don't know what you're looking to answer then you can easily slip into asking easy questions giving insignificant insights. To prevent this you should prepare three big questions that provide answers which have a possibility of drastically changing or even totally disproving your thought-out business idea. After each conversation you revisit these questions and see how you need to change them for next time.

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 to begin with.

Notes, use them well.

Taking good notes is a very important part of the customer conversation process. They serve both as a handy way to keep you from lying to yourself at a later date and also to have as reference material during discussions and when you eventually pivot your business' direction. Your notes should be sortable, searchable, permanent and distinct from other things you write down. Index cards with one thought or quote on each card is a good idea. Use symbols to denote the category for which this thought fits into, like pains or problems, follow-up tasks and obstacles.

Know what happens next.

Don't let your meetings fizzle out with empty compliments and no clear commitments. Every meeting should end with you knowing what the next steps are. These next steps can take different forms. Commitment is one, showing they are willing to give up something of theirs like time, reputation or money. Advancement is another which is when they move further towards a purchasing decision.

Meetings either succeed or fail and you are responsible for where your meetings land—make them give something up to show that they are interested for real. If they aren't interested you have still succeeded in learning how they really feel about your product or idea.

I never consider rejection to be a real failure. But not asking certainly is.

Just do it.

Don't spend weeks and months on prep. In the end you'll have to take the leap anyway, and the sooner you do that the earlier you can get learning. So just do it!

Customer learning can move really quickly when you’re doing it right. This book isn’t meant to give you an excuse to squander precious months theorising and planning the “perfect question”. It’s meant to help you extract maximum value in minimum time so you can get back to what really matters: building your business.

Buy The Mom Test