Book Review - The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

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June 7th, 2022, posted in for_founders
by Adelina

Here at UPDIVISION, a big part of our software development process is product discovery. It’s the stage where we and the product owner try to understand what the app is supposed to do, who the users are, and how we can help them achieve their goals.

 

There’s a big mistake beginner entrepreneurs tend to make - and it often leads to the downfall of their business. They should never ask anyone if their business is a good idea. Why? It invites people, especially those close to you, to lie. They will try to spare your feelings and tell you it’s a good idea, you should go for it, and they will try your product when it’s out.

 

After having such experiences, Rob Fitzpatrick, a developer turned entrepreneur, wrote a book called, “The Mom Test: How to Talk to Customers and Learn If Your Business is a Good Idea when Everyone is Lying to You”.

 

In his book, Fitzpatrick talks about the dangers of being praised too much on your business idea: if you’re misled from the beginning, your business might end up being a costly failure. But the key to avoiding that is having better conversations with potential customers - so you know from the start that your idea is worth pursuing. 

 

So today, we'll be doing a review of his book and going through his best tips on how to get proper feedback on your business ideas.

 

Table of contents

Chapter 1. The Mom Test

Chapter 2. Avoiding Bad Data

Chapter 3. Asking Important Questions

Chapter 4. Keeping it casual

Chapter 5. Commitment and advancement

Chapter 6. Finding conversations

Chapter 7. Choosing your customers

Chapter 8. Running the process

 

Chapter 1. The Mom Test

In this chapter, Fitzpatrick goes into detail about what the mom test really is: a way to ask someone about your business idea in such a way that they don’t lie to you. It comes down to asking the proper questions. Here are the main talking points within The Mom Test:

 

1. Talk about their life instead of your idea - if you simply ask them, “I’m making an app that helps people make online payments faster, would you try it?”, they’d be inclined to lie to you. Instead, ask them how they make payments online, what kind of role they play in their life, and what they find challenging about it.

 

2. Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future - ask them about the last time they tried whatever your app is trying to do, how they’ve fixed any issues, or they had any issues at all. The author, in fact, insists multiple times throughout the book that it is also useful to find out you’re fixing an unexisting problem.

 

3. Talk less and listen more - one of the pitfalls of talking to someone about a business idea is falling into “pitch mode”. But you’re not trying to promote your business: let the potential customer talk about their life, so you can see how your business idea can fit in - or if it does at all.

 

The author also talks about specific questions you should, and shouldn’t ask. So here are the good ones, and why:

✅ "What would your dream product do?" - A good question if you have a good follow-up. After you ask this, make sure to also ask why.

 

✅ “Why do you bother?" - This question can help you understand why a specific problem is a problem. It helps determine what the user’s true goal is.

 

✅ "What are the implications of that?" - This way, you can find out if the problem you’re trying to solve is big enough of a deal to require a solution.

 

✅ "Talk me through the last time that happened." - Get into detail about the potential customer’s day to day life, or even watch them complete the task in question.

 

✅ "What else have you tried?" - With this question, you can find out if the issue is big enough of a deal for the customer to be willing to pay for solutions.

 

✅ "How are you dealing with it now?" - Similarly, here you can find out how much money and effort they’re putting into fixing the issue.

 

✅ "Where does the money come from?" - This question is suitable in a B2B medium, because you can find out who the biggest stakeholder is.

 

✅ "Who else should I talk to?" - By asking this, your potential customer might introduce you to other people having the same issues.

 

✅ "Is there anything else I should have asked?" - If there are any useful details that the customer didn’t get the chance to talk about, this is their chance.

 

Here are some examples of bad questions:

❌ "Do you think it's a good idea?" - Unless you’re talking to an expert, there’s no use in asking for opinions. They won’t determine whether it’s worth the effort or not.

 

❌ "Would you buy a product which did X?" - It’s better to ask them if they’ve tried a solution, and if they’re paying for it. Or if they didn’t find a solution at all.

