Learning
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Stop asking the wrong questions: The Mom Test

Stop asking the wrong questions to your customers and read The Mom Test. Enjoy our latest book review by Robert Jan van Vugt!

The Mom Test in a nutshell: you want to create something new, a product, a service or an app. Because you have some doubts about your vision, you run it by your mom because she’s your target group and well she’s your mom. She totally loves it. It was all the positive feedback you needed and you started working on your product. 6 months later it’s finished, you launch it and nobody buys it. Not even your mom. But she loved it, right? What happened?

You have asked the wrong questions to the wrong people and you just lost 6 months of your life working on a product nobody will ever use.

While the book is all about asking the right questions to your potential customers, it’s also full of life lessons and applicable to every moment in life you have to ask (a lot of) questions (think job interviews, salary negotiations, buying a house, etc). I’ll start with the typical customer interview quotes, and end with a few more directed towards life in general.

Before we dive into this: did you already check my old blog posts? Check the article about "Zero to One" by Peter Thiel and the first one about Eric Ries' "The Lean Startup".

The Mom Test: a summary

  • The point of cold calls is to stop having them.
  • None of the questions is about what to build. Deciding what to build should be your job.
  • Be specific about your ideal customer and filter out all the noise.
  • When all the customers learning is stuck in someone’s head you’ve got a learning bottleneck.
  • It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to show us the truth. It’s our responsibility to find it.
  • You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation.
  • There is no such thing as a meeting which just went well.
  • Is there anything else  should have asked?
  • Go the the people who supported you and thank them.



The point of cold calls is to stop having them.

Cold calls scare the shit out of people. I can still see myself sitting in front of a phone for hours, delaying the moment I made my first every cold call only to find out, when I finally called, that the particular person was not in at the moment. Fitzpatrick mentions that you need strangers to validate the problems and solutions, not people you know, as your friends are inclined to say you’re right. But how to get to strangers? The best way is to meet them in person: conferences, road shows, expos, you name it. But in these times calling them is probably your best shot. After all, a call is much harder to ignore than an e-mail, or even worse: a LinkedIn message. But that doesn’t mean cold calling is easy. Everyone needs to get over a hurdle to start, and once you’re in a flow it gets easier and easier, but don’t forget: the goal is to stop having them!

Therefore: don’t forget to end every call with asking who you should meet as well, and even better: who can they introduce you to? It’s a good validation of your conversation (if it had value, they will not hesitate to refer you to someone else, if they do hesitate you know something didn’t go right) and you go from cold calling to “warm” calling in one step!


None of the questions is about what to build. Deciding what to build should be your job.

Whenever I gave a training on customer validation there was always someone in the group who questioned the method of asking your customers about what to do. They either mention Jobs and the Ipad, or Ford and his famous “If I asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses”. And this is exactly the point: you don’t ask people what kind of product they want or what you should build, because deciding that is your job. What you ask about is their needs, their desires, their problems, and their struggles. People didn’t want faster horses, they wanted to be able to see more of the world, to travel faster, and to travel more. People didn’t need mobile phones, but they did have a need to be connected to their friends, their peers, and to the rest of the world in an easy and affordable way.

the mom test


Be specific about your ideal customer and filter out all the noise.

Let’s say you're doing the right thing and asking customers about their problems, their needs and desires. You’re aiming your product towards students and your posting at a university's faculty and getting hundreds of short interviews. But after a few days you get more and more confused: there seems to be not one problem, but hundreds. Not one desire but thousands. The interviews are not giving you clarity in your direction, instead it is sheer chaos! The solution is to narrow down your target group. Investors might want large markets to make a profitable business (and you want that as well..), so it is tempting to think about “all students”, or “everyone between 18 and 28”, but customer interviews go way better if you narrow down your target group as much as possible, in every direction: age, sex, location, mindset, colour of their hair, vegan or carnivore, length, political colour, whatever is necessary to clearly target only one (or a few) problems. First worry about the problem, then the solution, and finally your business.


When all the customers learning is stuck in someone’s head you’ve got a learning bottleneck.

