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The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you.

A useful conversation

The MomTest:

  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.

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 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.”

Stop seeking approval

Symptoms of Fishing For Compliments:

  • “I’m thinking of starting a business... so, do you think it will work?” 
  • “I had an awesome idea for an app — do you like it?”

Symptoms of The Pathos Problem:

  • “So here’s that top-secret project I quit my job for... what do you think?”
  • “I can take it — be honest and tell me what you really think!”

Cut off pitches

Symptoms:

  • “No no, I don’t think you get it...” 
  • “Yes, but it also does this!”

Cut yourself off and say something like:

  • “Whoops—I just slipped into pitch mode. I’m really sorry about that—I get excited about these things. Can we jump back to what you were just saying? You were telling me that..."    

Talk less

Rule of thumb: The more you’re talking, the worse you’re doing.

Love bad news

The worst thing you can do is ignore the bad news while searching for some tiny grain of validation to celebrate. You want the truth, not a gold star.

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. Before you have solid evidence that you’re fixing a meaningful problem for your customer segment, you can really mess yourself up by zooming in too quickly.

“Does-this-problem-matter” 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?”

Prepare your list of 3

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

Don’t stress too much about choosing the “right” important questions. They will change. Just choose the 3 questions which seem murkiest or most important right now.

You might get answers 1-3 from customer A, answer 4 from customer B, answers 5-7 from customer C. There’s overlap and repetition, but you don’t need to repeat the full set of questions with every participant. Don’t feel obliged to repeat questions you already have reliable data on. Pick up where you left off and keep filling in the picture.

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

As always, you’re not trying to convince every person to like what you’re doing. When you’ve got the information you came for (even if it’s that they don’t care), you can leave. But at some point, you do need to put them to a decision in order to get it.

Commitment and advancement

Symptoms:

  • A pipeline of zombie leads
  • Ending product meetings with a compliment 
  • Ending product meetings with no clear next steps 
  • Meetings which "went well"
  • They haven't given up anything of value

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.

Rule of thumb: If you don’t know what happens next after a product or sales meeting, the meeting was pointless.

A time commitment could include:

  • Clear next meeting with known goals
  • Sitting down to give feedback on wireframes 
  • Using a trial themselves for a non-trivial period

Reputation risk commitments might be:

  • Intro to peers or team
  • Intro to a decision maker (boss, spouse, lawyer) 
  • Giving a public testimonial or case study

Financial commitments are easier to imagine and include:

  • Letter of intent (non-legal but gentlemanly agreement to purchase) 
  • Pre-order
  • Deposit

The worst meetings are the wishy-washy ones that you leave with neither rejection nor advancement. You are in no-man’s-land and you won’t learn anything until you fix the meeting by forcing a next step (or rejection).\

If they aren't excited, then good news: you got the information you came for. Assimilate it, decide if it matters enough to change your strategy, and then keep on keeping on. The goal is just to put them to a decision so you can learn whether you've found a must-have product and a real customer.

Rule of thumb: It’s not a real lead until you’ve given them a concrete chance to reject you.

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 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

They’re the company who will commit way before it makes rational sense to do so. 

Rule of thumb: In early stage sales, the real goal is learning. Revenue is just a side-effect.

Finding conversations

Cold calls

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.

Find a good excuse

You’ve go the ultimate excuse if you have a PhD student on your founding team. “Hello, I’m doing my PhD research on the problems around X, it would be a huge help if I could ask you a couple questions for my dissertation.”

Rule of thumb: 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.

Landing pages

Joel Gascoigne did a classic "landing page" test with his startup Buffer, describing the value proposition and collecting emails. But contrary to popular understanding, it wasn't the metrics or conversion rate which convinced him to move forward. Instead, it was the conversations which resulted from emailing every single person who signed up and saying hello.

Paul Graham recommends a generic launch for the same purposes. Get your product out there, see who seems to like it most, and then reach out to those users.

Bringing them to you

When you are finding ways to sneak into customer conversations, you're always on the back foot. You made the approach, so they are suspicious and trying to figure out if you're wasting their time. Instead, we can look for ways to separate ourselves from the crowd so they can find us.

Organise meetups

Speaking & teaching

Industry blogging

Get clever

I once heard a brilliant hack from a guy who wanted to sell to top-tier universities like Stanford and Harvard. But first he needed to understand their problems (difficult) and be taken seriously by the decision makers (even more difficult).

His solution was to organise a semi-monthly "knowledge exchange" call between the department heads of 3 top universities to discuss the challenges around his topic of choice. Furthermore, it was set up as a conference call where any other universities could dial in and listen to the best practices of the big 3.

Asking for and framing the meeting

The common, "Can I get your opinion on what we're doing?" sets expectations of neediness and that you want compliments or approval.

No expectations at all are set by, "Do you have time for a quick coffee/lunch/chat/meeting?" which suggests you're liable to waste my time.

The framing format I like has 5 key elements.

