I just finished reading The Mom Test for the second time. I took "raw" notes here. In this post I'll first write up a bullet-point summary and then ramble off some thoughts that I have.



  • Trying to learn from customer conversations is like trying to excavate a delicate archeological site. The truth is down there somewhere, but it's fragile. When you dig you get closer to the truth, but you also risk damaging or smashing it.
  • Bad customer conversations are worse than useless because they mislead you, convincing you that you're on the right path when instead you're on the wrong path.
  • People talk to customers all the time, but they still end up building the wrong things. How is this possible? Almost no one talks to customers correctly.
  • Why another book about this? Why this author?
    • Rob is a techie, not a sales guy. We need something targeted at techies.
    • To understand how to do something correctly, you have to understand how it can go wrong. Rob has lots of experience with things going wrong here.
    • It's practical, not theoretical.

Chapter 1 - The Mom Test:

  • Everyone knows that you shouldn't ask your mom whether your business idea is good. But the issue isn't who you're asking, it's how you're asking. Yes, your mom is more likely[1] than others to praise you and tell you that your idea is good. But if you ask "what do you think of my idea", almost anyone will feel too uncomfortable to be constructive and honest with you.
  • It's not other people's responsibility to tell you the truth. It's your responsibility to find it by asking good questions.
  • The Mom Test is a series of rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can't lie to you about.
    • Talk about their life instead of your idea.
    • Ask about specifics in the past instead of hypotheticals about the future.
    • Talk less and listen more.
  • You're not allowed to tell them what their problems are. They're not allowed to tell you what the solutions should look like. They own the problem, you own the solution.

Chapter 2 - Avoiding Bad Data:

  • Bad data is either a false negative (thinking you're dead when you're not) or, much more often, false positives (thinking you're good when you're not).
  • Three types: compliments, fluff and ideas.
  • When you get compliments, deflect them and pivot back to asking them specifics about their past. "When was the last time you had the problem? Talk me through how it went down."
  • If they start proposing ideas (features, solutions), dig into the underlying problem beneath their proposal. "Why do you recommend that? What problem would it solve for you? Tell me about a time when you had that problem."
  • Pathos problem: when you "expose your ego". Example: "Hey, I quit my job to pursue this and am really passionate about it. What do you think?" It's too awkward to be critical.
  • It can be tempting to slip into pitching them. They indicate that X isn't a big problem for them. You start explaining why X probably is a big problem, or why they should consider it a big problem. There is a time for pitching, but customer learning isn't that time.

Chapter 3 - Asking Important Questions:

  • Make sure that you seek out the world rocking, hugely important questions. Questions that could indicate that your business is doomed to fail. Most people shrink away from these.
  • Learn to love bad news. Failing fast is better than failing slow!
  • Thought experiments are helpful here.
    • Imagine your company failed. Why might this be?
    • Imagine your company succeeded. What had to be true to get you there?
    • What advice would you give someone else if they were in your shoes?
  • Decide ahead of time on the three most important things you're looking to learn.

Chapter 4 - Keeping It Casual:

  • Things just work better when you keep it casual.
  • Ask to have a "chat", not to have a "meeting".
  • Instead of scheduling meetings, find people where they are already at, like at industry events.
  • Talk to them like a human being. Like a friend.
  • Rule of thumb: If it feels like they're doing you a favor by talking to you, you're being too formal.

Chapter 5 - Commitment and Advancement:

  • Eventually you move away from meetings that are focused on learning and towards ones that are focused on pitching, or at least validating.
  • To move things along, you have to ask for commitments. If you don't you risk spending time with "zombie customers". Customers who basically friend-zone you. They string you along even though there's never any hope of you "closing the deal".
  • Commitments can be time, money or reputation.
  • Reputation is mostly applicable in B2B settings, not B2C. Introduction to peers, coworkers, key decision makers, public testimonial.
  • Time commitments can be being willing to sit for a couple hours to go through wireframes. Or spending a few weeks using a prototype and providing feedback.

Chapter 6 - Finding Conversations:

  • It's great if you have contacts and stuff and can find people to talk to. If not, there's two broad approaches you can take: going to them and bringing them to you.
  • That said, you really want to reach the point where your meetings come from warm intros rather than cold outreach. Cold outreach is a means to that end. It's something you want to move past.
  • Once you get a couple of meetings via cold outreach, ask people if there's anyone they think you should talk to. Hopefully they'll make an intro. If you keep getting intros in each meeting, soon things will snowball and you'll have a bunch of opportunities for warm outreach.
  • Going to them:
    • Cold calls. It's ok if you have a terrible response rate. You just need one or two responses who will make some warm intros. Hopefully those intros will make more intros and things will snowball.
    • Serendipity. Take advantage of opportunities. Like if you're at a wedding and overhear a conversation.
    • Immerse yourself in where they are. Conferences, meetups, events.
    • Build a landing page, get some sign ups, and email everyone who signs up. Try to get them on a call with you.
    • University professors are a great way to get intros. So are advisors and investors.
  • Bringing them to you:
    • Organize meetups or events. Cheat code level effective. When you're the organizer, people will be willing to talk to you.
    • Speaking and teaching.
    • Blogging.
  • Make sure you frame the meeting beforehand. Recommendation:
    1. Mention you're an entrepreneur and who your target audience is.
    2. What stage you're at.
    3. Reveal weakness. What do you need help with?
    4. Explain why they in particular can help.
    5. Ask in no uncertain terms for their help.
  • Commute or call? Doing stuff in person is better because of all the nonverbal stuff. Calls are too formal.