 

❌ "How much would you pay for X?" - Ask them how much they’re paying for their current solution instead.

 

Chapter 2. Avoiding Bad Data

Bad data, says Fitzpatrick, is information that misleads you - and which doesn’t pass The Mom Test. He puts it into 3 categories:

1. Compliments

2. Fluff

3. Ideas

 

Compliments

You might think that a meeting that ends with “That’s cool, I like it” was successful. But unless you’re talking to an industry expert who has built something similar, this opinion doesn’t prove anything - it’s just that, an opinion. The key, says Fitzpatrick, is not mentioning your idea right off the bat, and deflecting compliments.

 

Specifically, once the people you’re talking to say “That’s cool”, ask them why, get to specifics. Ask them how much money it would save them, how it would fit into their life, or if it’s better than other solutions they’ve tried..

 

Fluff

Fitzpatrick divides his idea of fluff into 3 categories:

1. Generic claims (“I usually”, "I always", "I never")

2. Future-tense promises (“I would”, "I will")

3. Hypothetical maybes ("I might", "I could")

 

These kinds of comments aren’t actually useful when testing out a business idea, as they’re not reliable commitments. When a potential customer says “I would definitely buy that”, the author says, they’re being wildly optimistic. Sure, they might buy it. But it doesn’t guarantee that they will.

 

A good way to avoid fluff is by asking good follow-up questions: instead of asking someone if they would use an app that fixes their problem, ask them if they’ve tried a solution at all, and how that went. This way, you might even find out that there’s no need for your app. Plus, finding out about their past behavior is a better reference for what they might do in the future (compared to those “I would try it” comments).

 

Ideas

Potential customers tend to come up with lots of feature requests, but founders shouldn’t include everything in their business. But how do you know if a feature is truly important or not? Keep asking why, says Fitzpatrick. Dig, dig, dig, until you find out if a problem is so important that people will rush to your product to fix it.

 

The pitfall of feature-packing is not knowing, beforehand, that most of those features won't be used. This is why you need to find the motivation behind a feature request: maybe all existing solutions lack that important feature, or whatever solution they’re trying requires too much money and effort.

 

Talk about the right things only

Fitzpatrick talks about The Pathos Problem, where a business owner exposes their ego and invites people to give them compliments - instead of useful information. Questions like “I’m thinking of starting a business... so, do you think it will work?” or “I can take it — be honest and tell me what you really think!” don’t bring you useful business insights. Just compliments people will give you so they don’t hurt your feelings.

 

The author also talks about letting the customer talk: if you do all the talking, how can you get useful information out of a conversation with them? Listen to what they’re saying, and don’t interrupt.

 

Chapter 3. Asking Important Questions

Fitzpatrick says that an important question is one that can disprove your business idea. Like we’ve already mentioned, it’s just as useful to know if your idea is useless. This way, you’ll save time and money and won’t build a product no one will use. The trick is to allow yourself to ask these questions, and to fully listen.

 

Another issue in how founders structure their questions is zooming in too fast: if you’re talking about a specific activity and your business idea relies on it, but your potential customer doesn’t do that enough, don’t push. The example the author gives here is an app that helps you stay fit: if the customer you’re talking to doesn’t work out and doesn’t even care about it, ask them why. Don’t push with more specific fitness questions. Stop at the first “no”, and head into the “why”.

 

Another example Fitzpatrick gives is a blog marketing tool: when talking to potential customers, start by asking what their biggest blog problems are. Then, if they say that blog marketing is an issue, ask them why, and dig deeper. But if they don’t mention it, talk to more people, or take it as a sign that the problem isn’t important enough.

 

A big part of asking the right questions is preparing the 3 most important ones, before you talk to people. Pick these with your team, and when you find a potential customer to talk to, you already know what to ask.

