How to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea: With Rob Fitzpatrick

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It’s not about the number of interviews you do. Interviews are one of many tools. The point is it’s very hard to build a good product if you don’t understand your customers.

 

Rob Fitzpatrick has run tech startups for about 7 years, raised funding in both the U.S. and the U.K. and is a Y-Combinator alumni. He’s also built products used globally by brands like Sony and MTV as well as having taught at Oxford University in design startup education programs for a bunch of accelerators. Rob is also the author of a very important book for startups in the customer development phase, ‘The Mom Test: How To Talk To Customers And Learn If Your Business Is A Good Idea When Everyone Is Lying To You.’

Rob joined me on The SaaS Revolution show to discuss the book and more. You can listen to the full podcast below, alternatively subscribe oniTunes or Stitcher and never miss an episode.

How to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea, with Rob Fitzpatrick by The SaaS Revolution Show

Our guest on this episode is Rob Fitzpatrick, author of The Mom Test: How to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea, when everyone is lying to you. This episode is a customer development/early stage startup special.


What brings you to the U.K? I’m guessing by the accent you’re not from here.

I grew up in Miami and everyone here is shocked. “Why would you ever leave?”
We went through Y-Combinator like you mentioned, which is an early-stage kind of investor and support program. At that time, we knew nothing about startups. We were a team of programmers and designers and we were just building fun products. We were just thrown into the deep end of, oh no, you’re not just building a product; you’re trying to make a business. We didn’t really have our own view on how we should be running the business so we just followed everyone else’s advice.

We moved out to San Francisco, we raised funding from investors and VCs. It took us probably a good 2 years to realise that investors were all well and good but ultimately you need to be close to your customers. And in our case, that was the advertising industry. They were in New York and London, and we ended up finding better contacts in London. So we moved the team out there, promptly went out of business but I quite enjoyed the city so I settled down here and made it home.

What was that startup? You mentioned it was in the advertising industry and that it went out of business. Can you tell us why?

At that time, Facebook and Twitter were quite new and they were just opening up to brands and advertisers. We were trying to build a safe social advertising platform on top. At that time, they didn’t have their own advertising platform so it’s sort of the Wild West out there and you could take all the data, the Twitter fire hose just opened. You could get all the tweets and there’s some really interesting data crunching analysis.

Anyway, it didn’t work out for a bunch of reasons but kind of the one that’s most relevant is just my personal failures as a founder which was that we were trying to build a sales-driven business and I didn’t have sales skills and we kind of jumped into it because it made sense on a spreadsheet. None of us were terribly passionate about the opportunity but we didn’t think we needed to be. We thought, hey, it’s advertising. There’s a lot of money. Let’s go take it. That meant someone had to be doing sales.

I spent a lot of time doing it. I read so many sales books. I read Steve Blank’s stuff on Customer Development and I’m one of the few people who’s actually finished The Four Steps To The Epiphany. It was brilliant for me and I was like, I get it. I need to be talking to customers. I need to be learning.
So I went out and I spent the next, probably, year-and-a-half almost full time in a combination of sales and customer development meetings. It was super heartbreaking for me because it was so difficult and we built the wrong product anyway. What I realised was that I’d just been having my conversations wrong. I’d been essentially asking for compliments and opinions instead of getting real data, real evidence, real commitments to purchase. I sort of really painfully spun my wheels for a while.

The Mom Test. An unusual title. What’s it got to do with founders and startups?

Some people say that if you have a new business idea, you’re not meant to ask your mom if it’s a good idea. Right? Because your mom, she loves you. She’d support it and she thinks everything you do is amazing.
So you’re going to go, “Mom, I have an idea for a travel-planning app. It puts everything in one place. You get your flight recommendations, your itinerary, places to go to eat, all this stuff. Isn’t planning travel annoying?”
And she goes, “Oh, yeah. So annoying to plan travel. That’s an amazing idea. I love it.”
So you go, “Thanks,” and you run off and you spend 6 months or 12 months building it. Then when you launch, like your mom doesn’t even use it and you go, “What the heck? You told me that it was a great idea.”
And she goes, “Well, it is a great idea. It’s just I don’t need it.”
And you’re sort of like, “Ahh.”

