Customers will lie to you. So will your friends and family. It's one of the most surprising things you discover when you talk to people about what you're building. Rob Fitzpatrick (@robfitz) should know. He spent years making a habit of talking to customers, only to learn the wrong lessons and have his startup flame out anyway. There had to be a better way. In his book, The Mom Test, Rob shares his strategies for talking to customers the right way, gathering accurate feedback, and even finding people to talk to in the first place. And in this episode, Rob and I dive deeper into each of these topics.
What’s up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions both at their companies and in their personal lives, and what, exactly, makes their businesses tick?
And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses. Now one thing I want to do on the podcast a little more often going forward, including in this episode, is to bring on subject matter experts, people who are really good at a particular thing, so they can share their knowledge with all of us.
Today, that expert is Rob Fitzpatrick. Rob is a serial entrepreneur, and a Y Combinator alumnus. He’s also a software engineer and a sales expert. He is perhaps most famously known for being the author of a book called The Mom Test, which is the definitive guide for how to talk to your customers effectively as a founder.
Rob and I were already mid-conversation, so I’m just going to jump in where we left off, but if you find this episode useful and you’d like to see me interview more experts, feel free to ping me on Twitter. I’m @csallen and send me some suggestions. Without further ado, Rob Fitzpatrick. Okay, why should founders care about talking to their customers? Why is it something they should be spending time on?
Before I answer that, which I will, I just want to say that there’s two parts to this. There are two challenges you have to deal with. There’s the willingness or the emotional challenge, like “Yes, I’m going to do this. I’m going to engage in this scary way with strangers or almost strangers, or I’m going to expose my idea.”
The other part of it is the actual hands-on skill of running these conversations properly and asking good questions. You need to be willing to get out there, but that’s not enough, because if you go out there like I did, I tried so hard. I was miserable. I wanted to be coding, but I was like “I have to do this for my team, for my investors, for myself.”
It was two years, fulltime, all I did was talk to customers and I was so miserable. Then we went out of business anyway and I was pissed off, right? I’m like, “Man, if I’m going to suffer this much, I want it to at least work.”
What I eventually learned, leading into my next company is you have to do it right. These conversations can easily go off track, and not all feedback is good feedback. That’s an important thing to realize, and we’ll talk about how to do it properly, I’m sure.
As for why it’s going to benefit you and why it’s worth overcoming these learning curves, emotionally and scale, it’s that it ends up acting like a programming superpower. For example, early in my first company’s history, we kept building features based on market research, or building features based on strategy or intuition.
We might spend four or six months building something. We’d launch it. People don’t like it quite as much as we had hoped. That’s a very expensive way to explore an idea space, especially if you’ve got a team, I mean even by yourself. If you’re working nights and weekends, development is slow, so if you lose four months of development, that’s such a setback.
It clicked for me when I was having a conversation with someone, and I was like, “Wow, that just saved me four months.” This 30 minute conversation just saved me four months of development time. That’s incredible.
So that’s when I started to get excited about it. Another piece that made me excited emotionally was when I realized that customers enjoy having these conversations if you do them respectfully. When I first started I was in very much a sleazy salesman mode, where it was like, “I’m taking your time and you’re getting nothing in return. Screw you.”
That made me feel guilty cause that wasn’t the way I wanted to interact with strangers or my customers. Over time I realized it was valuable for them, as well. If it’s the worst part of their day, they love talking about it.
Over time, you build up this expertise and you can offer real value back to them in return just from your perspective on the problem, how other people are dealing with it. Another way it clicks which is valuable is, you know how you launch a landing page, and you’re like, “Okay, do people want this? How am I going to market this? How am I going to get people to see this?”
You try Product Hunt. You try all this stuff and it doesn’t quite work but you don't know why it didn’t work. Is it the way you described the product, the copy, the value proposition? Is it the way you built the website?
Is it the user experience of the app? It’s very hard to debug that if you don’t have any contact with the people. You can tell if it worked cause you’re rich. But when it hasn’t worked, you don't know why it hasn’t worked, whereas if you’re talking to people, you can figure all those things out before the launch.