Even when you do everything right: you target the right people, you do the cold calling, you get the meetings, you ask the right questions, they give the right answers you might still have a problem. Most of the time there is only one person on your team doing these calls, and meeting these people. If that is the case you’re not learning about your customers, you are learning what that one person thinks about your customers. This is natural by the way. Calling people out of the blue can be hard, not everyone is comfortable with talking to people they don’t know, interviewing them and asking them hard questions. There is usually one person who is more comfortable with these kinds of situations and he or she will put the work on his/her plate.

You solve this by doing the first set of these interviews with at least two people, but preferably the whole team joins in the process (but do not invite the whole team to one interview!). This might make it a bit harder to process the results, but especially in the very early stage it is crucial that everyone in the team talks to customers. It always surprised me that, when we discussed a sales call afterwards, everyone picked something else as “the important part of the call”. You want a diverse team, as the challenges of a startup are diverse as well, but use the full potential of your team in customer contact as well!


It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to show us the truth. It’s our responsibility to find it.

This goes for starting a business, for entrepreneurship in general, and basically for life. When I gave workshops to entrepreneurs one of the following questions always popped up: what should we do? Which product should we build? Which direction should we go?

You probably get it by now: entrepreneurship is hard, and it is very easy to look at other people for direction. Other people might give you a nudge or a hint, but it is your own responsibility to find (and claim) the direction of your company. This is scary, as the truth is not always what you would like to hear and some questions might take you to places you don’t like to go (like changing your product, or ditching aspects of the product you liked best, or worse: stopping the effort completely), but it remains always your responsibility to find the truth and cope with it.

In the end you will be glad you found the truth early on instead of avoiding it for a few years!

the mom test


You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation.

Having customer conversation can be scary.

They might tell you they don’t have a problem (which might sound to you as: there is no problem at all, so no product, therefore no company). They might tell you they don’t like your solution, or the colour, or the specifications, or even worse: they don’t like you.

It’s therefore a natural tendency to shy away from the most scary questions in these customer conversations because you are afraid you will not get the positive feedback you are craving. Instead of talking about the problem you’re trying to fix, the cost of the problem, or the issues they are having when trying to solve it, it is so much easier to talk about black or blue, rolling or fixed, small or large, screen or no screen at all. You might have a nice conversation, but you’re not learning what you need to learn: is there a problem and can you solve it? And perhaps most important: if you create the solution, will they buy it from you?

Remember: the scary questions are the ones with the highest value.


There is no such thing as a meeting which just went well.

This goes not just for sales meetings, but for any meeting, or any gathering of persons in that sense.

If you walk out and think “that was OK”, you might want to think twice. Did you walk out with a to-do list? Are there any deadlines mentioned? Milestones? Activities? Did someone take notes? At least the planning of the next meeting? If non one of these occurred you should think about why you wanted to be in the meeting in the first place. If you ask for commitments, for activities, for milestones or next meetings you might get a “No” in return, but at least you know the outcome of the meeting. Going back to the question above: Fishing for a “No” might be scary, but you need to do it to move on.

the mom test


Is there anything else I should have asked?

Just a great outro of every conversation or interview. Even if you prepared thoroughly chances are that you missed asking great questions, or connections to great people. Not because you didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t prepare the meeting but just because these questions or people are in your blind spot(s). Always make use of other people's ideas and connections, you never know where this question might lead you.


Go the the people who supported you and thank them.

I think we don’t do this enough. Think back to your high school years, university, your first job, your second job, but also sports, hobbies, etc. Were there people present who supported you? Who challenged you on your decisions? Who made you (sorry I’m going to say this) “A better person”? Hopefully your parents and perhaps siblings come to mind, but if you have a special teacher in mind, a manager, a coach, a mentor, a trainer, a neighbour, or a friend: go to them and thank them for what they did.

Are you an hardware and digital startup with a committed founding team that has a validated problem-solution fit and the potential to scale? So you should definitely join our Accelerator Program, a 3-month program that helps you strengthen the foundation of your startup and accelerate traction in the market.

Robert Jan Van Vugt

Startup Ecosystem Builder & Startup Coach.

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