That pattern is a really common mistake that founders make. They pitch their idea and they’re looking for what they think is feedback about their idea. But they’re kind of like they’re exposing their egos and they end up fishing for compliments. You go, “Yeah, this is my business. I’m so excited about it. What do you think?” Worst case, you’ll get an empty compliment. Best case, you get someone’s opinion.
Even Venture Capitalists who are the best in the world at this, they’re still wrong like 4 out of 5 times. How much are you going to value anyone’s opinion?

The reason I call it The Mom Test is like people say you shouldn’t ask your mom if your business is a good idea. But I think you shouldn’t ask anyone if your business is a good idea because it always leads to bad data. Instead, you should ask good questions about their life. To me those are questions that pass The Mom Test.

There are questions that don’t expose the biases so even your mom couldn’t lie to you. So the difference is instead of saying, “Mom, what do you think about my app?” you say, “Hey, Mom, you went on a trip recently, right? Talk me through how you planned that? What sites did you visit? What did you try? What frustrated you and what other solutions did you look for? Did you Google for travel-planning apps? Did you talk to an agent? How did it work?”

When people are talking about the facts, about what they already do in the past, the specifics about their life as it already is, you get really reliable data. Of course, it doesn’t tell you exactly what to build but it gives you very deep customer understanding and then you can take your own sort of jump to a product vision and try to sell it to them.

I wish I had picked up this book many months ago. Because I’ve had that same problem where I thought I had a great idea. This is going to be a great startup and then I’ve gone to people within my network and said, “Hey, look, I’m launching this. I think this is great.” And effectively, everyone’s come back this is a great idea. But what else are they going to say? Are they going to say, “It’s terrible,”? In reading your book, that’s not the right way to approach it. Your book came a bit too late for some failures.

But there’s always the next company.

And even the next product, I feel like even it’s not just about when you first start a company that you want to do this stuff. The best founders I know, they found ways to keep in contact with their customers in quite a time-efficient way. This is important throughout the life of a company. Even when they’re making a new feature or their analytics don’t quite make sense, their conversion rate drops or whatever, they always have this combination of learning from their product, learning from people.
And I said time-efficient because I just want to flag up one mistake that’s really easy to fall into. We have a tendency to flip-flop where at first, like for your first project you’re convinced it’s a genius idea and so you spend all the time in the lab in secret building it. You invest way too much time and you build the wrong thing. Then you’re pissed off.

Then for your next company, you’re like I’m not going to make that mistake again. I’m going to talk to my customers, I’m going to do all of this. And we make exactly the opposite mistake where we spend 3 months doing nothing but interviewing people. But that’s actually a huge waste of time as well, right, because you’ve just put your company on hold for 3 months.

This stuff is meant to speed you up and not slow you down. It’s meant to give you little bits of learning so that you can build a more informed product. And as the product moves forward, you’re able to learn more from your customer conversations. Because instead of just talking to them, you’re able to start getting commitments. You can ask for them to try it, to recommend it, to pay for it.
These things really go in parallel and I want to emphasise that. It’s not like you stop doing everything for 3 months and do a thousand interviews. It’s a weekly practice where you do and you just spend a little bit of your time on it.

If you’re a bootstrapped business, can you afford to be doing customer development or do you just have to go out there and start selling your product? I see many well-funded startups that actually will spend 3 months or so just talking to customers and fine tuning the product. JBut if you’re a bootstrapped business, you just can’t do that.

I guess what I’m saying is that you need to understand your customers to be able to come up with a good product. One of our big problems with our first business, we were building a product for advertisers and we didn’t understand them. We didn’t understand their goals, their workflow, all this stuff.

The advice from the bootstrapping community, if you look at what 37signals and Amy Hoy recommend, which is brilliant. I’m a huge, huge fan of all of their guys. They say you want to scratch your own itch. Build a product for people like you. Amy was a freelancer so she built a product for freelancers. 37signals was an agency so they built a product for agencies. And what that does is it starts you off with a tremendous amount of customer understanding so that your first kind of stab at a product is much more likely to be correct. I think of that as almost like it’s a hack, it’s a trick to get a lot of customers learning for very little effort where just build for people like you.

Is that the only thing you need to do? I don’t know. To be honest, it gets you pretty far. That’s like an 80/20 option.
Where the interviews become really, really important is if you decided to move into an industry that you don’t already have deep knowledge of. For example, I wanted to build a product for universities. Now, I’d been a student but I’d never been a professor. I’ve never understood a university budgeting department before. So even though I knew what it was like to be a student, there was still some learning I had to do about the other parts of my customer before I could build a credible product.
It’s not about the number of interviews you do. Interviews are one of many tools. The point is it’s very hard to build a good product if you don’t understand your customers.