 

 

Chapter 4. Keeping it casual

It takes a while to set up meetings. And it’s even harder to convince someone to take the time and effort to do it - especially when meeting face to face. This book was written before the pandemic, so this part is slightly out of date. But this chapter highlights a bigger issue.

 

What makes people not want to talk to you is making it too formal. So Fitzpatrick says: keep it casual. Have a regular chat, just you and the potential customer, and ask your most important questions.

 

Learning from customers doesn’t mean you have to be wearing a suit and drinking boardroom coffee, he says. Taking away the pressure of an interview lets people open up, and give you actually useful information. Don’t talk about your idea, talk about the problem you’re trying to fix and how the customer is facing it.

 

Chapter 5. Commitment and advancement

When talking to potential customers or investors, there are 2 majors things that prove they’re truly interested in your business idea:

 

  • 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.

 

With those in mind, it’s not easy to say that a meeting “went well”. A successful meeting isn’t one that leaves you with “good vibes” and compliments - it’s one that leads to some sort of commitment. These commitments are based on 3 major elements: time, reputation risk, and cash. Here are some of the author’s examples:

 

  • Setting up another meeting with known goals
  • Using a trial themselves for a non-trivial period
  • Giving a public testimonial or case study
  • Pre-order
  • Deposit

 

In other words, the more they’re giving up for you, the more believable their compliments will be. They might even combine all 3 elements and have a paid trial that involves their entire team.

 

Next up, Fitzpatrick talks about some big statements said at the end of a meeting and which ones prove that it truly went well:

 

❌ "That's so cool. I love it!" - It’s a compliment that brings no useful data.

 

❌ "Looks great. Let me know when it launches." - This is a common stalling tactic, and they likely won’t care about the launch. It’s better to ask for a commitment anchored in the present.

 

🤔 "There are a couple people I can introduce you to when you're ready." - This might be out of politeness, so to test their willingness to commit, ask for more details.

 

✅ "What are the next steps?" - This shows interest and the willingness to commit to your idea.

 

❌ "I would definitely buy that." - As we’ve mentioned before, anything involving “would” is unreliable. A concrete promise or pre-order is more significant.

 

🤔 "When can we start the trial?" - If your trial involves more effort (a fairly high cost, takes time and resources to use), their validation means more.

 

✅ "Can I buy the prototype?" - They’re willing to commit by spending money, which is a great sign.

 

✅ "When can you come back to talk to the rest of the team?" - In a B2B environment, this is a very good sign. If they don’t say this, you might have reached a dead end.

 

How do you fix bad meetings, then? Fitzpatrick says it’s all about asking for more details: when faced with rejection, ask why. When left with fluff, dig deeper.

 

Chapter 6. Finding conversations

You know your product and your audience. Now, where do you actually find those people? Fitzpatrick says to pay attention to what people around you talk about, find good excuses to talk about key topics for your business, and immerse yourself in where they are. If you create a landing page with a sign up for updates function, email everyone back and say hello - it could start useful conversations.

Alternatively, try to get them to you. If you’re building a product aimed at HR professionals, have an event called “HR professionals happy hour”, says Fitzpatrick. You can also hold talks about the issue you’re solving, which can help you meet people you can talk to. Or do industry blogging, which can also attract members of your audience.

The author gives a couple of tips on how to find people to talk to:

 

 

  • Ask those around you if they know the kind of person you’re looking to talk to. Everyone knows someone, and you should take advantage of that.
  • Talk to industry advisors and ask them for introductions.
  • If you’re a student, ask for help from your professors.
  • If you have any investors, ask them to introduce you to other potential customers.
  • Go back to those who told you “Sounds great, keep me in the loop and let me know how I can help.” - and ask them for that help.

 

 

How not to turn a conversation into a sales meeting

If you frame your meeting poorly, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t make it formal, don’t ask for opinions, and don’t say “thank you for agreeing to this interview”. Instead, Fitzpatrick proposes this framing structure: Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask. 

