Testing an idea? Customer conversations are bad by default. It’s your job to fix them.

Rob Fitzpatrick
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People say you shouldn’t ask your mom whether your business is a good idea. That’s technically true, but it misses the point. You shouldn’t ask anyone whether your business is a good idea. At least not in those words. Your mom will lie to you the most (just ‘cuz she loves you), but it’s a bad question and invites everyone to lie to you at least a little.

This article is serialised from Rob Fitzpatrick's The Mom Test: how to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you.

It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to show us the truth. It’s our responsibility to find it. We do that by asking good questions.

The Mom Test is a set of simple rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can't lie to you about.

Before we get there, let's look at two conversations with mom and see what we can learn about our business idea: digital cookbooks for the iPad.

Failing the mom test

Son: “Mom, mom, I have an idea for a business — can I run it by you?” I am about to expose my ego — please don’t hurt my feelings.

Mom: “Of  course, dear.” You are my only son and I am ready to lie to protect you.

Son: “You like your iPad, right? You use it a lot?”

Mom: “Yes.” You led me to this answer, so here you go.

Son: “Okay, so would you ever buy an app which was like a cookbook for your iPad?” I am optimistically asking a hypothetical question and you know what I want you to say.

The measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers’ lives and world views.

Mom: “Hmmm.” As if I need another cookbook at my age.

Son: “And it only costs $40 — that’s cheaper than those hardcovers on your shelf.” I’m going to skip that lukewarm signal and tell you more about my great idea.

Mom: “Well...” Aren’t apps supposed to cost a dollar?

Son: “And you can share recipes with your friends, and there’s an iPhone app which is your shopping list. And videos of that celebrity chef you love.” Please just say “yes.” I will not leave you alone until you do.

Mom: “Oh, well yes honey, that sounds amazing. And you’re right, $40 is a good deal. Will it have pictures of the recipes?” I have rationalised the price outside of  a real purchase decision, made a non-committal compliment, and offered a feature request to appear engaged.

Son: “Yes, definitely. Thanks mom — love you!” I have completely misinterpreted this conversation and taken it as validation.

Mom: “Won’t you have some lasagna?” I am concerned that you won’t be able to afford food soon. Please eat something.

Our misguided entrepreneur has a few more conversations like this, becomes increasingly convinced he’s right, quits his job, and sinks his savings into the app. Then he wonders why nobody (even his mom) buys it, especially since he had been so rigorous.

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.

Let’s fix the conversation and show that if we do it right, even mom can help us figure out whether our business is a good idea.

Passing the mom test

Son: “Hey mom, how’s that new iPad treating you?”

Mom: “Oh - I love it! I use it every day.”

Son: “What do you usually do on it?” Whoops — we asked a generic question, so answer to this probably won’t be terribly valuable.

Mom: “Oh, you know. Read the news, play sudoku, catch up with my friends. The usual.”

Son: “What’s the last thing you did on it?” Get specific about examples  in the past to get real, concrete data.

Mom: “You know your father and I are planning that trip? I was figuring out where we could stay.” She uses it for both entertainment and utility, which didn’t come up during the “usually” answer.

Son: “Did you use an app for that?” A slightly leading question, but sometimes we need to nudge to get to the topic we’re interested in.

Mom: “No, I just used Google. I didn’t know there was an app.

What’s it called?” Younger folks use the App Store as a search engine, whereas your mom waits for a specific recommendation. If that’s true more broadly, finding a reliable marketing channel outside the App Store is going to be crucial.

Son: “How did you find out about the other apps you have?” Dig into interesting and unexpected answers to understand the behaviours and motivations behind them.

Mom: “The Sunday paper has a section on the apps of the week.” You can’t remember the last time you opened a paper, but it sounds like traditional PR might be a viable option for reaching customers like mom.

Son: “Makes sense. Hey, by the way, I saw a couple new cookbooks on the shelf — where did those come from?” Business ideas usually have several failure points. Here it’s both the medium of  an iPad app and the content of  a cookbook.

Mom was unable to lie to us because we never talked about our idea. That’s kind of weird, right?

Mom: “They’re one of those things you just end up getting at Christmas. I think Marcy gave me that one. Haven’t even opened it. As if I need another lasagna recipe at my age!” Aha! This answer is golden for 3 reasons: 1. Old people don’t need another generic set of  recipes. 2. The gift market may be strong . 3. Younger cooks may be a better customer segment since they don’t yet know  the basics.

Son: “What’s the last cookbook you did buy for yourself ?” Attack generic answers  like “I don’t buy cookbooks” by asking for specific examples.

Mom: “Now that you mention it, I bought a vegan cookbook about 3 months ago. Your father is trying to eat healthier and thought my veggies could benefit from a pinch more zazz.” More gold: experienced chefs may still buy specialised or niche cookbooks.

The conversation continues. If it’s going well, I would raise the topics of whether she has ever looked for recipes on the iPad or searched for cooking videos on YouTube.

You thank her for the lasagna, pet the dog, and head home. You’ve learned that building an app and waiting for people to find it on the App Store probably isn’t a good plan. But you’ve got some good insight about your customer segment and a few promising leads to look into. That was a useful conversation.

A useful conversation

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, help us improve our business.

Our original idea looked like this: old people like cookbooks and iPads. Therefore, we will build a cookbook for the iPad. It’s generic. There are a thousand possible variations of this premise.

With an idea this vague, we can’t answer any of the difficult questions like which recipes to include or how people will hear about it. Until we get specific, it always seems like a good idea.

After just one conversation (with our mom, of all people), we have a higher fidelity vision. We now see that there are at least two specific customer segments we might serve, each of which needs a slightly different product. We’ve also identified some major risks to address before we commit too heavily.

  1. We could offer niche recipes (ethnic, diets) which experienced cooks may not already know. Our biggest question is how to reach them when they don’t search for apps. We have a possible lead with newspaper and magazine PR
  2. Alternately, we might make generic recipes for younger cooks who are easier to reach via the App Store and who haven’t memorised all their favourites yet. We haven’t talked to any, so we have loads of questions, but one big one might be whether a customer segment who isn’t already in the habit of buying expensive cookbooks will pay a premium for ours

The first conversation gave us rope to hang ourselves. The second gave us actionable insight. Why? What was different about the second conversation?

Mom was unable to lie to us because we never talked about our idea. That’s kind of weird, right? We find out if people care about what we’re doing by never mentioning it. Instead, we talk about them and their lives.

Rule of  thumb: Customer conversations are bad by default. It’s your job to fix them.

The point is a bit more subtle than this. Eventually you do need to mention what you’re building and take people’s money for it. However, the big mistake is almost always to mention your idea too soon rather than too late.

If you just avoid mentioning your idea, you automatically start asking better questions. Doing this is the easiest (and biggest) improvement you can make to your customer conversations.

Here are three simple rules to help you. They are collectively called (drumroll) The Mom Test:

The Mom Test:

  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. When you do it right, they won’t even know you have an idea. There are some other important tools and tricks that we’ll introduce throughout the rest of the book. But first, let’s let’s put The Mom Test to work on some questions.

Rule of  thumb: Customer conversations are bad by default. It’s your job to fix them.

This article is serialised from Rob Fitzpatrick's The Mom Test: how to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you.

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Rob Fitzpatrick
Partner
Founder Centric
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