The Mom Test by Robert Fitzpatrick

Date read: 2022-01-20

How strongly I recommend it: 9/10

Read more on Amazon.

High-Level Thoughts

This book changed my perspective on how to talk to customers to develop and improve your business idea. If you’re starting or running a company and only want to read one book on the subject, I think this should be the one. Most applicable for direct-to-consumer businesses, but contains learnings that are still useful for other business types.


You need to ask questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about

Customer conversations are bad by default. It’s your job to fix them.

Doing it wrong is worse than doing nothing at all. When you know you’re clueless, you tend to be careful. But collecting a fistful of false positives is like convincing a drunk he’s sober: not an improvement.

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, allow us to improve our business.

If you just avoid mentioning your idea, you automatically start asking better questions.

Here are three simple rules:

  • 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

Bad questions:

  • do you think it’s a good idea?
  • would you buy a product which did X?
  • how much would you pay for X?
  • Would you pay X for a product which did Y?

Good questions:

  • Why do you bother?
  • What are the implications of that?
  • Talk me through the last time that happened
  • What else have you tried?
  • How are you dealing with it now?
  • Where does the money come from?
  • Who else should I talk to?
  • Is there anything else I should have asked?

Talking to customers is a tool, not an obligation. If it’s not going to help or you don’t want to do it for whatever reason, just skip it.

Avoid and ignore complements, fluff and ideas

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

The best way to escape the misinformation of compliments is to avoid them completely by not mentioning your idea. If they happen anyway, you need to deflect the compliment and get on with the business of gathering facts and commitments.

Symptoms (in the meeting):

  • “Thanks!”
  • “I’m glad you like it.”

Symptoms (back at the office):

  • “That meeting went really well.”
  • “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback.”
  • “Everybody I’ve talked to loves the idea.”

If you catch yourself or your teammates saying something like this, try to get specific. Why did that person like the idea? How much money would it save him? How would it fit into his life? What else has he tried which failed to solve his problem?

When someone starts talking about what they “always” or “usually” or “never” or “would” do, they are giving you generic and hypothetical fluff. The world’s most deadly fluff is: “I would definitely buy that.”

We have too many ideas, not too few. Still, folks adore giving us more. Write them down, but don’t rush to add them to your todo list. Startups are about focusing and executing on a single, scalable idea rather than jumping on every good one which crosses your desk.

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.

“Won’t-take-no-for-an-answer” is generally a good quality for a founder to have. But when it creeps into a conversation that’s meant to be about learning, it works against you.

After you introduce your idea (either intentionally or accidentally), they’re going to begin a sentence with something like “So it’s similar to…” or “I like it but…” It’s tempting to interrupt and “fix” their understanding about how it’s totally different and actually does do that thing they want. Tthe listener was about to give you a privileged glimpse into their mental model of the world. Losing that learning is a shame.

Ask questions that could kill your (currently imagined) business

The best way to find them is to run 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.

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.

Risk can be in the product or in the market:

  • Product risk — Can I build it? Can I grow it? Will they keep using it?
  • Market risk — Do they want it? Will they pay? Are there enough of them?

Always pre-plan the 3 most important things you want to learn from any given type of person. Pre-planning your big questions makes it a lot easier to ask questions which pass The Mom Test and aren’t biasing. It also makes it easier to face the questions that hurt.

Knowing your list allows you to take better advantage of serendipitous encounters. Instead of running into that dream customer and asking to exchange business cards so you can “grab a coffee” (exactly like everyone else), you can just pop off your most important question. And that goes a long way toward Keeping it Casual.

Keep it casual

When you strip all the formality from the process, you end up with no meetings, no interview questions, and a much easier time. The conversations become so fast and lightweight that you can go to a industry meet-up and leave with a dozen customer conversations under your belt, each of which provided as much value as a formal meeting.

Early conversations are very fast. The chats grow longer as you move from the early broad questions (“Is this a real problem?”) toward more specific product and industry issues (“Which other software do we have to integrate with to close the sale?”).

Being too formal is a crutch we use to deal with an admittedly ambiguous and awkward situation. Instead of leaving wiggle room for the unexpected, everything becomes a process. If it feels like they’re doing you a favour by talking to you, it’s probably too formal.

Symptoms of formality:

  • “So, first off, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I just have a few questions for you and then I’ll let you get back to your day…”
  • “On a scale of 1 to 5, how much would you say you…”

The Meeting Anti-Pattern is the tendency to relegate every opportunity for customer conversation into a calendar block.

Scheduling and going to a meeting has a lot of overhead for a 10 minute chat. Even explaining that you’re starting a company and would love to ask a couple questions can take 5 or 10 minutes.

The duration of formal B2B meetings (the kind you schedule) is determined more by the arbitrary calendar block than by what you actually want to learn.

I showed up to the first meeting and, while making smalltalk, said something like “I was thinking, you guys must get a ton of leads, right?” The guy laughed and said, yeah, it was crazy. “How in the world do you deal with all of that?” He sort of shrugged and pointed at a cluster of about a dozen sticky notes on the wall.  Each held a name and a phone number. “Our analysts kill most of them before they ever reach us, and then we throw out a bunch more. We only end up with about 10 apiece that are serious contenders. We just call every couple weeks to see how it’s going.” Well that doesn’t sound so bad, I said. “Yeah, it works pretty well,” he replied. “Anyway, what did you want to talk about?”  They don’t have the problem. That’s successful learning. We disproved our idea before the guy even realised we were talking about it.

