The Mom Test

May 15, 2020

Haphazardly collected snippets from the excellent book on how to take customer discovery interviews, The Mom Test.

It’s our responsibility to search for the truth. customers will lie to us to make things easier. It’s up to us to finely chip away the fog and search for gold dust, without going too strong or too slow.

Customers can’t lie to us if we never talk about our idea. The big mistake is almost always to mention your idea too soon

3 rules -

  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

Opinions are worthless. Only the market can tell you if something is a good idea. Unless you’re talking to a deep industry expert, there is high risk of false info.

What would your dream product do? The value comes from understanding why they want these features. You don’t want to just collect feature requests. People know what their problems are, but they don’t know how to solve those problems.

Why do you bother? - you’re shooting blind till you understand their goals.

Talk me through when that happened? - 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

“What else have you tried?” If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours. It’s easy to get someone emotional about a problem if you lead them there. But if they don’t care enough to even search for a solution, it’s not so important.

“How are you dealing with it now?” - price anchor

“Where does the money come from?” - where budget comes from and who can stop/bless the deal

“Who else should I talk to?” - If someone doesn’t want to make intros, it’s fine. means the problem isn’t that interesting to them.

“Is there anything else I should have asked?” - lets people correct you if you missed some questions.

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.

You don’t need to end up with what you wanted to hear in order to have a good conversation. You just need to get to the truth.

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

All of these are warning signs. 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? If you don’t know, then you’ve got a compliment instead of real data.

There are three types of bad data:

  1. Compliments
  2. Fluff (generics, hypotheticals, and the future)
  3. Ideas

“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…”

After you introduce your idea , 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 different and actually does do that thing they want. Alternately, they’ll raise a topic you have a really good answer to. For example, they’ll mention how important security is, and you’ll want to cut in and tell them you’ve thought about all that already. This is also a mistake.

In both cases, the listener was about to give you a privileged glimpse into their mental model of the world. Losing that learning is a shame. You’ll have the chance to fill them in later.

Every time you talk to someone, you should be asking a question which has the potential to completely destroy your currently imagined business. Rule of thumb: You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation.

We go through the futile process of asking for opinions and fish for compliments because we crave approval. We want to believe that the support and sign-off of someone we respect means our venture will succeed. But really, that person’s opinion doesn’t matter. They have no idea if the business is going to work. Only the market knows.

You’re searching for the truth, not trying to be right. And you want to do it as quickly and cheaply as possible. Learning that your beliefs are wrong is frustrating, but it’s progress. It’s bringing you ever closer to the truth of a real problem and a good market.

Is the “problem” not actually that big of a deal? Are they fundamentally different from your ideal customers? Do they not care about the specific implementation? Are they just plain tired today?

Rule of thumb: There’s more reliable information in a “meh” than a “Wow!” You can’t build a business on a lukewarm response.

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.

Are they spending money or making money? Is it in their top 3? Are they actively looking for solutions?

Product risk vs market risk: product risk is when the market is clear, the only difficulty lies in building the product itself..

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. Rule of thumb: If it feels like they’re doing you a favour by talking to you, it’s probably too formal.

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

There’s no such thing as a meeting which just “went well”. Every meeting either succeeds or fails.

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

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

Firstly, 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. Keep them on the list, 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 turn into your first sale.

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

There are a lot of bad ways to frame the meeting, both when first asking for it and once it begins.

Questions like, “Can I interview you” or “Thanks for agreeing to this interview” both set set off alarm bells that this meeting is going to be super boring. I don’t want to be interviewed; I want to talk and help!

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

Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask


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)

Vision — half-sentence version of how you’re making the world better Framing — where you’re at and what you’re looking for Weakness — show how you can be helped Pedestal — show that they, in particular, can provide that help Ask — ask for help

The main goal is to clarify what I need and how they can help.

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.

Instead of it being a customer-learning-but-I-really-want-to-do-sales meeting, it’s a letme-find-out-if-you-are-a-good-advisor-by-asking-lots-of-questions meeting

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

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:

  1. You get overwhelmed by options and don’t know where to start
  2. You aren’t moving forward but can’t prove yourself wrong
  3. You receive incredibly mixed feedback and can’t make sense of it

Talking to an industry expert can be hugely informative to provide you with a taxonomy of the industry. That will give you a better starting point for choosing where to begin.

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

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

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

Don’t spend months doing full-time customer conversations before beginning to move on a product. Spend a week, maybe two. Get your bearings and then give them something to commit to