December 22, 2021

The Mom Test

Anya Parikh

THE MOM TEST

What is the Mom Test?

The Mom Test stems from the very notion that you, as someone with a start-up idea, should never ask your mom if your business idea is a good one. The reason is that Mothers always validate your ideas is because this space comes from a place of love, not always honesty and logic. The Mom Test is a set of simple rules for crafting good questions for customer conversations that even your mom can’t lie to you about. When it comes to data extracting conversations, it’s important to remember that “Doing it wrong is worse than doing nothing at all.” Collecting a handful of false positives is never an improvement.


You should be asking generic questions. These do not lead to biased answers/ the answers you are looking for. Never put the path of answers you are looking for in the tone of the question. Let them be open-ended, but about the topic, you wish to learn more about.


For example, if you have an idea for a recipes app for iPads, do not begin the conversation with your Mother with “Mom, I have an idea for a business – you like your iPad, and you would buy an app for recipes to use on your iPad, right?” This conversation starter begins with your Mother knowing that you are about to expose your ego. And because she never wants you to feel bad/hurt, she will be encouraging regardless of whether she would, as a consumer, invest in such a product.


A better way to initiate this conversation would be to say, “Hey Mom, how is the iPad treating you?” And then,  slowly asking questions such as “What do you usually do on it?” or “Do you have an app for X?” based on their answers. This results in you gradually gaining knowledge about your idea without guiding the conversation to your desired answers.


The measure of the usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers’ lives and world views. This helps improve the business. If you don’t include your idea in the initial conversation, you get an honest opinion. Don’t mention your idea too soon and use it to steer the “Is this a good idea?” conversation. When you use the Mom Test right, they won’t even realize you have an idea, but you can collect the requisite answers.


The Mom Test has three primary rules:

Good and Bad Questions

Once you understand the Mom Test. It comes down to devising questions. This is where the notion of “Good and Bad Questions” comes into the picture.  You can’t ask the wrong questions and expect insightful answers. Specific bad questions include:

a) “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

b) “Would you pay X amount for Product Y?”

c) “Would you buy a product that does X?”


These are awful questions because only the market can tell you if your idea is good. Everything else is just an opinion. And for you, opinions are worthless. Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie. People will lie to you when they believe you know what you want to hear. You need to ask questions that attempt to understand what you can do to solve problems your consumer is already aware of. Find out which issues matter and which don’t. It is essential to understand that people will always complain but may not be ready to pay to solve specific problems. You need to talk through what happened and how they solved the problems they faced. If they haven’t looked for ways to solve it, they probably won’t look into or buy yours.


Good questions surround what you should build. Consumers own the problem. You own and get to choose how to solve the problem. Moreover, people want to help you, so it’s always great to ask questions like:

a) “Gosh, that must be tough. How did you overcome problem X?”

b) “Is there anything else I should have asked?

c) “Who should I talk to next?”

d) “Talk me through the last time you faced problem X.”

e) “What are the implications of that?”

f) “Talk me through the last time that happened?”

g) “What were your alternatives?”

h) “Where does the money come from?”

i) “Is there anything else I should have asked?”

AVOIDING BAD DATA

Through consumer conversations, you must ensure that you are avoiding the bad data. You must be seeking facts and commitment, never compliments and promises. Bad data can give you false positives and negatives.

The three main types:

  • Compliments
  • Fluff
  • Ideals

Entrepreneurs are drowning in ideas, but you must never blindly try to add all the features/ desires that you hear of during your customer conversations. When you’re applying the Mom Test and asking questions, dig beneath the surface of the idea and ask the right questions. When you hear a request, it’s your job to understand the motivations behind the same. Dig around emotional signals and find the root cause.  

For example, if you’re talking to someone about an idea that you’ve had regarding a scheduling app, and mid-conversation this idea drops:

Them: “Are you guys going to be able to sync to Excel?”

You shouldn’t immediately note this down and add it to your to-do list. That’s the fast lane to feature-creep. Instead, ask the right questions and try to understand why they want such a feature to be there.

You: “What would syncing to Excel allow you to do?”


Questions to dig into feature requests:

  • “Why do you want that?”
  • “What would that let you do?”
  • “How are you coping without that?”
  • “Do you think we should push back the launch and add that feature, or is it something we can add in 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?”
  • “You seem pretty excited about that – is it a big deal?”

How to deal with them

1. Deflect compliments and avoid them by not mentioning your idea. Get on with trying to accumulate facts and commitments. Try to get in on the compliments instead of jumping to the conclusion that they like your product – why did they like the idea, how much would it save them, how does it fit into her life.


2.  Acknowledge that Fluff usually comes in three forms –

a. Generic claims (I usually, I always, I never)

b. Future tense promises (I would, I will)

c. Hypothetical maybes (I might, I could)

Never mistaken fluff for commitment. Distinguish complainers from customers. Dig beneath the complaints and understand why they want what they want.

