- CHAPTER 1: THE MOM TEST
- A breakdown of some common good/bad questions:
- CHAPTER 2: AVOIDING BAD DATA
- ANCHORING FLUFF
- DIGGING BENEATH IDEAS
- AVOIDING APPROVAL SEEKING
- CUT OFF PITCHES
- CHAPTER 3: ASKING IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
- DON'T ZOOM WITHOUT A STRONG SIGNAL
- DON'T IGNORE THE ELEPHANT
- KNOW YOUR TOP 3 QUESTIONS
- CHAPTER 4: KEEPING IT CASUAL
- CHAPTER 5: COMMITMENT AND ADVANCEMENT
- GOOD MEETING VS BAD MEETING
- HOW TO FIX A BAD MEETING
- CRAZY CUSTOMERS AND YOUR FIRST SALE
- CHAPTER 6: FINDING CONVERSATIONS
- GOING TO THEM
- BRINGING THEM TO YOU
- CREATING WARM INTROS
- ASKING FOR AND FRAMING THE MEETING
- HOW MANY MEETINGS?
- CHAPTER 7: CHOOSING YOUR CUSTOMERS
- CUSTOMER SLICING
- CHAPTER 8: RUNNING THE PROCESS
- WHO SHOULD SHOW UP
- TAKING GOOD NOTES
- INTERVIEW PROCESS BREAKDOWN
The saddest thing that can happen to a startup is for no one to care when it disappears. - Rob Fitzpatrick
Every startup needs to be doing customer development. This book is about mastering the customer conversation piece of customer development. How to ask the right questions. Ones that DO NOT bias your customer and render your interviews useless.
CHAPTER 1: THE MOM TEST
You shouldn't ask anyone if you business is a good idea. It invites them to lie to you in order to make you happy, like your Mom would. The Mom Test is a simple set of rules for crafting good questions that even you Mom can't lie about.
The Mom Test:
- Talk about their life instead of your idea
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions in the future
- Talk less and listen more
A breakdown of some common good/bad questions:
Do you think it's a good idea? 👎
Only the market can tell you. Opinions are worthless.
- Show how you currently do it.
- What parts do you love/hate?
- What other tools/processes have been tried before settling on this one?
- Are they actively searching for a replacement?
- We are they losing money with their current tools?
- Is there a budget for better ones?
Would you buy a product which did X? 👎
Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie.
- How do you currently solve for X?
- How much does it cost, how much time does it take?
- Talk me through the last time that came up.
- Have you tried searching for solutions and found them wanting?
- Have they not even cared enough to Google it?
How much would you pay for X? 👎
People will lie to you if they think it's what you want to hear.
- How much does this problem cost you?
- How much do you currently pay to solve it?
- How big is the budget you've allocated to solving this problem?
What would your dream product do?
Kind of okay. The value comes from following up and understanding WHY they want the features. You don't want to just collect features, but instead understand the motivations and constraints.
People know what their problems are, but they don't know how to solve them.
Why do you bother doing X? 👍
This question points towards their motivations and gives you the why.
What are the implications of that? 👍
Some problems have big, costly implications. Some problems don't really matter. Also helps give you some indicators around pricing.
Talk me through the last time that happened. 👍
Whenever possible you want to be shown, not told, by your customers. Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies really are, not where the customer thinks they are.
What else have you tried? 👍
If they haven't looked for ways of solving it already, they're not going to look for (or buy) yours. Try to understand what they're using now and how much it costs. What they love vs hate and what the fixes would be worth. How difficult would it be to switch to a new solution?
Would you pay X for a product that did Y? 👎
People are overly optimistic about what they would do and want to make you happy. People stop lying when you ask them for money.
How are you dealing with it now? 👍
Try to understand what tools and/or services they use to solve the problem today. How much do those cost? It's rare for someone to tell you how much they'll pay you, but they will show you what it's worth to them.
Where does the money come from? 👍
Whose budget does the purchase come from and who has the power to derail a deal. Understanding this will avoid any snags along the sales cycle and help you plot the steps.
Who else should I talk to? 👍
End every conversation like this. If you're on to something, your leads will quickly multiply.