You know exactly what the tagline should be because the customers have told you. You’re like, “Hey, why do you care so much about this? Why does this even matter to you?” and they just tell you.
And you go, “Okay. Take that, put that exactly on my landing page. That’s my value proposition. That’s my advertising copy. That’s my marketing tagline.” There’s so much stuff you can figure out, and it gives you a lot more confidence to stick with it.
I see a lot of people give up on their ideas too soon. They launch an MVP and it doesn’t work. They go, “Well, I tested it and it didn’t work,” and they give up. That’s wrong. That’s always wrong, because all that proved is that that particular version of the product didn’t work the particular way you marketed it.
Whereas if you talk to people first, in person, you’re like, “Okay. That MVP didn’t work but I know for a fact, 1,000%, they care. I know this matters.” And that makes it, for me, a lot easier to keep throwing away versions of products and looking for the correct solution.
It helps with everything, with motivation, with language, with features. To me, my programming got so much more efficient and more satisfying once I learned how to talk to customers properly.
I love that point. You and I, we’re both developers. We both love writing code. But it’s way more efficient to iterate through these conversations than it is to iterate through months and months of writing the wrong code, building the wrong features.
I think early on in your life as a founder, you’re just excited to build something. You want to get something out there. It seems like talking to customers is going to be a waste of time, but for all the reason that you’ve started, it’s not.
How early should you be talking to customers? Should you be talking to them as you're coming up with your idea, before you come up with an idea, before you write any code, or should that be something that happens later?
It’s important to understand that there are different types of companies and talking to customers has different value depending on the type of company that you’re building.
If you’re building a phone game or any video game, the classic, it’s not a sharp pain. It’s a commodity product. People love new games. If you give them fun and it’s better they will love that, but there’s not a lot of customer market risk there. It’s all execution risk.
My background’s in game design. With games what you try to do is you start with a prototype and you try to prototype the core mechanic and make it crunchy. Does the core interaction feel good? So you lead with that simple prototype.
Obviously, you don’t build the whole game world or do all of the art or anything. You start with the core mechanic. For Diablo, it’s clicking on a monster and seeing it explode in a loop pinata. You get that right and you keep working that until it feels crunchy and satisfying, and then you’re, “Okay.” Then you start expanding out from there.
That’s also true for what Peter Theil would call his 10s product improvements, product innovations. Uber was an example of this. To some extent Airbnb was an example of this. Pinterest, certainly.
These are cases where you couldn’t talk to someone and be like, “Hey, would you like to see photos in rectangles around topics?” That’s not a customer interview you can have. Pinterest, that type of consumer idea, is very difficult to prove in advance, purely through customer conversations. There, you need to lead with the prototype a bit more.
You’d still like to understand people. You might have some conversations, be like, “Hey, how do you get inspiration online?” It’s open ended, but it’s not going to prove or disprove your idea. It’s just going to give you a foundation of empathy and understanding.
Now at the other side of the spectrum you’ve got things that you’re solving, an explicit unsolved problem, stuff like enterprise software, stuff like the pain relievers, the “hair on fire” problems, the “this is costing my business money, this is causing me misery. I need this dealt with right now.” When that’s the case, you can learn everything you need from a conversation before you’ve written a single line of code.
The conversations are valuable in both cases. I would feel like I was going to battle without a sword if I wasn’t allowed to talk to my customers. It’s not like you can always prove everything just by talking. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it makes perfect sense. I think most people listening to this podcast, most Indie Hackers, are probably building the latter kind of business, the kind of business where they’re trying to solve a specific, “hair on fire” problem for customers who are willing to pay for it, and where having these conversations early on probably makes a lot more sense than having those conversations for a game or something.
Absolutely. It’s one of the reasons I choose those types of ideas now, because I want to be able to prove them in advance. Choosing something that’s a sharp problem, it just de-risks the whole business cause you don’t need to build it first. It’s great. It has so many benefits.
I think it’s important if you’re an Indie Hacker as well, because you’re not raising money from venture capitalists. You don’t have a long runway. As you mentioned, you might be working nights and weekends that you could be spending time with your friends or your family or on your hobbies, so it’s important not to waste your time on one of these ideas where you have no clue if it’s going to work.
