…is one of the most helpful and insightful business books I’ve read. If you’re reading this and have any interest in building a new idea (or gathering better feedback in general) definitely pick it up now.

The Mom Test serves as a guide to customer conversations so you can build the best possible products/solutions — learning what to build before investing time and money into the wrong idea.

If you present your product/idea to customers right off the bat you are only inviting empty compliments, unnecessary fluff, and misleading ideas (not only will your mom say it’s a great idea…everyone will.) Instead, focus on their life, activies, problems, and goals so that you can:

  1. Validate whether or not you’re actually solving a real problem.
  2. Collect useful information (identify what they really care about — and if they’ll pay for it).
  3. Implement/share learning so your team can properly build and sell a solution.

It’s also a surprisingly fun read. Rather than regurgitating and summarizing its many key points (which I end up doing below anyway), I’ll showcase a quick example the format:

The following example comes from Chapter 3, which is about asking important questions — in this case starting with generics before zooming down into a real problem.

A (really, really) bad converation

You: "Hi. Thanks for taking the time. We're building phone and tablet apps to help people stay in shape and just wanted to understand how you stay fit." This isn't a terrible opening, but I'd generally avoid mentioning the idea unless I have to, since it does bias them.

Them: "Okay." I never exercise, so this should be quick.

You: "How often do you got to the gym?" This sort of demographic data doesn't give you any insight, but can be useful for figuing out what sort of person you're talking to so you can ask relevant follow ups.

Them: "Not really ever." Well, looks like we're done here!

You: "What would you say is your biggest problem with going to the gym?" This is where the conversation goes horribly wrong. Instead of figuring out whether staying fit is actually a real problem, we're prematurely zooming in on it. Any response here is going to be dangerously misleading.

Them: "I guess it takes time to get there. I'm always kind of busy, you know?" Wait, who says I have a problem with going to the gym? I thought I just told you I don't care about the gym! But if I had to choose one, I guess I'd go with convenience. Not that I've done a pushup in 5 years. Pushups are pretty convenient.

You: Perfect. That's great. And can you rank these 4 in terms of which is most important to you in a fitness program: convenience, personalization, 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 tell you if the person cares about any of it at all.

Them: Probably convenience, then cost, then personalization, then novelty. Since you asked, I'll answer. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

You: Okay. Awesome. Thanks so much. We're working on an app that will help you exercise in the convenience of your own home. I think it's going to be a great fit for what you care about. Totally missing the point and mis-interpreting the conversation as validation. Now fishing for compliments.

Them: Cool. I'd love to try it when it launches. Half-hearted compliment plus non-committal stalling tactic.

You: Great — I'll send over one of our beta keys so you can check it out. We got a user!

Them: Thanks! I'm literally never going to type that in.

The point here is that Rob demonstrates lots of helpful examples in a totally relatable way. He also does a great job cutting the BS and diving straight into the point (which is why this differs from so many other business books IMO) — so you can quickly learn what you need to know and then go out and act upon it.

Notes1 I took on the book while reading…because :dancer::


1. The Test

  • Ask questions that pass the Mom Test
    • Don’t talk about your idea…instead discuss their life/constraints/problems/goals
    • Ask for specifics from the past rather than generics or opinions about the future
  • They own the problem, you own the solution

2. Avoid Bad Data

  • Deflect compliments (dig for specifics) and anchor fluff (identify actual examples)
  • Determine the motivations behind ideas/requests

3. Ask Important Questions

  • “Every time you talk to someone you should be having at least one question that has the potential to destroy your currently imagined business.”
  • For unpleasant tasks…imagine what you would have someone else do if you were delegating it. Then do it.
  • You’re learning, not selling. The best answers might showcase that they don’t really care e.g. “that’s kinda cool” or “not sure about that…”
  • Don’t try to up your game / sell more. If anything, dig further to understand their apathy (rather than convincing them of your idea).
  • Look before you zoom
  • Understand product risk