Is there anything else I should have asked? 👍
Asking this question gives them a chance to politely "fix" your line of questioning. And they will. People want to help you. Give them an excuse to do so.
CHAPTER 2: AVOIDING BAD DATA
Three types of bad data:
- Fluff (generics, hypotheticals, and the future)
Compliments are the fool's gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless.
When an interviewee gives you a compliment, they're almost certainly lying. They're trying to be supportive, protect your feelings, get rid of you, or your excitement is rubbing off.
Learn to deflect the compliment and get on with gather data. Avoid compliments by not mentioning your idea at all.
Example of deflecting a compliment:
You: "...and that's it. It's like X for Y, but better because of Z."
Them: "That's really cool. I love it."
You: "Whoops — sorry about that— I got excited and started pitching. Listen: you guys seem to be doing a good job in this space — do you mind me asking how you're dealing with this stuff at the moment?
Example of a good (negative) conversation:
Them: "That's really cool. I love it."
You: "How are you dealing with this stuff at the moment?"
Them: "Oh, it's really not that big of a deal. We kind of just ignore it."
When you hear a teammate say something like "That meeting went really well" or "Everybody I've talked to loves the idea," try to get more specific. Why did that person like the idea? How much money would it save them? How would it fit into their life? What else have they tried?
Three types of fluff:
- Generic claims ("I usually", "I always", "I never")
- Future-tense promises ("I would", "I will")
- Hypothetical maybes ("I might", "I could")
When someone talks in this way 👆 they are giving you generic, hypothetical fluff. You need to anchor them back to specifics in the past or actions they're taking now. Talk me through when that last happened. How have you solved it, what have you tried?
The worst type of fluff-inducing question you can ask is "Would you ever?" Of course they might. It doesn't mean they will.
- Do you ever...
- Would you ever...
- What do you usually...
- Do you think you...
- Might you...
- Could you see yourself...
Example of transitioning a fluff answer into more concrete questioning:
You: "Do you ever X?"
Them: "Oh yeah, all the time."
You: "When's the last time that happened?"
Them: "Two weeks ago."
You: "Can you talk me through that?"
DIGGING BENEATH IDEAS
At some point during a good conversation, the person you're talking to may start listing ideas, possibilities, and feature requests.
When you hear a request it's your job to understand the motivation which led to it. Ideas and feature requests should be understood, but not obeyed.
Them: "Are you guys going to be able to sync to Excel? I really think that's a killer feature."
You: "What would syncing to Excel allow you to do?"
Them: "We've got all these legacy reports and we need to go through them every now and then. It would be nice to have everything in one place." Not a key buying criteria.
Them: "We've tried a bunch of these things and it's always the syncing that kills it." Actively searching for solutions that are missing this key feature. Potential differentiator.
Them: "We have a decent workaround, as you saw. But it takes nearly a week at the end of the month to pull the reports together. It's a big pain and totally stalls our work." They've created their own solution, know it's costing them money, ideally suited to become a customer.
Another example shared by the author was when MTV requested campaign analytics and reports in their app. After the company took months to build it, MTV kept asking for manual CSVs to be sent every Friday, then PDFs. It wasn't until they asked for their logo to be added to the PDF that the product team asked why. Turns out the reporting was for their clients. Instead of building fancy analytics in their tool, they could have made something simple to meet the actual need.
Questions to dig into feature requests:
- Why do you want that?
- What would that let you do?
- How are you coping with that?
- Do you think we should push back the launch to add that feature, or is this something we could do 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?
- Why haven't you been able to fix this already?
- You seem pretty excited about that — it's a big deal?
- Why so happy?
- Go on.
AVOIDING APPROVAL SEEKING
The main source of compliment-creation is seeking approval, either intentionally or inadvertently. In most cases, we aren't looking for contradictory information.
When you expose your ego, you lead people to feel they ought to protect you by saying nice things. Even if you give people permission to be honest, they're still going to pull punches.
Keep the conversation focused on the person and ask about specific, concrete examples.
CUT OFF PITCHES
Being pitchy is the dark side of "seeking approval." You hold someone hostage and won't let them leave until they've said they like your idea. Anyone will say your idea is great if you're annoying enough about it.
- "No no, I don't think you get it..."
- "Yes, but it also does this!"