Don’t jump to conclusions, extract the reasons behind the wants. Find the root causes behind requests.


3. Stop seeking approval because you expose your ego when you seek approval, thus forcing people to believe that they ought to protect you by saying nice things. Stop adding, “would you like this, …do you think it will work? Is this a good idea? Would you pay for my idea?” when conversing and trying to research. This is known as the Pathos Problem. To deal with it, keep the focus of the conversation on the other person rather than the ideas you sought approval of.


4. Cut off Pitches as they look like you are demanding compliments and approval.  If you start pitching, pause, recognize it, and apologize.


5. Talk less and stop trying to fix their understanding of your idea, and let them talk.


ASKING IMPORTANT QUESTIONS

Once you hear about the Mom test – don’t overcompensate with the questions by asking trivial ones. You have to apply the Mom Test to the questions that matter. Imagine the company failing and succeeding when you ask questions. You can tell it is an important question when the answer could completely change your business. To get a complete overview, you should be terrified of at least one of the questions you ask in every conversation. A question whose answer you know can make or break whatever is on your mind.  


Love Bad News

Asking essential questions is challenging because of the possible realization that our favourite  idea is fundamentally flawed or that a significant customer may never purchase. Bad news is solid learning and helps you get on the right path. Better you hear it earlier than later after you’ve spent thousands on it. Never ignore bad news.


If you get crystal clear information that an individual does not care about the product, then use that as perfectly reliable information and take it to the bank. In such a situation, asking follow-up questions to understand the nature of their apathy is helpful.


Look before you zoom

A premature zoom and developing assumptions about a person or their preferences through the conversation impacts their ability to answer.  Zoom in to specifics slowly, based on their responses.


Dig into the reasons behind every answer, rather than assuming their priorities/ needs. Ask

“Why?”

“How come you…?”

“When was the last time you tried X?”

“What are your big problems right now?”


To see if a problem really matters to the customer, you can also ask questions like:

  • “How seriously do you take problem X?”
  • “Which tools and services do you use to do X task?”
  • “What are you already doing to improve this?”
  • “What are 3 big things you’re trying to fix or improve with respect to X?”


Look at the elephant

You need to resolve and acknowledge the scary questions, even if that means risking your business and recognizing the elephant in the room – the potential flaws and problems in your idea.


Prepare your list of 3

Always have a list of three questions that can be used to pick up reliable data. Each question should be different and contingent on the type of person you are speaking with.

Conversations give you a start point, but your ability to master the conversations allows you to steer it in the direction you want to, bring it back when it goes off track, help you build a product and learn about the market you previously knew lesser about.


KEEPING IT CASUAL

Once you have understood the questions you wish to ask and the type of data you are looking for, begin conversations with potential consumers, investors, friends, and family.  Keep the conversations lightweight and slide in the questions you want to ask, slowly and casually.

Learning about a customer and their problems is better in a quick conversation rather than a meeting. This is known as the anti-meeting pattern. It is a tendency to relegate every opportunity for customer conversation into a calendar block. Reduce every circumstance from a meeting to a talk. You know the conversation is becoming formal when you speak to them in a manner wherein they are doing you a favour by giving you their time. Eliminate such circumstances and keep the talk informal. When you strip all the formality from the process you end up with no meetings, no interview questions and a much easier time.

Moreover, when you attempt to make such a conversation, remember that the timings of meetings are subjective. A formal meeting works according to a calendar block, but often even a 15-20 minutes conversation can help you learn all that you need to. The data matters, not the minutes. While working your way around the bush, put the conversation together. Nudge the discussion towards the right and helpful direction while giving out as little information as you can about your idea.  Learning from customers doesn’t mean you have to be in a suit, drinking boardroom coffee. You can have these talks anywhere and save yourself the formal meetings until you have something concrete to show.

Once you have the product and the meetings take on a more sales-oriented / B2B model, you’ll want to start carving out clear blocks of 30+ minutes.  You might lose 5 minutes due to miscellaneous tardiness, spend 5 minutes saying hello, 5 minutes asking questions to understand their goals/problems/budget, 10 minutes to show/describe the product, and the last 5 minutes figuring out next steps and advancement. That's your half-hour. Even within a more formal meeting, you still might want to keep it casual if you’re hoping to get non-biased feedback.


COMMITMENT AND ADVANCEMENT

Now when you have a meeting, it will either succeed or fail. You know you have failed if you leave the meeting with a compliment or a stalling tactic. It succeeds when it ends with a commitment to advance to the next step. Let’s begin by understanding the difference between commitment and advancement.

An example – To move to the next step (advancement), you may have to meet your contact’s boss (Commitment – reputation).