4. Keep it Casual

  • Steve Blank recommends 3 meetings in 4 Steps to:
    • Talk about their problem
    • Talk about their solution
    • Present/sell your product
    • (good in theory but can be quite time consuming in practice)
  • Strip the formality (“If it feels like they’re doing a favor by talking to you, it’s probably too formal.”)
  • Early (problem-identifying) conversations should be no more than 5 minutes — all you’re doing is identifying if a problem exists and if it’s important.
  • Later conversations might require a bit of storytelling on their part e.g. show me how you’re doing x now, what else have you tried, etc.
  • Once you have a product and the meeting takes on a more sales-oriented tone you’ll want ~30 minute blocks

5. Commitment and Advancement

  • Actually showcasing your product/idea will inevitably invite lots of compliments (false positives)…you can cut through that by asking for commitment.
  • Meetings should either succeed (commitment advance to the next step) or fail.
  • If you don’t know what happens next then the meeting was pointless.
  • There are different types of currency:
    • [Time] next meeting with known goal
    • [Reputation risk] intro to decision-maker
    • [Financial] pre-order / letter of intent
  • It’s not a real lead until they’ve give you a concrete chance to reject you.
  • When you see a customer with deep emotion for what you’re doing, keep them close (they’re the earlyvangelist you’re looking for).
  • In early stage sales, the goal is still learning. Revenue is a side effect.

6. Finding Conversations

  • Cold calling is a bear but it can work (98 out of 100 rejections still gives you to conversations to go on).
  • Utilize serendipidous situations (no excuses or formalities needed…just ask about their life).
  • You can bring them to you or (more preferably) seek out warm intros
    • 7 degrees, university professors, top-tier investors
  • “People like to help entrepreneurs…but also hate wasting their time. Tell them what they need to know and that it will make a real difference.”
  • You’re going to get ignored a lot…but who cares?
  • Don’t approach these meetings looking for customers – instead you are looking for industry and customer advisors. This way you’re evaluating them rather than the other way around (if it has a ‘sales’ feel).
  • The UX community suggests that you should keep talking to people until you stop hearing new information.

7. Choosing Your Customers

  • “If you aren’t finding consistent problems and goals, you don’t have a specific enough customer segment.”
  • Customer splicing should provide two helpful groups:
    • A collection of demographics
    • A set of goals/motivations
  • Once you have a bunch of who-where pairs…you can decide who to start with based on who seems most:
    • Profitable/big
    • Easy to reach
    • Personally rewarding
  • Don’t spend forever on it. Just spend enough time finding a concrete initial segment so you can find a few of them and move the business forward.
  • Understand if you are selling to businesses with complicated buying processes and have overlooked some of the stakeholders (need to understand all of the goals and constraints).

8. Running the Process

  • Share learning with the entire team promptly and faithfully (get the info out of your head and in a permanent sharable place).
  • Prep
    • Ensure you know your 3 big questions.
    • If it can be answered with desk research…do it now.
    • If you alread know about your customers then you can approach it with an existing set of beliefs that you’re updating.
    • Don’t need to spend a ton of time on this…just enough prep to ensure you’re learning something, covering everyone’s concerns, and not wasting other peoples’ time.
  • Review
    • Overview of notes and the three questions.
    • Meta-conversation about the conversation can be helpful.
    • Chat window for customer learning is helpful.
  • During
    • Notes: add symbols for emotions, their life, tasks, specifics.
    • Keep it casual.
    • Deflect compliments, anchor fluff, etc.
    • If possible, press for commitment and next steps.
  • After
    • With team, review notes and customer quotes.
    • Update beliefs and plans.
    • Identify next 3 big questions (if necessary).
  • Don’t spend forever on any of this…get your learnings and then give them something to commit to (the goal with all of this is to make your business move faster, not slower).

Credit and thanks to Peter Nocchiero for recommending this one.

  1. Everything entirely attributable to Rob Fitzpatrick, The Mom Test