If you catch yourself slipping into pitch mode, just apologize. Cut yourself off and say something like:
You: "Whoops — I just slipped into pitch mode. I'm really sorry about that — I get excited about these things. Can we jump back to what you were just saying? You were telling me that..."
Talk less. You can't learn anything useful unless you're willing to spend a few minutes shutting up. The more you're talking, the worse you're doing.
CHAPTER 3: ASKING IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
Ask questions that matter, otherwise you're just spinning your wheels on useless minutiae.
You should be terrified of at least one question you're asking in every conversation. And you should love bad news. If you have $50K and spend $5K learning your customers don't care about it, that's a great result.
The worst thing you can do is ignore bad news in search of some tiny grain of validation. The classic error in response to a lukewarm signal is to try and pitch harder until they say something positive. This only gets you false positives.
DON'T ZOOM WITHOUT A STRONG SIGNAL
Don't zoom to quickly on a super-specific problem or topic before you understand the big picture. It leads to data which seems like validation, but it's just false positives.
Here's an example:
You: "How often do you go to the gym?"
Them: "Not really ever."
Bad Response - You: "What would you say is your biggest problem with going to the gym?" We're zooming in on the gym without knowing if they care about it at all.
Good Response - You: "Why not? When's the last time that you did try? Have you ever joined a gym or taken up jogging or anything?"
Sometimes we already know the problem exists as a top priority and can zoom in right away. For example, "What are your big problems with marketing?" Every small business has marketing problems.
When you're not sure whether a problem is a must-solve (painkiller) or a nice to have (vitamin), ask these does-this-problem-matter questions:
- How seriously do you take your X?
- Do you make money from it?
- Have you tried making money from it?
- How much time do you spend on it each week?
- Do you have any major aspirations for X?
- Which tools and services do you use for it?
- What are you already doing to improve this?
- What are the three big things you're trying to fix or improve right now?
DON'T IGNORE THE ELEPHANT
Startups tend to have multiple failure points (Ex. the problems of our customers and their ability to pay us). Both conditions need to exist in order for a product to work.
- Product risk — Can I build what I need to? Can I grow it or deliver what I need to? Ex. Bars will pay your startup if you can deliver a ton of foot traffic, but can you deliver?
- Customer/market risk — Do they want it? Will they pay me? Is there lots of them?
In the case where you have both product and market risk, you'll need to start building things earlier and with less certainty, because you can't learn everything from conversations.
KNOW YOUR TOP 3 QUESTIONS
Always pre-plan the three most important things you want to learn from any given type of person (customer, investor, industry expert, key hire, etc.). Shoot for what seems the murkiest or most important right now.
Don't feel obliged to repeat questions you already have data on. Pick up where you left off and keep filling in the picture.
Knowing your "list of three" allows you to take advantage of chance encounters. Just pop off your top three questions and keep things casual.
CHAPTER 4: KEEPING IT CASUAL
Zooming prematurely and introducing your idea too early creates biases and bad data.
Steve Blank's book on customer development, 4 Steps to the Epiphany, talks about needed three separate meetings focused around the problem > your solution > the sale. But setting up three meetings is hard and time consuming.
The solution is to keep it causal, especially when learning about the customers' problem. Always be ready to ask your most important question. Strip out all the formality and the conversations become so lightweight that you can go to an event and come away with a dozen interviews.
CHAPTER 5: COMMITMENT AND ADVANCEMENT
Once you've learned about the industry, it's time to start introducing your product. But beware, this invites compliments. You need to cut through compliments with commitments.
Zombie Leads: potential customers or investors that keep say nice things, but never make a concrete commitment.
Advancement — moving to the next steps of your real-world funnel, getting closer to buying.
Commitment — giving up something they value like time, reputation, or money.
- A clear next meeting with known goals
- Sitting down to give feedback on wireframes
- Using a trial for a non-trivial period
- Intro to peers or team
- Intro to a decision make (boss, spouse, lawyer)
- Giving a public testimonial or case study
- Letter of intent
GOOD MEETING VS BAD MEETING
- "That's so cool. I love it" — Bad meeting. Just a compliment. deflect and ask for a commitment.