Commitment doesn’t always have to be cash. It can be:

  1. Time commitments – For when the next meeting would be, using a trial version or a prototype, sitting down to give feedback.
  2. Reputation commitment – Introduction to the team, introduction to a decision-maker, public testimonial.
  3. Financial commitment – Issuance of a letter of intent, deport, pre-order.


When it comes to understanding if the response was a commitment or an advancement, look into the last few things said and try to dissect them. An unadulterated compliment plus a stalling tactic is usually a sign that it was a bad meeting. Promises to be introduced to more members of the community, asking for a trial or an advancement to the next step are positive signs.  You can save a bad meeting by pushing for commitment. Assimilate the information you get, decide if it matters enough to change your strategy, and then keep going.


When you fail to push for advancement, you end up with zombie leads: potential customers (or investors) who keep taking meetings with you and saying nice things, but who never seem to cut a check. A lost meeting can often be saved by just pushing for a commitment at the end while you're being brushed off with a compliment. Try to cut through some of the polite rejections and find out if they're actually going to become a partner/investor/customer.


Once you have the commitment and see advancing relations, you will soon have your first customer. First customers are often the crazy ones, crazy in a good way. They want your product so bad that they are willing to be the first people who try it. These are people who are usually emotional about what you are doing. Whenever you see such deep emotion, do all that you can to keep it. Revenue is just a side effect of learning.



FINDING CONVERSATIONS

When you are conversing, you must always treat people’s time respectfully and like you are genuinely trying to solve their problems. This helps turn cold conversations into warm introductions. The idea of unexpected interviews may seem weird, but that’s only when you think of it as an interview rather than a discussion. If it’s a topic you and the other party care about, find an excuse to talk about it. Immerse yourself in this community and go the extra mile to be around them.


Landing pages are also a great way of collecting emails of qualified leads for you to reach out to.  Try your level best to separate yourself from the crowd and let them come to you. To ensure they are the ones coming to you, you can organize meet-ups, spend the time to teach and speak, blog it – if you have a relevant blog audience, start writing up posts, organize “knowledge exchange” calls and play the host.


Creating warm introductions can be challenging, so try to use the fact that the world is a small place and that everyone knows someone, make use of industry advisors, converse with professors of universities, investors are always a great option, call in the favors with everyone that had offered to help when they heard your idea.


If you want to reduce the time cost of these conversations, move them to phone calls or Skype. But remember that you lose out on their body language, facial expressions, and not being in the room. It’s easier to keep it casual in person.


Don’t go into these conversations searching for customers. Go into them trying to find advisors, helpful knowledge people who are excited about your idea, and customer advisors. Keep having these conversations until you stop hearing new stuff/ don’t see any commitment to advance.


There are several ways you can initiate a conversation with customers, investors, and advisors. These include:

  1. Cold Calls – You may face rejection/ lack of enthusiasm, and unless you are planning to sell your idea via cold calls, the rejection rate is irrelevant.
  2. Seizing Serendipity – People love talking about their problems, and it’s okay to try to learn about them outside the boardroom. You don’t even have to mention that you have an idea, just have a good conversation.
  3. Find a Good Excuse – If it’s a topic you and the other party care about, find an excuse to talk about it. Your idea never needs to enter the equation.
  4. Immerse yourself in where they are – Go to conferences, meetings and sessions where you think your customer segment will be present in large numbers, and immerse yourself in this learning experience.


Asking for and framing the meeting can be a confusing task. The right explanation and framing can do wonders in these situations. If you don’t know why you’re there, it becomes a sales meeting by default. “How’s it going?”, “Can I interview you?” and even “Can I get your opinion on what I’m doing?” sets off expectations of neediness and often translates to: this is going to be boring.


Here are five steps you can follow when you are trying to ask and frame for the meeting:

  1. You’re an entrepreneur trying to solve horrible problem X, usher in wonder vision Y, or fix stagnant industry Z. Don’t mention your idea.
  2. Frame expectations by mentioning what stage you’re at and, if it’s true, you don’t have to anything else to sell.
  3. Show weakness and give them a chance to help by mentioning the specific problems that you’re looking for answers to. This will also clarify that you’re not a time-waster.
  4. Put them on a pedestal by showing how much they, in particular, can help,
  5. Ask for help.


Often you can club all 5 of these into just one or two sentences, or even change up the order. When sending out an email, this can look like:

Hey Scott,

I’m trying to make desk & office rental space a little less of a pain for new businesses (vision). We’re just starting out and don’t have anything to sell, but want to make sure we’re building something that actually helps. (framing).


I’ve only ever come at it from the tenant’s side and I’m having a hard time understanding how it all works from the landlord’s perspective (weakness). You’ve been renting out desks for a while now and could really help me cut through the fog (pedestal).


