Book Trainer Customer Development

The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

You shouldn’t ask anyone whether your business is a good idea – especially your Mom.

This is part of our Book Trainer series – training exercises for books. See the full collection here.

Big Idea

You shouldn’t ask anyone whether your business is a good idea – especially your Mom. The most useful customer conversations give you concrete facts about your customers’ lives and worldviews.

This means:

  • Talking about your customers’ lives instead of your idea
  • Asking about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
  • Talking less and listening more

Rob Fitzpatrick is a Y Combinator alumni and entrepreneur of 13 years. In The Mom Test he shares how founders can have more useful customer conversations.

My Story

I believe the most important skill for solopreneurs is empathy, which is critical to identify and solve real customer problems. The Mom Test is the best book I’ve read on customer development. I find it more accessible than Steve Blank’s landmark The Four Steps to Epiphany and Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. I found Rob’s dissection of customer conversations – and their subtext – particularly insightful. This is a book about asking the right questions and having the courage to listen.

Exercise 1: Ask the Terrifying Question

We invest everything into our businesses – including our egos. Asking the terrifying question is about sacrificing our egos to understand what really matters to customers. Often creators and solopreneurs start with a self-centered mindset: what do I want to create that serves me? I know I have. But a business exists to create a customer, and that requires standing in the customer’s shoes: what does the customer value?

Think of it this way: asking the terrifying question at the beginning could save you a terrifying amount of time and money in the end.

“Every time you talk to someone, you should be asking at least one question which has the potential to destroy your currently imagined business.”

Bad Questions (and Why They Are Bad)
  • Do you think it’s a good idea? (opinions are worthless, only the market can tell you)
    • Instead talk about what they currently do and which parts they love and hate
  • Would you buy a product that did X? (anything involving the future is an optimistic lie)
    • Instead ask how they currently solve X and how much it costs them. What happened the last time X came up? If they haven’t solved the problem, ask why not?
  • How much would you pay for X? (people will lie to you if they think that’s what you want to hear)
    • Instead ask about their life as it already is – how much does the problem cost them, how much do they currently pay to solve it?
  • What would your dream product do? (they own the problem, but it’s the entrepreneur’s responsibility to own the solution)
    • Dig deeper to understand why they want features
  • Would you pay X for a product that did Y? (people stop lying when you ask them for money)
    • Instead ask for a purchase. 
Good Questions (and Why They Are Good)
  • Why do you bother? (go from a perceived problem to a real one, understand your customer’s goal)
  • What are the implications of that? (some problems matter more than others, figure out the problems that matter most)
  • Talk me through the last time that happened? (learn from customers’ actions instead of their opinions – get as close to the real action as you can)
  • 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 your solution)
  • How are you dealing with it now? (while it’s rare for someone to tell you precisely what they’ll pay you, they’ll often show you what it’s worth to them)
  • Where does the money come from? (who holds the purse strings – and power to torpedo your business?)
  • Who else should I talk to? (if you’re onto something interesting, your leads will multiply. If someone doesn’t want to make intros, you’re screwing up or they don’t care much about the problem you’re solving)
  • Is there anything else I should have asked? (since you often don’t know the industry, you’ll often miss the most important point. Asking this question gives customers a chance to politely “fix” your line of questioning)
Exercise 2: Slice through Compliments, Fluff & Feature Requests to Get Concrete Data

According to Rob, there are 3 types of bad data: compliments, fluff, and product ideas.

1. How to deflect compliments

Don’t mention your business idea, and seek facts and commitment instead. 

Customer: “That’s really cool, I love it.” / “I really like your idea. I’m sure it will do well.”

You: “Really sorry about that – I got excited and started pitching.  You guys seem to be doing a good job in this space – do you mind if I ask how you’re dealing with this stuff at the moment?”

I want to highlight how counterintuitive this is: the best way to discuss the viability of your idea (especially in the early stages) is to not mention it at all.

2. How to anchor fluff

Whenever you hear:

  • Generic claims (I usually, I always, I never)
  • Future-tense promises (I would, I will)
  • Hypothetical maybes (I might, I could)

Get specific and anchor the customer to past behavior.

You: “Do you ever X?” (a fluff inducing question – try to avoid)

Customer: “Oh yeah, all the time.”

You: “When’s the last time that happened? Can you talk me through that?” 

3. How to dig beneath feature requests

Dig beneath requests and emotional signals to understand where they come from. Go a level (or two or three) deeper to get at the root problem.

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 to 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.”

Exercise 3: Give Customers a Clear Chance to Commit or Reject Your Idea

Rob advocates giving customers a clear chance to either commit or reject your idea. That way you can identify real leads, as opposed to “zombie leads” who meet and say nice things but never cut a check. Yup, getting out of the friend zone takes courage.

“There’s no such meeting that ‘went well.’ Every meeting either succeeds or fails.”

A good meeting results in gathering facts, commitment, and/or advancement from your customers.

Exercise 1 & 2 above are about gathering facts.

Commitment means customers are showing they’re serious by giving up something they value such as time, reputation, or money. 

Time commitments could include a clear next meeting with known goals, sitting down to give feedback on wireframes, and doing a trial for a non-trivial period.

Reputation commitments could include an introduction to peers, a team or decision maker, and giving a public testimonial or case-study.

Financial commitments could include a deposit or pre-order.

Advancement means customers are moving to the next step of your real-world funnel and getting closer purchasing.

FCA. Facts. Commitment. Advancement. This is a good acronym to keep in mind next time you have a customer conversation. 

Powerful Quotes from The Mom Test: How to Talk to Customers and Learn If Your Business is a Good Idea when Everyone is Lying to You

“You can’t learn anything useful unless you’re willing to spend a few minutes shutting up (even if you have something really smart to say).”

“The questions to ask are about your customers’ lives: their problems, cares, constraints, and goals. You humbly and honestly gather as much information about them as you can and then take your own visionary leap to a solution. Once you’ve taken the leap, you confirm that it’s correct (and refine it) through Commitment & Advancement… 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.”

“While using generics, people describe themselves as who they want to be, not who they actually are. You need to get specific to bring out the edge cases.”

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