- "Looks great. Let me know when it launches." — Bad meeting. A compliment, plus a stalling tactic. Look for a commitment you can ask for today, like a intro to his boss to "full understand their needs." Ask for something they'll think twice about giving you.
- "There are a couple of people I can introduce you to when you're ready." — Almost good, but bad for now. A generic, worthless promise. Convert fuzzy promises into something more concrete. What does "ready" mean? Why can't he make the intro now?
- "What are the next steps?" — Good meeting (usually), however you need to know what your next steps are, otherwise it's pointless.
- "I would definitely buy that." — Bad meeting. False positive. Danger! Shift to a concrete commitment, like asking for a letter of intent, pre-purchase, deposit, or intro to team or decision maker.
- "When can we start the trial?" — Maybe a good meeting. Less fuzzy, usually a sign of a step forward. But need to make it more of a commitment. Could you ask for a case study? Will they commit to having their team use it for a week?
- "Can I buy the prototype?" — Great meeting.
- "When can you come back to talk to the rest of the team?" — Great meeting.
HOW TO FIX A BAD MEETING
The worst meetings are the ones where you leave with no rejection or advancement. You don't learn anything. A lost meeting can usually be saved by brushing off a compliment at the end and pushing for a commitment.
You don't need to be overbearing. You're just cutting through the polite rejections to find out if they're actually interested and on track to becoming a customer/investor/partner.
CRAZY CUSTOMERS AND YOUR FIRST SALE
Keep an eye out for Earlyvangelists — people who get emotional about what you're doing. They are desperate to solve a problem, have already tried to cobble together a solution, and are ready to throw money at you right now to try your product. They want your product to succeed badly and will tell their friends to support it.
CHAPTER 6: FINDING CONVERSATIONS
GOING TO THEM
If you treat people's time respectfully and are genuinely trying to solve their problems, cold conversations will start turning into warm intros. That's your goal.
- Cold calls - they may have a terrible conversion rate into conversations, but you only need 1 or 2 to get rolling.
- Seizing serendipity - take advantage of chance opportunities to have conversations. If it seems awkward, it's probably because you're thinking of them as interviews instead of conversations. Take an interest in their problems and life, you'll become more interesting than 99% of the other people they've met.
- Find a good excuse - "I'm doing my PHD research around the problems of X" "I'm writing a book and hoping to interview you" "This coffee is amazing, would love to speak with your owner about the beans" - Keep in mind it's difficult to transition into a product convo without seeming deceiving. So these can be one-time learning conversations.
- Immerse yourself in where they are - for example, start speaking for free at conferences in order to surround yourself with professional speakers.
- Landing pages - use pre-launch landing pages to capture leads and reach out for early conversations.
BRINGING THEM TO YOU
- Organize meetups - allows you to bring together a bunch of your target customers and builds up your industry credibility.
- Speaking and teaching - teach at conferences, workshops, via online videos, blogging, free consulting. You'll get in front of your buyers, but also refine your message.
- Industry blogging - start writing about your industry or problem space. It helps you get your thoughts in a row, makes you a better conversationalist, and gives you credibility so people are more likely to accept your request to chat. Ask your readers to get in touch.
- Get clever - for example, a guy organized a monthly knowledge transfer call between department heads at top-tier universities, allowing any other university to jump on the call as well. He simply organized and played host, but it got him a lot of credibility and access to a ton of leads.
CREATING WARM INTROS
- 7 degrees of separation - you can find anyone if you just ask for it a couple of times. Someone in your sphere is bound to know someone, or someone who knows someone.
- Industry advisors - find yourself 4-5 advisors, you can incentivize them with a half percent equity. They can help make intros every month that you could never get on your own. You can also poach great advisors from early conversations.
- Universities - professors are a gold mine for intros, they get funding from high-level industry folks and are generally excited about research.
- Investors - extremely well connected, can help you close better advisors and directors, especially in B2B.
ASKING FOR AND FRAMING THE MEETING
- You're an entrepreneur trying to solve horrible problem X, users in a wonderful vision Y, or fix stagnant industry Z. Don't mention your idea.
- Frame expectations by mentioning what stage you're at and, if true, that you don't have anything to sell.
- Show weakness and give them a chance to help by mentioning the specific problem you're looking for answers on.