Push for commitment and advancement

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.

When you fail to push for advancement, you end up with zombie leads: potential customers (or investors) who keep taking meetings with you and saying nice things, but who never seem to cut a check. It’s like your startup has been friend-zoned.

By giving them a clear chance to either commit or reject us, we get out of the friend-zone and can identify the real leads.

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.

You’ve lost the meeting when you leave with a compliment or a stalling tactic. A meeting has succeeded when it ends with a commitment to advance to the next step. But you have to force this resolution or the meetings drift along in la-la-land while performing their ancient duty: wasting everyone’s time.

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.

When someone isn’t that emotional about what you’re doing, it’s pretty unlikely that they’re going to end up being one of the people who is crazy enough to be your first customer.

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 turn into your first sale.

How to find conversations

The goal of cold conversations is to stop having them. If you treat people’s time respectfully and are genuinely trying to solve their problem, those cold conversations start turning into warm intros.

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.

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.

Organise meetups. People will assume you’re credible just because you happen to be the person who sent the invite emails or introduced the speaker.

Spend the time to teach. You’ll find chances at conferences, workshops, through online videos, blogging, or doing free consulting or office hours. You’ll refine your message, get in touch with a room full of potential customers who take you seriously.

Blog. When I sent cold emails from my blog email address, folks would often meet with me because they had checked my domain, seen my industry blog, and figured I was an interesting person to talk to.

Warm intros are the goal. Conversations are infinitely easier when you get an intro through a mutual friend that establishes your credibility and reason for being there. Great sources include industry advisors, university professors and investors.

How to frame meetings

If you don’t know why you’re there, it becomes a sales meeting by default, which is bad for 3 reasons. First, the customer closes up about some important topics like pricing. Second, attention shifts to you instead of them. And finally, it’s going to be the worst sales meeting ever because you aren’t ready.

The framing format I like has 5 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 your 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.
  • Ask for help.

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

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)

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.

How to prepare for the meetings

Your most important preparation work is to ensure you know your current list of 3 big question. If you’ve already learned the facts of your customer and industry, then you should also know what commitment and next steps you are going to push for at the end of the meeting.

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.

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.

Sit down with your whole founding team when you prep. You want both business and product to be represented. If you leave part of the company out of the prep, then you end up missing their concerns in the customer conversations.

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?

After a conversation, just review your notes with your team and update your beliefs and 3 big questions as appropriate.

Disseminate learnings to your team as quickly and as directly as possible, using notes and exact quotes wherever you can.

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

How to run the meetings

One of the solutions to the time cost of these conversations is to move them onto Skype or phone calls. 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.

When someone is having a coffee with you, there’s the potential to chat as friends. You can just shoot the breeze about the industry for a bit. You can keep it casual. They’re enjoying the conversation. 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

Setting up a call feels like less overhead in the short-term, but that’s because you aren’t yet able to see all the time-saving and business-saving benefits of in-person relationships with your customers.

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.

Changing the context of the meeting to “looking for advisors” is the equivalent of throwing out all your chocolate when you start a diet. You change the environment to naturally facilitate your goals.

You don’t need to explicitly tell them you’re looking for advisors. In fact, I wouldn’t unless you already quite like them and it happens to come up in conversation.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the sales-advisor switch also puts you firmly in control of the meeting, since you’re now evaluating them.

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. As the second person, sometimes you’ll notice the lead asking bad questions or missing a signal they should be digging into. Just jump in and fix them.

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.

If you do end up taking notes in non-ideal places, you just need to spend a little extra post-meeting time moving them over into your permanent format.

If you do want to use audio, you’ll find people are surprisingly willing to be recorded. Put your phone on the table as you sit down and say, “Hey, is it cool if I record this, because I’m always paranoid I’ll miss something important in my notes. It won’t get shared with anyone or posted anywhere.” Almost everyone says yes, but it does blow your cover if you’re trying to Keep it Casual.

If it’s totally inappropriate to take notes during the chat, just have the conversation and then immediately retreat to a corner to write down what was said. This is how I usually handle customer conversations at the pub or conferences.

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

How to find your right customers

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 avoiding drowning and making faster progress, good customer segmentation is your best friend.

Google lets anyone find anything. Paypal helps anyone send money anywhere. Evernote backs up all the writing of everybody. But they didn’t start there.

Google helped PhD students find obscure bits of code. EBay helped collectors buy and sell Pez dispensers. Evernote helped moms save and share recipes.

When you have a fuzzy sense of who you’re serving, you end up talking to a lot of different types of people, 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 incredibly mixed feedback and can’t make sense of it.

Before we can serve everyone, we have to serve someone.

If you’ve already got a product and users, you can explore your way to a good segment by seeing who likes it and focusing on that group. The other approach is to just make a best-guess.

This drilling down into ever more specific groups is called Customer Slicing. You take a 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 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?

We now have a two groups of segments: the first is a collection of quite specific demographic groups and the second is a series of motivations. When we look at them, some will be more generic than others.

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?

Are any of these groups un-findable? If so, go back up the list and slice them into finer pieces until you know where to find them.

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

  • Profitable
  • Easy to reach
  • Rewarding for us to build a business around