An excellent book on the topic of asking better questions when validating a business. It outlines a straightforward way of asking better questions and gives concrete examples.
The book is written in a concise and accessible way, making it a quick and enjoyable read.
Rating - 9/10.
View here: The Mom Test
You may also want to view my other book notes.
This is a book about how to speak to customers. It’s about taking responsibility to ask better questions.
The goal of speaking to customers is finding the truth. Why? Because we don’t want to waste time chasing problems that don’t exist, or business ideas that aren’t useful. Questions are our tools to find the truth.
This book isn’t just about speaking to customers. It’s about how to do it better, actually learning the skill. Doing customer conversations badly isn’t just a waste of time, but it can be actively misleading.
This is a practical book about how to learn from customer conversations and how to avoid common mistakes.
The Mom Test
You shouldn’t ask anyone if your business idea is good. It’s your responsibility to find out the truth by asking good questions. A useful customer conversation is one where you find out concrete facts about the customers life or world views.
3 rules that make up the mom test:
- Talk about their life, not your idea
- Ask about specifics in the past, not generics or opinions about the future
- Talk less, listen more
People generally mention their idea too soon, rather than too late. If you never mention it, no one can lie to you. If you do the mom test right, they might not even know you have an idea. Instead, you want to collect a bunch of facts from the customer, then decide for yourself if it’s a good idea.
Assume anything said about the future is a lie. Instead, ask about specific things they’ve done in the past. Ask about life as it is now. e.g. How much would you pay for X? —> Have you ever paid for X? If so, how much?
Have a bias for questions that show, rather than tell e.g. “show me how you do that at the moment?“. When you watch someone do something, you can see where the inefficiencies are yourself.
Sometimes, you’ll need to dig deeper. e.g. “Would a solution like X be useful? What do you currently use to do X? Have you searched for another solution?” etc.
A bunch of Indie Hackers will say to work on problems that people are already paying for. Why? Because you shift from market risk to execution risk. People are already paying for it, so you just need to build something better.
Some people say talking to customers should be limited, as they don’t know what they want. But remember, we aren’t asking them what they want. We are just understanding facts of their life. It’s still on us to decide what to build. They own the problem, you own the solution.
Jason Cohen also speaks about this phase of customer interviews - there is no magic number, but as many people as it takes to find a constant problem worth solving.
Avoiding Bad Data
Bad data is when we give ourself false negatives (the idea is dead when its not) or false positives (the idea is good when its not). Generally, 3 types of bad information:
- Fluff (generics, hypotheticals, the future)
People give compliments because they want to be nice. Best way to avoid this is to not mention your idea.
You should try to anchor fluff. When people say “I would” or “I normally..” try pin them to a specific example. It’s your job to ask good questions. You can use a fluffy question to lead into a more concrete question e.g. “do you ever do X”, “yes”, “when was the last time you did X?“.
Finally, when someone suggests a feature, dig into why they want that feature. What is the problem underneath that it helps to solve? You want to understand the motivation (the why) not the feature request (the what). This is particularly important if they seem high emotion about it.
Avoid pitching. Once you start talking about your idea, they stop talking about their problems. Remember, we don’t want them just to confirm our idea is good. We want the truth. Talk less, listen more.
You can tell he is from the YC school of thought. As in Paul Graham's essay, How to Get Startup Ideas, the real focus is on observing problems to start. Sidenote - You can also use this thinking on stocks - what problem does company X solve? Teladoc makes health cheaper and more accessible. Visa makes it easier to pay etc.
Ask Important Questions
We need to ask the right questions, not trivial ones.
How to know what the important questions are? Imagine your company failed and ask why it happened? Imagine it’s successful, what conditions must be true for it to work? Ask about those areas.
You need to:
- Ask the scary questions. This means know what that is up front.
- Love bad news, if it is the truth.
- Look before you zoom. Make sure they even care about X before going into the details. Pareto Law - Whether they care at all is 80% of the problem…
- Understand if its product risk or market risk - Customer conversations help us learn about the market, but only MVPs help use learn about the product.
- Always know your top 3 questions. And review these regularly with your team. They might evolve as your learning does.
Think of bad news like errors when we are programming - it ultimately helps us out. Bad feedback means we can more quickly move onto the next thing, which may be more promising.
Keeping It Casual
Meetings don’t have to be long, formal or scheduled. Always be prepared to do “customer interviews”. In lift, at a party, in a queue, whatever.
True earlier in the stage and depending on industry. If you want them to sit down and show you processes, clearly you'll need a slightly more structured approach.