You break down The Mom Test into 3 core components. One is talk about their life instead of your idea. The second one, ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future. Three, talk less and listen more. Can we go into each one and perhaps with some examples around that of what founders should be doing specifically.

Absolutely. The first one is the most important. Here, the rule for yourself is just if you’re trying to get feedback, you’re trying to learn about your customers’ problems, just whatever you do, don’t begin by pitching.
As soon as I come to you and you go, “So show me your product.” And I go, “Well, Alex, this is a revolution blah, blah, blah, and it’s got this innovative this and that.” Simultaneously, you’re trying to be polite and also your brain is shutting off. I’m just like I’ve really closed you up for giving me honest feedback.

Whereas if I asked about your life, so for example, now I’m making… my current project is software for quickly making slide decks. If I go, “Alex, I’ve got an amazing idea. This awesome, new slide deck app and it’s going to be faster and better.” I’m not getting feedback there, right, because I’m talking about my idea.

But if I ask about your life and I go, “Alex, you know how to put together a slide deck, right?” Like a pitch, a sales proposal or something, and you say yeah. And I’m like, “Talk me through how you did that? What were you thinking about? What did you try? How long did it take you? How else have you dealt with it in the past?” I’m asking about you.
What you might say, and this is quite likely, you go, “Oh, yeah. I use Keynote.”
I’m like, “How was it?”
You’re like, “It was fine.”
I’m like, oh, shit. He doesn’t have the problem at all. He’s totally happy with his existing solution. And so if I’d pitched my idea, you would have gotten all excited, but if I just asked what you’re doing I can find out whether you actually care or not.
That’s the first one. And it’s great actually when you manage to completely disprove one of your own ideas very quickly. Let me give a quick positive and negative example.

The one where I disprove myself, I thought a CRM, a contact management system for investors would be great because investors get a ton of emails and deal flow and all this stuff. I went to an investor and I set up a meeting on some other excuse. I’d like to not tell people that I’m trying to learn about a project because I want to keep it as casual as possible so there’s no biases.
I call him up and I go, once we’re meeting, I go, “Hey, you must get a ton of email.”
And he goes, “Yeah, it’s unbelievable. It’s thousands a week.”
I’m like, “That must be a nightmare.”
And he goes, “Yeah. It’s a disaster. You would not believe it.”
And I go, “Well, talk me through how you deal with it.” And now this is getting into the second point. Instead of saying, “Would you like this in the future,” you say, “Talk me through how you deal with it today,” “Talk me through what you’ve already tried.”
And he goes, “Ah, well, actually most of the email goes to our interns first and they read through and they delete like 90% of it and then there’s really not that much left over. I scan through it and the companies I like, I write their names on a Post-it and I stick it on the wall. Once a week I call them and if I decide they’re no good I throw away the Post-it.”
And I look over at his wall where his board there’s about a dozen Post-it’s up there. And I go, “Hah, that actually sounds like it’s pretty okay.”
And he goes, “Yeah. Now that you mention it, it’s pretty all right. Anyway, what did you want to talk about?”
For me, that was the most amazing, perfect customer interview because what seems like a really big problem at first, once I pushed into it and dug into it, I realise he’s actually got an existing solution he’s totally happy with. I would have had a real uphill battle trying to convince him to buy and try a new bit of software for a problem that’s already very well solved.
A positive example was I was at a… And I mean that’s still positive, right? Because you’re getting great learning and you’re escaping from a problematic product.

Another time, I was building a product for public speakers to help them get more speaking gigs. I was at a party, a friend’s engagement drinks. I heard someone say something-something my talk in Tokyo next week. So I was like, aha. A customer.
I went over. It was a social event so I said, “Hey, I’m Rob. Weird question, I know, but I heard you’re giving a talk in Tokyo next week. How did you get that speaking gig? How have you tried to get more? Do you do this a lot? What frustrates you about it? Have you tried to get an agent?” All these questions in 5 minutes I knew everything about this person. She actually ended up becoming my first customer.
Both of those, that’s to me how the perfect customer conversation should go. It’s not an hour-long interview. It’s a quick, 5-minute, very casual conversation just getting to the heart of like who is this person or what do they care about.
That’s the first two. And the third one, which I’m doing a great job of being a counter-example for at the moment is if you’re trying to learn, you want to be not talking. You ask a couple of questions and you back out. You’re doing a great job of this. Set me off running and then take good notes.

