The Mom Test: doing great customer development

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I read The Mom Test this weekend. What a great book! When I started with Forward Partners I went out to speak with a bunch of our target customers, entrepreneurs, and I learned a bunch of stuff which helped shape our strategy of empowering great entrepreneurs with minority stake investments and real-world useful help – but I’d have learned much more if I’d read this book first.

It’s surprising how easy it is to ask bad questions during customer development. The Message of The Mom Test is simple, questions that ask for an opinion or (worse) solicits approval for an idea is dangerous. Most people are a) eager to please, and b) pretty useless at predicting what they will do in the future and these sorts of questions yield bad information which can offer false encouragement.

Much better are questions about what people do and how they have done things. Questions like these ask for facts and yield the unvarnished truth. Going back to my conversations with entrepreneurs, I would have been much better asking people for  the story of how their companies got started, what problems they encountered and how they solved them (more on that in a second). Instead I explained what we do and asked whether that would have been of interest and questions about pricing. We did learn a lot from those conversations, but even at the time I felt I often felt I was questions that people didn’t really know the answers to. In Mom Test language, the answers I was getting were ‘fluff’.

I’ve given the very short version of the book (ask for facts about what people do, not opinions) but the whole book is well worth a read. As well as extra detail it provides a host of practical examples that make it easier to do high quality customer development. Many founders don’t read business books because they don’t have the time. This one is humorously written with 130 small pages with widely spaced type. If you’re one of the non-readers, this book is worth making an exception for.

One of the practical tips is to always know the ‘three big questions’ that you would ask potential customers. I think the three questions for us at the moment are:

  • How are you making sure you are building something people want?
  • How are you making sure you build something of quality (code/design/UX)?
  • How will you find your next/first set of customers?

They are focused on the three major areas in which we offer operational help and will reveal if people need help at all, and if they do what sort of help they require. I elected not to go with questions about startup problems generally and fundraising specifically because our knowledge in these areas is already much stronger than in the three areas above.

One of the other practical tips in the book is to do your customer development work casually in chance encounters. If you run into me at a conference or networking event you may just hear me ask the questions above. I plan to be asking them a lot.