- Put them on a pedestal by showing how much they can help.
- Explicitly ask for help.
Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask —> Very Few Wizards Properly Ask [for help]
I'm trying to make desk office and rental 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 and could help me cut through the fog (pedestal).
Do you have time in the next couple weeks to meet up for a chat? (ask)
HOW MANY MEETINGS?
Keep having conversations until you stop hearing new stuff. It could take as little as 3-5 for a relatively simple industry. If you've had 10 conversations and you're still hearing very different things, then you may be going too broad with your target customer.
CHAPTER 7: CHOOSING YOUR CUSTOMERS
Good customer segmentation is crucial in customer development. if you start too generic, everything is watered down. In the beginning:
- Google helped PH students find obscure bits of code
- Paypal helped collectors buy and sell
- Evernote helped moms share recipes
Talking to multiple customer segments at once leads to:
- You get overwhelmed by options and don't know where to start
- You aren't moving forward, can't prove yourself wrong
- You receive mixed feedback an can't make sense of it
Start with any segment and keep slicing off better and better subsegments. Ask:
- Within this group, what type of person wants it most?
- Would everyone in this group buy/use it, or only some?
- Why does the subset want it? What's their specific problem?
- Does everyone in the. group have that motivation, or only some?
- What additional motivations are there?
- Which other type of people have these motivations?
Once you have a bunch of who-where pairs, decide based on who seems the most:
- Profitable or big
- Easy to reach
- Personally rewarding - you'll enjoy your work more if you choose customers you admire and like being around.
CHAPTER 8: RUNNING THE PROCESS
The incorrect process will get you bad results.
A common anti-pattern is for the business guy to handle all the meetings and subsequently tell the team what they should do.
Owning the conversations creates a dictator with a "the customer said so" trump card.
Avoid creating (or being) the bottleneck —> Prep, Review, Take Good Notes
- Always know your currently list of three big questions, decide with your team.
- Also know what commitment and next steps you're going to push for.
- Have an existing set of beliefs you're updating or looking to prove.
- If a question can be answered with a bit of research or looking on LinkedIn, do it before the meeting yourself.
If you don't know what you're trying to learn, you shouldn't have the conversation.
- After a conversation, review notes with your team and updates beliefs on your three big questions.
- Talk through the key quotes, main takeaways, and any problems you ran into
- Which questions worked, which didn't?
- How can we do better next time?
- Any important signals or questions we missed?
Logistically, you can choose to do this with a quick chat immediately after the meeting, have a weekly meeting to discuss all conversations, or use a chat tool to quickly share insights whenever you finish a meeting.
WHO SHOULD SHOW UP
- Every on your team making big decisions (including tech decisions) needs to be involved in the occasional customer convo.
- Meetings go best with two people. One can help keep the other on track, pick up mistakes or missed questions.
- Don't hire or outsource someone to conduct meetings when you're still working on product-market fit
TAKING GOOD NOTES
Good notes are the best way to keep your team, investors, advisors, in the loop. Make it harder to lie to yourself and provides something to refer back to later.
When possible, write down exact quotes. You can use them later in marketing language, fundraising decks, and to resolve arguments.
Use symbols, emojis, and shorthand to give your notes context.
:) 🙂 Excited
:( 😠 Angry
:| 🙈 Embarrassed
⚡️ Pain or Problem
🥅 Goal or job-to-be-done
🗻 Background or context
✅ Feature request or purchasing criteria
💲 Money or budgets or purchasing process
👤 Mentioned a specific persona or company
⭐️ Follow-up task
INTERVIEW PROCESS BREAKDOWN
Before a batch of conversations:
- Choose a focused, findable segment
- With your team, describe your big 3 learning goals
- Decide on ideal next steps and commitments
- Figure out who to talk to
- Create a series of best guesses about what the person cares about
- Do your desk research and answer easy question yourself first
During the conversations:
- Frame the conversation
- Keep it casual
- Ask good questions which pass the Mom Test
- Deflect compliments, anchor fluff, and dig beneath signals
- Take good notes
- If relevant, press for commitment and next steps
After a batch of interviews
- With notes and key quotes with your team
- Transfer notes into permanent storage
- Update your beliefs and plans
- Decide on the next 3 big questions