Chapter 7 - Choosing Your Customers:

  • It's problematic when your target audience isn't narrow enough.
    • Overwhelmed with options. Don't know what to do.
    • It's hard to move forward because it's hard to prove anything wrong.
    • Mixed feedback. Some love it, some hate it. Hard to make sense of stuff.
  • Rule of Thumb: If you aren't finding consistent problems and goals, you probably don't have a specific enough customer segment.
  • Rule of Thumb: Customer segments are a who-where pair. If you don't know where to find people in your segment keep slicing it up until you do.
  • Keep all of the stakeholders in mind.
    • When selling to businesses your users might need approval from a different department. If so, you need to understand that department and convince them.
    • Even in B2C, if you're selling to teenagers, you're also selling to their parents because the parents are the ones who pay.

Chapter 8 - Running The Process:

  • You can't just show up. You need to do some work before and after the meeting.
  • Preparing:
    • Figure out what your three most important questions are.
    • Do what you can to educate yourself before the meeting. Use the meeting time to learn things that you can't learn on your own.
    • Learn a little about the person you're meeting with. Check out their LinkedIn; their blog.
  • Review after the meeting:
    • Take notes before you forget stuff.
    • Focus on raw data, not conclusions. It's an anti-pattern to write down conclusions and bring them to your team.
  • Only have one or maybe two people in the meeting. More than that and it will feel intimidating and formal.
  • You should be moving fast. Don't spend a week preparing for a meeting. That's not a good use of time.


Hierarchy of evidence

In academic research they have this idea of a hierarchy of evidence. At the top are lit reviews. Beneath that are randomized, controlled trials. Towards the bottom are theory-based predictions and case studies. I think this is a useful way to think about things.

And I think that it's important to ask yourself where we're at in that hierarchy when we read the things in this book. My answer? Uh, basically it's one guys opinion.

Ok, no, that's selling it too short. The author Rob Fitzpatrick seems like he's very knowledgeable, very reasonable, pretty experienced, and generally just has a good head on his shoulders. So as far as trusting people goes, I think he's relatively high up there.

But still, it's just one person, and there's a limit to how much you should trust one person. So then, try to take things with the appropriately sized grain of salt. I'm having trouble being more specific than that.

Genuinely helpful takeaways

It doesn't happen too often, but I came away from reading this book with two genuinely helpful takeaways. Things that I didn't understand before reading the book and that I expect to seriously help me in my journey as an entrepreneur.

Ask for intros

Context: right now I am looking for a startup idea to pursue. I've decided[2] that I want to build some sort of SaaS app that targets SMBs and is priced at something in the range of hundreds to low-thousands of dollars a month.

It's tricky though: I don't know anything about the industries that these SMBs are in. I need people to sit down with me and tell me about the problems they face.

I've tried cold outreach but it's incredibly hard. It's lead to a few meetings, but they didn't go anywhere. And without a lower-friction way to find prospective users to sit down and talk with me, I'm a bit stuck. But I'm hopeful that the whole "asking for intros" thing will get me past it. Let me elaborate.

Here's how it's supposed to work. You hustle with cold outreach to scrap together a few meetings. In these meetings you learn about their work and the problems they face. At the end you ask if there's anyone else who they think you should talk to and if they could introduce you to them.

According to the author, people are frequently willing to do this. As long as you appear genuine, thoughtful, polite, friendly and whatnot, they're usually happy to help. And then boom: exponential growth! Virality! Compounding!

Maybe you start off with two people. Each of them introduce you to two more people. So in the next "round" you talk to four people. Each of those four people then introduce you to two more people. So in the following round you're talking to eight people. So on and so forth. In practice things won't just cleanly grow at 2^n forever, but at least in theory the compounding should get you to a point where you have a surplus of warm intros and people to chat with.

In retrospect this seems obvious, but I had never actually thought to try it.

Ask what they've tried

Sometimes people will act like a problem is really big, get emotional about it, say they'd spend money to solve it... and you still can't trust them. Their talk is still cheap.

What should you do? Check to see if they've actually brainstormed and taken steps to solve the problem they're having. Often times they haven't.