Oh, you asked how early to start. I would say start. One of the reasons to start talking to people ASAP, immediately, you want to be able to get active users in your product as early as it’s able to support them.
If you make your product ready to support them and then you go looking for the users, it feels like you’re not getting anything done. So maybe a week passes or two weeks pass and you go, “You know what? Screw this. I’m done waiting. This is slowing me down. This talking to customer stuff, it’s stupid. It’s a waste of time.
I’m just going to build the next features. I know it needs to happen.” You keep repeating that decision over and over. It’s sensible every time you make it, and soon you’ve wasted two years going down a rabbit hole and you're screwed. And you’re like, “Oh, great. Next time I’m going to do it properly.”
By talking to people early, by forcing yourself to do that, it means that you have them on reserve when you’re ready to use them. I do this for everything. I do it for my books as well. As soon as I have a book idea and I start writing, I’m also starting to talk to my future potential readers to understand them but also to line them up so that as soon as I’ve got a manuscript for them to look at, boom.
I’m getting feedback from day one instead of having to scramble for it. Super, super valuable. And then oftentimes also I realized I’m just dead wrong, dead wrong, completely wrong. I had this idea once for a CRM for investors. It was kind of an email/CRM hybrid to manage their inbound deal flow. This was ten years ago. I thought it was a pretty good idea at the time.
It was one of these ideas that woke me up in the middle of the night. I’m like, “I’m a genius. This is it. It’s going to be incredible.” Because I was so stressed about email, and I figured the investors must get a hundred times more than me.
So I set up a conversation for that day. I found a friendly investor who I happened to know through my network. This is important in terms of doing the conversations right. You never want to pitch your idea.
If at all possible, in the early stages find a different excuse to talk to them, and then just ask them how they already deal with it and why they do it that way. I set it up. “Hey, it’s been forever. Let’s catch up.” He goes, “Okay, yeah. I’ll meet you for coffee.”
Just during small talk I’m like, “Hey, man, email is killing me. It’s killing me. I’m so miserable. You must get so much more email than I do. How do you stay alive? How do you deal with this, all these inbound leads?”
So here I’ve brought up the topic. We already have an excuse to be talking. I brought up the topic and then I pushed it straight back onto his life. This is the best way to do your early-stage customer conversations.
They’re not about your idea, they’re about the customer’s life and how they’re already dealing with that problem. He starts talking, and I can just see. I’ve got dollar signs in my eyes. He goes, “Oh, my gosh. Email. The inbound leads. We get a thousand inbound leads a week. It’s a nightmare. No one could go through all of them. It’s a mess.”
And I’m thinking, “Yeah, this is good. I’m getting validated. I’m gonna be rich.” And I’m like, “Well, talk me through it.” And this is another technique you want to be doing. Whenever someone gives you a generic answer, you go, “Tell me more about that. Talk me through that. How does that work? What do you actually do?”
And he goes, ‘Oh, well, to be honest our associates get most of the email. They delete 90% straight off. We’ve got a whole team of them doing that. I probably only see a hundred a week, and maybe 10 of them look good to me. So I write their company name down on a post it along with the founder’s phone number. Put it on my wall right there.”
He pointed up to a little cluster of post-its on his wall. There are probably10 or 20. He goes, “Once a week I give them a call, see how they’re doing. If I don’t like them anymore I throw away their post it.” I go, “Man, that’s old school. But it sounds like a good system.”
Yeah, super simple.
He thought for a minute. He had been so agitated about the email. He thought for a minute and he relaxed and he goes, “Actually, it is a good system.” And then he’s like, “So what did you want to talk about?” I’m like, “You’ve just destroyed my hopes and dreams.”
But that’s great cause I saved my time. And I ended up deciding not to pursue it, but you might have easily said, “Aha. The people with the problem are not the partners. It’s the associates. I need to go talk to the associates, not the partners, figure out how I can make their lives easier,” or whatever.
There are other ways. Just because you get a negative signal doesn’t mean you need to give up. It’s like driving. There’s a tree across the road. You don’t go, “Oh, I need to go home.” You go, “Oh, I need to reverse a little bit and find another route to my destination,” and that’s the attitude you want to take into finding out that your idea doesn’t work.
