Ask questions even your mom can’t lie to 👵| Rob Fitzpatrick

mom test

“Do you think this is a good idea?”

👆 That’s the worst question you can ask someone as a startup founder.

Rob Fitz explains why in his phenomenal book The Mom Test.

It’s a book about having fruitful customer conversations.

In just 138 pages Rob delivers a masterclass on validating your idea only by talking to people.

Over the last 10 years Rob has bootstrapped companies and has founded VC backed companies as well. And he has spoken to thousands of customers.

In his own words he is programmer who was “forced” to talk to customers.

He has learned to do effective customer conversation the hard way, and now he is teaching the world how to do it.

In March, 2020 he appeared on the IndieHackers podcast with Courtland Allen.

They talked about the right way to talk to people about your business, bad questions Indie Hackers often ask, and how they can ask questions that pass the mom test.

Lessons👇

The Mom Test👵

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

Normally, if you ask your mom if your idea is good or not, she will never lie to you. Because she loves you, she doesn’t want to hurt you, so she will say the idea is great and its an excellent business!

And that’s true for anyone you ask, not just your mom.

Nobody wants to go through the emotional toll of telling you your idea is bad.

They don’t want to be the one to crush your dreams, so they cop out and tell you what they think you want to hear.

Even if, the right thing for you to hear is that your idea is terrible and you should not waste your time on it.

The trick to pass the mom test, is to ask questions to people, that help validate or invalidate your idea without revealing that you are actually planning to build a business around it.

Ideally, you want to ask these questions to your potential customers.

But founders find it hard to have customer conversations.

2 reasons why –

  1. Emotional Challenge – Founders (especially developers) find it scary to talk to customers about their idea. It’s a weird activity, humans are not used to talking to random strangers. But we must realize that having those 5 conversations can save months of development time and effort. It can save you from building an elaborate feature that nobody wants.
  2. Skill Challenge – The actual skill of having fruitful conversations. The ability to ask questions that matter and can validate the real need for your product. It’s a skill that requires a lot of practice and analysis.

Before we look at questions that pass the mom test, lets look at a few that fail it.

Bad Questions❌

It’s important to get out of “pitching” mode when you are talking to customers. Rob says you can lead people to any response if you start pitching.

It happens because you expose your ego and nobody wants to hurt you.

Some bad question examples –

  • What do you think of this idea?
  • Will you pay for this? (hypothetical money means nothing)
  • How much will you pay for this? (hypothetical arbitrary number which will throw you off course)

When it comes to topics like security, sustainability and the environment, another bad question is –

  • Do you care about “X”

Of course nobody will say they don’t care about security or the environment.

Another example is if you are building productivity software.

If you ask anyone –

  • “do you care about productivity?” (of course they do!)
  • “How much will you pay for it? $10 or $50?” (obviously they will say 50, nobody wants to value their productivity less)

But that doesn’t mean anything.

It’s hypothetical money in the future for a problem they think they have.

What you really want to know is if they are doing something about it? Are they spending some time or money to solve that problem.

If yes, then you are in business.

If not, then you should move on.

Rob says it best –

“…Show me how much effort you’re already putting toward this. Show me what you’ve tried that’s failed.” I want to see hard evidence that you’re already doing something, because if you’re not I think this is all just fluff…”

Good Questions✅

During a customer conversation you want to focus on the current facts in their lives rather than their future predictions.

The very first question you should ask is do they care at all, are they even in your customer segment.

Example if you are selling baby products, you need to know that the person you are talking to is a parent. They have a child in their life for whom they can make purchasing decisions.

This is a classification question. Once that’s out of the way, you move on to the next questions.

Now you want to know for which problem are they spending their money, or time or both on.

A good method to get there is to go from the generic to the specific.

Whenever someone says that they have a problem, dig deeper and ask for specifics. Questions such as –

  • Tell me more about that
  • Talk me through your process
  • How does that actually work?

You have to figure out do they really care about the problem.

If they don’t then you can move on.

3 Rules of customer conversation

  1. Focus on the live, not on the hypothetical.
  2. Draw out specific facts from their past, rather than their opinions about the future
  3. Talk less, listen more.

That last one is really interesting.

Focus on the words they use to describe their problems. You can use the exact same words for your copy.

That’s what you can put on your landing page, in your ad copy and your email marketing.

It’s important to note that you are not trying to collect feature requests like this. You are not “building product by committee”.

That’s why its important to not talk to them about your idea at all.

Talk to customers about their problems. Turn that into insight, and then take a visionary leap towards your product.

This is how Rob describes it –

“…it’s your job to figure out if it’s a good idea. All they can do is tell you about their life. That’s the only information they have access to…”

Another set of good questions – If we go back to the example of productivity software, you can ask –

  • Hey you care about productivity, how do you stay productive?
  • What do you do about it?
  • Talk me through your habits at the moment.
  • What tools do you use?
  • What did you try before? why did you switch?

Asking direct questions is important when you are brand new.

Right at the start you want customers who care deeply about your product and that is solves a very sharp problem for them.

As you get success and become more mainstream, you will get more general customers.

But at the start, your customers should be crazy and emotional about the problem you are solving.

The Pitch

After speaking to your customers for a while, eventually you will reach a stage where you will have to talk about your product.

Once you have classified the customer to be in your target group, you have validated that they genuinely face the problem, now they are ready to hear about your idea.

This can happen over one long conversation or several short ones.

But by this point, you want to describe your idea and product, and want some form of commitment from the customer.

But before you pitch your idea, you must gain permission from them.

You must say something like –

  • “Listen, I am working on something, and it looks like you are the ideal user for it, would you like me to talk about it?”

If you get a positive response, you can go ahead with the pitch.

But if you sense the slightest negativity, you should refrain from making the pitch. They won’t buy from you if they don’t wan to listen to the pitch.

Commitment Devices

There are 3 types of commitments you should ask for from a customer –

  1. Time – Are they ready to spend some business time with you going deeper into the product? (this is weak, but still counts, and it’s better than a future promise like – “I will pay for it”)
  2. Reputation – Public introductions with their peers or superiors. Or public testimonials of your product or idea. This is a strong signal that the customer is deeply invested and will buy.
  3. Money – Actual money. Through a pre-order sale. This is the ultimate validation.

At this point, you are doing “anti-sales” as Rob puts it-

“You’re intentionally trying to get rejected, because you only want to spend your time with the people who really care. It’s anti-sales.”

You are not fishing for compliments, you’re looking to validate your idea.

And for that you should always be willing to ask questions that you are afraid to ask.

Questions such as –

  • Do you have a budget for this?
  • Can I talk to your boss about this?
  • Should I come over and explain the idea to your development team? it will be a couple of hours.

The thing you least want to ask is probably the most important question.

Because that will question will make or break your idea.

Its tough, but it’s necessary.

And you’ve got to do it with many potential customers.

You will fail initially, but will get better with practice.

That’s Rob’s final advice –

Advice to Indie Hackers🤗

Rob’s advice about customer conversations –

“… think of it like a craft or hands on skill like skateboarding or pottery and be willing to fall on your ass a few times. It’s not science or math. You can read it in the book and you’ll get the framework and you’ll know what you’re trying to try, but you’ve still got to go practice. You’ve going to have some embarrassing moments and some whoopsies, but you get good at saying sorry…”


Thanks for Reading🙏

Listen to the complete episode on the Indie Hackers podcast.

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ICYMI: Last Week I wrote about Validating your ideas without code with Bram Kanstein

Read a shorter version of it in this Twitter thread.

Thanks to Seth King for editing this post.

Photo credit Emily Morter from Unsplash

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