Do you have time in the next couple of weeks to meet up for a chat? (ask)


You can also use these conversations to learn and change the context of the meetings held to “looking for advisors”. This helps change the environment to naturally facilitate your goals. You don’t have to explicitly tell them that you’re looking for advisors, it’s more about orienting your state of mind to give you a helpful internal narrative and consistent front.  The number of meeting you will need is subjective. It is not about having a thousand meetings. It’s about quickly learning what you need and getting back to building your business.


CHOOSING YOUR CUSTOMERS

The next important step is to choose your customers. To succeed, avoid drowning in a multiplicity of options and make faster progress by indulging in good customer segmentation. Before you can serve everyone, know that you have to start by serving someone. There is no way you can pitch the same thing to everyone. You also cannot say yes to every request and serve everyone. If you aren’t finding consistent problems and goals, you haven’t really found your specific customer segment yet. Once you find your segment, keep slicing off better and better sub-sets. Within these, locate who is profitable, easy to reach, and rewarding for us to build a business around. Focus on your identified demographic and then study existing behaviors. Get in touch with those accessible and fun for you to be around. Ensure you’re not talking to the wrong people. If your business relies on a specific partner, for example, schools, get in touch with the right people, such as teachers, administration, and staff. Don’t just talk to the senior people you meet; converse with actual representatives of the users and consumers.

RUNNING THE PROCESS

Once you have identified your questions as well as your customers and worked on your skills to ensure you collect good data through good questions, it is time to run the process. Start by doing your bit of research and work to extract value from these conversations.


When all the customer learning is stuck in someone’s head rather than disseminated to the rest of the team, you’ve got a learning bottleneck. Avoid creating or being the bottleneck.  This has three main parts:

  1. Prepping -  Prep questions to unearth hidden risks such as “If this company were to fail, why would it have happened?” and “What would have to be true for this to be a huge success?” You don’t need long strategic answers to these questions; your gut answer is enough. Be prepared to stay on course by evaluating and predetermining the various potential answers, so you have a list of responses ready. Research the investors and companies you are meeting. Sit down with your team when you prep to ensure you represent both the business and the product.  
  2. Reviewing - Everyone on the team involved in making big decisions must attend at least a few of these meetings. Meetings go best when you have at least two people at them. You don’t always have to be the one talking or presenting, but ensure you never outsource the customer learning, do it yourself.  
  3. Taking Down Notes -  Taking notes is the best way to keep your team in the loop. Try to write down exact quotes, wrap them in quotation marks, and later use them in your marketing languages, fundraising decks, and resolve arguments with skeptical teammates. All you need to be trying to figure out is what you want to learn from the other part. After conversations, review your notes and update the team. Learning shouldn’t just be on paper. Evaluate which questions worked and which didn’t and understand how you can do better next time.  Mention emotions and understand their life, besides what they say, to understand the context.  Also, mention the specifics so you can remember what was said when reviewing it later.

Ensure that you take notes wherein it is permanent, retrievable, able to sort, mix and re-arrange, and a place where you can combine the same with the notes of the rest of the teams. Google Docs, spreadsheets, and Evernote are great places for team sharing, search, and retrieval. A notebook is also a great option if you want to avoid coming off as rude and being indulged in your laptop. Index cards are one of the best options. It makes it easier and ensures you don’t have an overflowing amount of content.

Talking to customers is a tool, not an obligation. Keep track of how the conversation is slowing, and look out for these problems:

  • You're talking more than they are.
  • They are complimenting you/ idea in almost every response.
  • You don’t have notes.
  • You told them about your idea and don’t know what’s going to happen next.
  • You got an unexpected answer and it didn’t change your idea.
  • You weren’t scared of any of the questions you asked.

Before you start a conversation with anyone, it can be helpful to go through this list of processes:

  • If you haven’t already, choose a focused and findable segment.
  • With your team, decide your  big 3 learning goals.
  • If relevant, decide on ideal next steps and commitments.
  • If conversations are the right tool, figure out who to talk to.
  • Create a series of best guesses about what the person cares about.
  • If a question can be answered via desk research, do that first.

Conclusively, remember that this is a learning process. It will take an abundance of effort and trial and error before you learn which of the questions you’ve framed are good and are working for you. You will have several meetings and experiences during which each pointer given in this book will come back to you. Soon, you will catch yourself when you’re slipping into pitch-mode and beginning to seek approval. At the end of the day, everyone knows that people love start-ups, and they support the entrepreneur. They want you and the start-up to succeed, so use this to your benefit. Have the requisite conversations and ask the questions to fix flaws before they get you into trouble. And even if it still doesn’t work out, it’s imperative to know that sometimes our ideas don’t work out, which is okay. That is when you need to go to the people who supported you and believed in your product and thank them.


When we have new ideas, it is an exciting process. It’s easy to spend hours obsessively geeking out about the exact right things you want to execute it. While the process is valuable, don’t get stuck it in.


Rule of thumb: It is going to be okay.