  1. 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.
  2. Frame expectations by mentioning what stage you're at and, if it's true, that you don't have anything to sell.
  3. Show weakness and give them a chance to help by mentioning your specific problem that you're looking for answers on. This will also clarify that you're not a time waster.
  4. Put them on a pedestal by showing how much they , in particular, can help.
  5. Ask for help.

Or, in shorter form: Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask

The mnemonic is “Very Few Wizards Properly Ask [for help]." Here's what it might look like before you have a product: 

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)


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)

Once the meeting starts, you have to grab the reins or it's liable to turn into them drilling you on your idea, which is exactly what you don't want. To do this, I basically repeat what I said in the email and then immediately drop into the first question. If someone else made the introduction, I'll use them as a voice of authority:

Hey Tim, thanks so much for taking the time.

As I mentioned in the email, we're trying to make it easier for universities to spin out student businesses (vision) and aren't exactly sure how it all works yet (framing & weakness).

I think Tom made this intro (authority) because you have pretty unique insight into what's going on behind the curtain and could really help us get pointed in the right direction (pedestal)... (introductions continue)

I was looking at your spinout portfolio and it's pretty impressive, especially company X. How did they get from your classroom to where they are now? (grab the reins and ask good questions)


In terms of mindset, don't go into these discussions looking for customers. It creates a needy vibe and forfeits the position of power. Instead, go in search of industry and customer advisors. You are just trying to find helpful, knowledgable people who are excited about your idea.

In my experience, that could take as few as 3-5 conversations if you have a relatively simple industry and a focused customer segment. If you’ve run more than 10 conversations and are still getting results that are all over the map, then I’d guess that your customer segment is too fuzzy and could stand to be tightened up.

This isn’t about having a thousand meetings. It’s about quickly learning what you need, and then getting back to building your business. You should be able to answer almost any customer question and move onto new ones within a week.

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

Customer slicing

Start with a broad segment and ask:

  • Within this group, which type of this person would want it most?
  • Would everyone within this group buy/use it, or only some of them? Why do they want it? (e.g. What is their problem or goal)
  • Does everyone in the group have that motivation or only some of them? 
  • What additional motivations are there?
  • Which other types of people have these motivations?

Next we’re going to look at our groups’ behaviours and figure out where to find them.

  • What are these people already doing to achieve their goal or survive their problem?
  • Where can we find our demographic groups?
  • Where can we find people doing the above workaround behaviours?

Now that we have a bunch of who-where pairs, we can decide who to start with based on who seems most:

  • Profitable
  • Easytoreach
  • Rewarding for us to build a business around

Running the process

Symptoms of a learning bottleneck:

  • “You just worry about the product. I’ll learn what we need to know.” 
  • “Because the customers told me so!”
  • “I don’t have time to talk to people — I need to be coding!”

Prepping

Your most important preparation work is to 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.

Prep questions to unearth hidden risks:

If this company were to fail, why would it have happened? 

What would have to be true for this to be a huge success?

The second question is a flipped version of the first, from Lafley/Martin’s strategy book. “What would have to be true for this to be a huge success?”

Rule of thumb: If you don’t know what you’re trying to learn, you shouldn’t bother having the conversation.

Taking Notes

Taking good notes is the best way to keep your team (and investors and advisors) in the loop. Plus, notes make it harder to lie to yourself. And when, months later, you decide to adjust the business's direction, you'll be able to return to your notes instead of having to go do a whole new set of interviews.

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 exact quote isn't relevant and you just write down the big idea.
It keeps you in sync, leads to better decisions, prevents arguments, and allows your whole team to benefit from the learning you’ve worked so hard to acquire.    

Signs you’re just going through the motions:

  • You’re talking more than they are
  • They are complimenting you or your idea
  • You told them about your idea and don’t know what’s happening next You don’t have notes
  • You haven’t looked through your notes with your team
  • You got an unexpected answer and it didn’t change your idea
  • You weren’t scared of any of the questions you asked
  • You aren’t sure which big question you’re trying to answer by doing this

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

    

This stuff is fast

The time scales of the process are important. The point is to make your business move faster, not slower.

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

Rule of thumb: Go build your dang company already.

Cheatsheet

Results of a good meeting:

  • Facts — concrete, specific facts about what they do and why they do it (as opposed to the bad data of compliments, fluff, and opinions) 
  • Commitment — They are showing they’re serious by giving up something they value such as meaningful amounts of time, reputational risk, or money.
  • Advancement — They are moving to the next step of your real-world funnel and getting closer to a sale.

Writing it down — signal symbols:

  • :) Excited
  • :( Angry
  • :| Embarrassed
  • ☇ 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) ☑ Feature request or purchasing criteria
  • $ Money or budgets or purchasing process
  • ♀ Mentioned a specific person or company
  • ☆ Follow-up task

Signs you aren’t pushing for commitment and advancement:

  • A pipeline of zombie leads
  • Ending product meetings with a compliment 
  • Ending product meetings with no clear next steps 
  • Meetings which "went well"
  • They haven't given up anything of value

The big prep question:

  1. “What do we want to learn from these guys?”