When we’re in meetings and we’re not pitching and we’re listening, why should we get commitments and not opinions?

When you’re working on a new project, it goes through a couple of stages. At the first stage… And this doesn’t always happen linearly, to be fair. It can happen in any order. But there’s a bit where you’re just trying to understand your customers. You’re like who are they, what do they care about, what budgets, what problems, how are they already solving it? It almost has nothing to do with your idea, right? It’s just about the customer.

Steve Blank calls this the discovery stage. I call it learning or exploring, whatever. At this point, you can keep it as casual as possible. It’s kind of everything I’ve been describing. They don’t even need to know that you have a product idea. You just need to find an excuse to chat to them.

However, a little bit later, once you’ve got a better idea who your users are going to be and your product vision is getting clearer, obviously you have to talk about your product to keep learning. And I just told you that as soon as you talk about your idea, you introduce all these biases and you start getting opinions.

The way to cut through this is whenever you talk about your product or whenever you show people your product, you want to find an excuse to ask for some kind of commitment. If I go, “Hey, Alex, I’m starting a t-shirt company.” I’m like, “I’ll show you the t-shirts.”
And you go, “Oh, those are really nice. I love them.”
And I go, “Oh, that’s great. I’ve got some with me. Would you like to buy one?”
Suddenly you’re like, ooh, actually, do I really want that? You really like the t-shirt but is it for you?
The way we get around these compliments is if someone compliments your product, just ask them for something. Ideally, you would ask for money but you can’t always get away with that. If you’re still quite early in development, it’s like a bit cheeky to ask for money right out the gate.

I found that you can also ask for people’s time and you can ask for their reputation. And both of those work as an okay proxy for their money. By reputation, it’s anything where their name is involved.
If I’m working on a new product and someone says, “Oh, this is amazing. It’s so innovative. I love it.”
Let’s say I’m selling to businesses, I might say something like, “Well, it’s amazing to hear you say that. We’re going to be going into beta in a couple of weeks. If you’d be willing to try the beta seriously for 2 or 3 weeks, at the end of it I’d love to write a public case study about your experiences with the product. Would you like to do that?”
What I’ve just done is I’ve asked them for a serious commitment to try it, a couple weeks of their time, and I’ve asked them for a bit of their reputation. “Are you willing to be a public case study?”

Now, if they love what I’m doing, and they’re actually serious about it, right now they’re thinking this is amazing. I get early access, I get a free or discounted way to try it, and everyone’s going to see how innovative I am trying this awesome product. They’re like, “Hell, yeah.”

But what most people will do is they’ll go, “Ah, actually, we’ll just wait ‘til it’s ready and then we’ll give it a try on our own.”
And you go, “Okay.” I loop back to them later. They may become a later customer but they’re probably not going to become my first customer. So you just sort of qualify them. You figured out how excited they are and you could spend your time in other places. And if no one’s excited across any of the people you’re talking to, maybe you’re like, “Ah, maybe I need to change the product a little bit. I haven’t quite found the love yet.”

What are the the cheats then for founders to pass the mom test in summary? 

Well, just real quick while we’re on the topic, I’ll give you a link to put into the show notes with 20 or 30 heavily discounted versions of the book. 66% off or something. So if your listeners can grab those, grab them to steal if they’d like to.

The quickest thing and what I would recommend, this is a little bit tongue-in-cheek but it’s true. It will hopefully give you an idea of what I’m thinking about. My business partners always joke that I don’t do customer development. I do cocktail customer development because I’m so often doing it with a drink in my hand. The reason this works is that the more casual it is, the more time-efficient it is. You don’t need an hour-long meeting. You just need a 5-minute chat. And the more casual it is, the more you can learn about your customers because they don’t have their defences up.

If you go in under the context of a sales meeting or a Skype interview or something, people are kind of on the defensive. They’re like, ah, this guy is trying to sell to me, or he’s trying to figure something out.
What I do is I try to… well, for one thing, I choose customers that I’d like to be friends with. My days selling to advertisers who I don’t like hanging out with are over. Now I work with entrepreneurs or universities or authors or creatives. It’s people that I actually have fun hanging out with. Then it’s a pleasure, right?