Commitment & Advancement
At some stage, you need to move from customer conversations to sales and advancement. Framing:
- A meeting fails when you don’t ask for a next step. Not asking is the biggest failure. Again, finding the truth. Even if they say no - it’s the truth.
- What are they giving up? The more they commit, the more serious you can take them. Currencies of commitment include money (best), time or reputation (e.g. an intro to their CEO). It’s a good idea to know what stage you are at and what sort of commitment you’ll be asking for.
Don’t pitch blind. Of course, its better if you can research the user first and find their unique situation and reasons for using your product. Set yourself up for success.
First customers are crazy. They are willing to take a risk on you because they care about the problem enough. Nourish people who have an emotional reaction to what you are doing.
Now that you know how to ask questions, you need to find people to question. This almost always starts as a manual process.
- Cold Calls / LinkedIn Outreach - send as many messages as you can. You just want to get a start.
- Serendipity - Ask everywhere and anywhere.
- Use an excuse - If you can’t get people to speak to you, use an excuse. If you use this tactic, it’s hard to turn into a sale later, but fine for information interviews.
- Go where users are - Go where they spend their time, digital or otherwise. If you customers are cafe owners, go to cafes.
- Landing pages - Can be useful to collect emails, but at the early stage qualitative information is better. You can do a generic launch and then seek out the ones who respond best.
Bring them to you - saves time and money:
- Start a meetup in your topic
- Start an industry blog
- Seaking and teaching
- Host a roundtable
The above are all just ideas. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself who is your customer and how can you reach them?
This is obviously really important - You want to start with your target customer and work backwards.
Then once you have that initial few, try to source introductions through people you know. Can they refer you to their friends? What about your investors, professors, ex-colleagues? Use your network.
You aren’t yet trying to sell. So what is the meeting for exactly? You want their time. People are protective of their time, so how you frame it is key:
- Problem / Vision
- Stage you’re at
- Specific issue you want to solve
- Put them on a pedestal / flatter them
- Ask for help
- Authority of an intro is always helpful
Don’t need all of them all the time, but a mixture.
In-person or phone call? In-person gives more and better information. But phone calls allow you to get through more and calls can be more succinct.
How many meetings? You’ll want to keep having meetings until you stop learning new things. If you find that after 10 conversations all the answers are vary different, your customer segment might be too broad. Choosing Customers
Startups die when they do too much. So you want to start with a narrow customer group. It makes your product more manageable and your marketing more specific. Before we can serve everyone, we must serve someone.
Reminds me of Paul Graham's well analogy. You want to find a well (problem) that is deep and narrow. It's better to find a few people who love it and expand from there.
When you go too broad, you’re neither right nor wrong. Everything is just a watered down meh reaction. So how to slice up a larger customer group? Start by focusing on who might want it most.
- by demographics
- by motivation
Ideally you want to create who-where pairs. Who they are and where can you find them? Some additional filters: profitable (they can pay), easy to reach and personally rewarding for you (you have some interest or like for these people).
That last one is important. Tyler Tringas describes it as the "most important criteria for success by far" in Micros Saas.
Running The Process
As well as useful conversations with good questions, you’ll also need to do a bit of work around it to maximise the usefulness. Otherwise you (the person doing the customer conversations) becomes a bottleneck.
- Know your big 3 questions
- Have customer profiles that describe who they are and what you want (you can update these as we go)
- do LinkedIn research on everyone you speak to; know them and the company
- Find out industry info on the internet. The conversation should be going for information beyond that.
- Have product and business people there to decide what questions are important to know
- Go over the meetings and learnings together - transfer the new knowledge to the whole team
- Meta conversation about the conversations itself - what questions worked? What didn’t? What aren’t you finding out?
- Have a way to share and spread this (e.g. weekly email, slack channel)
- Customer conversations work best with two people, one asking questions and one writing everything down
- Founders need to be part of this. At least listening. Hired contractors etc. won’t find the truth
- Write exact quotes where possible.
- Develop a key of icons that reflect different sentiments (e.g. happy, sad), obstacles, jobs-to-be-done, goals, workarounds, etc.
- Write a big start next to follow-ups/actions
- Make them persistent and sortable. So you need to transfer them to some sort of system after.
I've done it with recording and then transferred the key learnings to notes. I've heard Stripe was big on this.
Why bother? Because this is all about learning - finding the truth! If you don’t take notes, don’t even bother.
By asking good questions, we can fix many flawed ideas before they hurt us. It’s our responsibility. Find the truth.
You may also want to view my other book notes.