The Mom Test – Or Why Startups as the Wrong Questions

The Mom Test

You know, entrepreneurship is a bit like riding a bike.   People can tell you how to do it till they’re blue in the face, but it’s not until you actually do it yourself that you really understand how it works.  And it’s a bit like that with a startup, except in this case it’s about understanding customer needs.  Or how time, money and risk work together.  Or sales and marketing.

I get to talk to a lot of early stage startups these days, many of who are yet to make a sale.  It’s an exciting and testing time in a startup’s journey, but it’s also the place where a lot of mistakes can be made which are really hard to undo later.

In all my discussions there has been something nagging me about the feedback founders are getting from a range of people – friends, associates and sometimes even customers.  They are almost universally being told that their ideas are great.  Fantastic.  Awesome!  Definitely something that they’d buy!

I’ve had lots of these sorts of discussions myself.  In fact, I’ve had conversations with people where I have had a product in my hand – literally – as someone has said, “my dad/uncle/mate could really use one of those.  What’s the website?”.  And guess what – despite the enthusiasm in my presence not one of them has followed through and actually bought one.

So I was seeing a pattern, and knew it was a problem, but couldn’t really put my finger on why.  I mean, it’s great to hear that startups are getting positive feedback from their potential customers.  And getting positive feedback from your friends, family and associates helps keep the enthusiasm going when times inevitably get tough.

But it’s bad news in the long run.  Because a lot of those startups will end up facing the same problem I’ve had – everyone is telling them that their idea is fab, but no one is buying it!  Easy to fix really, spend more time, energy and money on marketing.  Run harder.  Do more.  That’ll fix the problem.

If only that were the answer.

The problem of course is that in these situations, startup founders are getting ‘false positives’ out of these conversations.  What’s really happening is that they are framing the conversation along the lines of ‘I’ve got a startup, it’s based on a great idea that does X.  What do you think?’

Well, most startups have interesting ideas, and it’s hard not to be infected by the founder’s enthusiasm.  Those startup ideas are new – otherwise they probably wouldn’t be a ‘startup’, but instead a small business – and the founder is really passionate and committed.  So what’s not to like?  Would you buy one? Absolutely!

Really?  Really…?

Probably not.

This all came together for me a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled across a short book called The Mom Test, by Rob Fitz.  I’ll reproduce one of the opening Mom Test conversations here, because it illustrates the source of the problem many founders get themselves into.  In this case, the conversation revolves around an idea for a digital cookbook for the iPad.

Son: “Mom, mom, I have an idea for a business – can I run it by you?” I am about to expose my ego – please don’t hurt my feelings.

Mom: “Of course dear.” You are my only son and I am ready to lie to protect you.

Son: “You like your iPad, right?  You use it a lot?”

Mom: “Yes.” You led me to this answer, so there you go.

Son: “OK, so would you ever buy an app which was like a cookbook for your iPad?” I am optimistically asking you a hypothetical question and you know what I want you to say.

Mom: “Hmmm.” As if I need another cookbook at my age.

Son: “And it only costs $40 – that’s cheaper than those hardcovers on your shelf.” I’m going to skip that lukewarm signal and tell you more about my idea.

Mom “Well…” Aren’t all apps meant to cost a dollar?

Son: “And you can share recipes with your friends, and there’s an iPhone app which is your shopping list.  And videos of that celebrity chef you love.” Please just say “yes”.  I will not leave you alone until you do.

Mom: “Oh well, yes honey, that sounds amazing.  And you’re right, $40 is a good deal.  Will it have pictures of the recipes?”  I have rationalized the price outside of a real purchase decision, made a non-committal complement , and offered a feature request to appear engaged.

Son: “Yes, definitely. Thanks mom – love you!” I have completely misinterpreted this conversation and taken it as validation.

Mom: “Won’t you have some lasagna?” I am concerned that you won’t be able to find food soon.  Please eat something.

OK, so maybe not every conversation is like this, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard a startup say something like “I spoke to this woman about my idea, and she said it was total crap”.  Particularly once real time and money has been laid down on the idea.

It might sound like this sort of conversation should never happen, but it does.  I’ve had them – lots of them – about my idea.  And the problem is that the longer you have these conversations the further down the path you go, and the harder it becomes to change course.  Which, tragically, often leads to failure.

So I guess I’ve become a ‘Mom Test Evangelist’ recently.  I’ve got my soapbox, and I stand on it and shout out about the Mom Test as often and as much as I can.  I carry a copy of the book with me everywhere, and push it to anyone who will listen.

Because it’s great to have self-affirming mom-like conversations with people, but it really doesn’t help you in the end.  You need to have conversations that will let you build something that people actually want – and you’ll never get to that point when you’re selling them your idea, rather than finding out what their problem is in the first place.