I ran into this issue somewhat recently. I was talking to someone who works at a local window installation business. I asked about what sort of things frustrate him in his day-to-day work. He mentioned this software they use to handle the logistics of sending agents out on installation jobs. Like who goes to what building and stuff.

He explained that everyone in the industry basically uses this one app, but that the app is expensive and targeted at big firms. His firm is small and it'd be a great idea if I built an app that targets smaller window installation firms like his. It's a real pain point and they'd definitely pay for it. Currently they use some other app that is cheaper than the popular one and don't like it.

I asked what else they've tried. He kinda shrugged and indicated they haven't really looked into anything else and they're a bit too busy to be exploring alternatives. And then I too shrugged and moved on. Mistake.

I wanted to understand more about why they don't like the app they currently use, but we didn't have time. We ended the call with me saying I'd go off, do some research, and then check in. I googled around and learned about the apps that are available. Some of them seemed like decent apps at a reasonable price point that target smaller window installation firms. So I emailed him asking what he thinks of those apps.

He didn't respond with anything substantial. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was basically a shrug.

I spent more time doing research. And I spent more time emailing him. He didn't want to engage.

I was so confused. This seemed like a really promising idea. He said it's a very real problem. That they'd happily pay money for it. That solutions targeting smaller window installation businesses don't exist. So then, why isn't he being responsive?

Well, The Mom Test talks about this exact sort of situation. People claiming that something is a big problem, that they'd pay money for a solution, even getting emotional about it. And nevertheless, they don't actually give a shit.

This gets revealed when you ask what they've tried. If they haven't taken the action of getting off their ass and looking for a solution, it's a strong indicator that the problem isn't big enough.

However, even with all of this said, I hesitate to take it as too strong of an indicator. After all, humans are not automatically strategic. I feel like it's pretty plausible that someone has a real problem, is actually very willing and eager to pay for a solution, but still has never taken meaningful steps to look for a solution.

For example, having clutter in my apartment really bothers me and affects my happiness but it took me many years to start googling around for advice and eventually hiring a professional organizer. That doesn't mean that my problem is small or fake. And it doesn't mean that I wouldn't be willing to pay for a variety of solutions. It just means that I failed to be strategic.

Things on my radar

Organize an event

The author mentions this as one of those hacks that are unreasonably effective.

If you organize some sort of meetup or event or club for people in the industry you're looking to enter, people will see you as an important enough person and be willing to meet with you. Pair this with the fact that it's relatively easy to organize such events and you've got yourself a promising tactic for getting people to sit down and chat with you.

I'm not too excited about this though. If the "ask for intros" thing works, then this is kinda solving a non-problem, right? You already have a reliable way of getting warm intros.

However, the author does swear by it. I'm not too clear on why he swears so hard. What problem is it solving, exactly? And why is it so much better than the alternatives? But, I dunno, I'll keep it on my radar I guess.

Half reminders, half learnings

There were a lot of things in this book that I kinda-sorta knew already, but I probably didn't understand deeply enough. Maybe I didn't full grok them before.

Or maybe they just weren't salient enough. Maybe they weren't close enough to the forefront of my mind and thus didn't stand by my side when I needed them.

There's not as much to say here so I'll just list them out with bullet points:

  • Talk is cheap.
  • People are pretty unwilling to be constructive. Instead, they'll sugarcoat a lot.
  • Try not to expose your ego ("Hey I quit my job to pursue this, what do you think?").
  • Ask people about what actions they've actually taken in the past. It's hard to lie about that.
  • Customers can tell you about their problems but it's your job to figure out the right solutions.
  • Warm intros are the best. Things are much less likely to go well in a meeting that began with cold outreach.
  • Biggest mistake people make: being too formal.
  • Seek out evangelists and early adopters. People who are passionate about what you're doing. For a million different reasons, they're gold.
  • Frame the meeting before you start. Address their worries that it won't be worth their time or that you're going to be sales-y.
  1. ^

    Unless of course your name is Larry David (source).

  2. ^

    As a medium-term thing. I can pivot in the future if necessary.

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Thank you for this, I'm conducting user interviews right now and there were some suprising things in your review, as well as obviously good ideas that I would probably have missed. Organizing meetups in the field would not have occured to me, and is a good idea. 

I like the rest of the article, but...

Cold calls. It's ok if you have a terrible response rate.

It's ok for you, but you generate negative externality as a side effect (waste other people's time and attention).

Hm, maybe.

Sometimes it can be a win-win situation. For example, if the call leads to you identifying a problem they're having and solving it in a mutually beneficial way.

But often times that isn't the case. From their perspective, the chances are low enough where, yeah, maybe the cold call just feels spammy and annoying.

I think that cold calls can be worthwhile from behind a veil of ignorance though. That's the barometer I like to use. If I were behind a veil of ignorance, would I endorse the cold call? Some cold calls are well targeted and genuine, in which case I would endorse them from behind a veil of ignorance. Others are spammy and thoughtless, in which case I wouldn't endorse them.