 

Here’s how that works:

 

1. Tell them what problem you’re trying to solve and what your vision is for it - don’t talk about your business idea yet.

2. Tell them what stage you’re at, so you frame expectations

3. Show them what your weakness is - talk about any specific issues you’re having while building the product

4. Tell them how important their help would be, with concrete examples

5. Ask for help

 

Chapter 7. Choosing your customers

It’s never good to start too broad, nor too specific, in terms of audience. Asking the right questions but not getting useful answers is a sign you’ve gone too broad: this is where customer slicing comes in. This is a process where you take an audience segment, and dig deeper, to subsets of it. 

 

Here are some questions you can ask your main segment, to find subsets:

 

  • Within this group, which type of person would want it most?
  • Why do they want it?
  • What additional motivations are there?
  • Which other types of people have these motivations?

 

After that, you should ask them what this subset is doing to fix the issue, and where you can find them. When you have to choose who to start talking to, Fitzpatrick says to choose who is more:

 

1. Profitable 

2. Easy to reach 

3. Rewarding to build a business around

 

If your product has multiple stakeholders (take, for instance, apps for kids - which you have to “sell” to both the kids, and the parents) or relies on a certain partner, don’t leave them out of the conversation. Talking to the right people will help you get the right data for your business.

 

Chapter 8. Running the process

It’s a terrible idea, as the team leader, to withhold useful information from the rest of your team. Everything you learn should be shared with them right away - and they should be as involved as you are.

 

The logistics of making a truly good meeting happen.

  • Prepping: remember that part about having 3 important questions? This is where those come in. Focus on questions that you truly need answers to, and involve the entire team in the prep process. The key is to know exactly what you need to learn. Otherwise, you won’t get useful data out of it.
  • Reviewing: After a meeting, update your key questions if needed. Disseminate all info as soon as possible and discuss what you should improve in the next meeting.
  • Who should show up: Those who make the big decisions should go, at least to some meetings. Ideally, two of you should go: one will talk, the other will take notes. Go by yourself only if you’re good at taking notes.
  • How to write it down: Write down quotes if possible. To express emotions in your notes, come up with symbols that you’ll recognize when reading them again - things like smiley faces for features they liked, sad faces for things they didn’t like, and so on.
  • Where to write it down: Separate meeting notes from general notes, so you don’t lose track of them. You can have a dedicated notebook for meeting notes, or use apps like Google Docs. Alternatively, Fitzpatrick suggests using index cards.

 

To sum it all up..

Before talking to customers, you should:

  • Find the best audience segment by discussing it with your team. Make sure you can reach them.
  • Figure out your 3 learning goals
  • Think of what the next steps would be, or what kind of commitments you’d like to ask for
  • Decide who to talk to, if conversations are your best way of learning
  • Come up with your own guesses about what the audience cares about
  • If you can look up a question, do that before asking people about it.

 

While talking to customers, you should:

  • Frame the conversation
  • Don’t make it formal
  • Ask questions that pass the Mom Test
  • Deflect compliments, fluff, and dig deeper
  • Take notes properly
  • Try to get them committed, or involved in the next steps

 

After talking to customers, you should:

  • Review your notes with the entire team
  • Transfer notes somewhere permanent (a Google Drive folder, a binder, however you please)
  • Update your beliefs and plans based on what you learned
  • Pick the next 3 big questions

 

Overall, we found this book to be a very interesting read, that we can apply in our own work, in the product discovery process. It brought some valuable insights about how to evaluate a business idea, the right questions to ask, and how to find people to talk to.

 

 

If you’re here looking to go further with your own business idea and you need some technical assistance, contact us and let’s see what we can do together.

 

 


About the author

Adelina

Artsy kid navigating the world of tech for the first time and trying to learn as much as possible about it. My biggest passions are video making, writing, and TV shows I can cry to at 2AM. I also really love IKEA.

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