I’ll go to an industry event and I’ll go, hey, it’s the self-publishing authors meetup. I’m like great. And I’m talking to people and I’m like, “Hey, how did you edit your book? How did you write it? How did you promote it?” As far as they’re concerned, we’re just having a conversation. But for me, I’m getting massive customer learning.

People say it’s like, “Oh, you have to go out and network.” But that’s like it implies that it’s a chore. But if you just choose customers you like and you actually care about their lives and you care about making their lives better, it’s not a chore at all. You’re just making friends and getting to understand them in the hopes of eventually being able to launch a product that improves their lives.
That’s my attitude behind this whole thing. Businesses should make you happy while you’re running them as well as after they succeed. And a big part of that is if you like your customers lots of other things are easier.

 

Aside from The Mom Test, how are you helping founders suck less? What else do you do?

I mean, my journey as an individual, my first company, I was straight out of university and all I wanted was to build a huge empire. I was reading TechCrunch, I was reading Y-Combinator. I was like, yeah, if the number didn’t end in a billion, I didn’t care about it.
The first thing we did is like how do we get VC money? We worked really hard on that and we had some big customers. We had customers like Sony and MTV, like you mentioned, so it wasn’t like an abject failure. We raised a couple of rounds of funding from really good investors and it was super fun and interesting for me, actually, to be exposed to that slice of the business world because it’s like the bootstrapping community it’s a lot. They’re like funding is so terrible but I say it’s a very powerful tool. It’s a dangerous tool but it’s powerful and it opens up a type of business that’s very difficult to get at otherwise.

It was great, it was fun. I spent 3 or 4 years on that first company but then afterwards I was like, shit, I just want to relax. I don’t want to get a job but I want to do business on my own terms. I moved more toward like the digital nomad and the micro-ISV sort of world where I’m like I want to work by myself, very few hours. I didn’t quite get to a 4-hour workweek but I got down to a 6-hour workweek and I was like, okay. This is pretty good. And I was really just trying to set up tiny, little lifestyle businesses to get myself some freedom and relax and get over the burnout from my first company.

Then, over time, I was like actually having money is fun. It’s all well and good to be able to work from a beach but it sucks if you can’t then go and get a hotel afterwards.

I was combining these. Who do I like hanging out with with the idea of okay, I’m willing to give up a little bit of freedom in the name of a little bit more reliability?
I liked helping entrepreneurs. I quite liked the education side of things so I started a little consulting business with a friend of mine called Founder Centric. We basically tried to improve entrepreneurship curriculum at universities, at accelerators, even in some cases for governments where they’re like, “We’re going to promote entrepreneurship,” but they were really bad at it. They were coming at it from a bureaucratic or an MBA direction.

We weren’t selling consulting services to founders, we were selling it to universities. We were saying, okay, let us help you make your entrepreneurship program a bit more relevant, a bit tighter, a bit more useful based on what founders are actually going through in the field.
We did that for about 3 years, built it up to an okay little business. I think we got it up to about $1 million a year. Once I found the sort of immediate short-term financial pressure was off for me, it’s been really interesting because I’ve naturally sort of skewed back towards getting a bit more ambitious again. Now I’m like, oh yeah, I want to build products. I want something that can scale.
Actually, I’ve come sort of full circle and I’m back to building tech startups. As of kind of the new year, I started my transition out of that company. One of my business partners is taking it over and he’s focusing on some really cool projects, promoting entrepreneurship in the developing worlds. He’s got trial projects going on in Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, rural Bulgaria with the roman communities. A lot of amazing founders in those countries that kind of just aren’t getting the support and the global stage they need.
So if anyone’s interested in that, his name is Salim Virani and the site is VillageAccelerator.org. There’s some really cool stuff going on around it so if you’ve got a way to help or you’re just curious, check it out.

As for me, I’m warming up my programming fingers again. It’s been a lot of years of doing sales and customer-facing stuff so I’m pretty excited just to be coding again, to be honest.
Rob’s book, The Mom Test: How To Talk To Customers And Learn If Your Business Is A Good Idea When Everyone Is Lying To You is available to buy now

Rob has kindly given SaaScribe readers 66% off The Mom Test. Click here to get the offer

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