It's just that this version of the idea doesn’t work, and then you reverse a bit and find a way around.
I love that story because it illustrates one of the big reasons why you should be talking to customers. I think it’s very easy as a founder, especially if you're a first time founder, to become overly confident in your ideas as they exist in your head. You’re like, “Oh, this idea’s going to work for sure. I’m so confident. I’m so excited about it.”
It’s easy to underestimate the difference between reality and the world that exists in your head. When you talk to real people and ask them about their lives and what’s going on with them, you realize there’s this huge discrepancy. Oftentimes I talk to more experienced founders, and they’re significantly less confident about their ideas than the inexperienced founders.
Yeah. It’s humbling. You can be so confident. You’ve done all these business model canvasses. You’ve checked the market size. You’ve mocked up the landing page. You’re all pumped, and then you’re like, “Literally no one in the world cares at all about this.” They just don’t care.
Sometimes it can be confusing, too, cause they can say they care but they’re just straight up lying to you, especially about aspirational topics like health, and the environment and sustainability and recycling and all of this stuff.
With security, people are like, “Yeah, our business really cares about security. It’s the top problem.” It’s like, “Oh, what do you do about people using their personal devices?” Literally nothing. “Oh, what do you do about this?” Absolutely nothing.
You’re not going to be like, “Do you care about security? How important is it?” and they go, “Our business doesn’t care at all about security. We don’t care. Our customers’ data means nothing to us.” They just can’t say that.
And equally, no one goes, “I don’t care about wellbeing. I don’t care about the environment.” So sometimes with those aspirational topics you need to be incredibly skeptical about what you’re being told by your customers and bring it back down to their current behavior.
If someone goes, “I care about the environment.” I’m not going to be like, “Great, my carbon credits business is going to work” I'm going to be like, “Prove it to me. Show me what you’re already doing. Show me how much money you’re already spending.
Show me how much effort you’re already putting toward this. Show me what you’ve tried that’s failed.” I want to see hard evidence that you’re already doing something, because if you’re not I think this is all just fluff.
It’s fascinating how much people lie, sometimes even inadvertently. One of the things I’ve noticed is how much people will complain about things that aren’t problems.
People would loudly complain about how much they hate Slack and how distracted they are, but they’re doing absolutely zero to change it, and it turns out they love Slack and use it all the time and they just like complaining about something because it’s easy to talk about.
It’s easy as an entrepreneur to get tricked to think, “Oh, this is a real problem. People complain about it all the time,” but the reality is it’s not a problem worth solving.
One of the reasons that starting with the pitch is such a problem is that it multiplies the lies you get by a factor of 10 or 100. If I got to you and I’m like, “All right. I’ve got a product. It’s going to make you live 10 years longer. You’re gonna get skinny. You’re gonna get sexy. You’re gonna get laid. You’re gonna feel great. You're going to be full of energy. You have to come in for treatment three times a week. It’s this pill. It hurts a bit. It’s going to wipe you out for 20 minutes, but whatever. You move on with your life.”
People are like, “Oh, yeah. I want to live 10 years longer. I want to get laid.” And then you’re like, “My product is a gym. Come on in,” and they’re like, “I don’t want that.” It’s like, “But you just said you want all the benefits.”
You can lead people to anything if you start pitching because you’re exposing your ego. They want to support you in your dream. They don’t want to slam your ambition. So you’ve got to resist that pitching instinct.
The whole thing of customer conversations is trying to avoid all these compliments and ego-driven lies and these little annoyances that people aren’t actually motivated to change and try to get to the core underneath.
What are the already doing or not doing and why or why not? You keep asking, “What are you already doing? How have you dealt with that? What have you searched for? Can you talk me through how that works?” Those questions are where the real gold is, at least in the early stages.
We’re talking about the fact that generally speaking it’s not good enough to just talk to your customers. There are specific techniques and strategies you can use to make sure those customer conversations are productive.
In your book, you’ve got a framework that you call the mom test, which is three rules for how to talk to customers. Number one, which we’ve been talking about, is to focus on their live instead of immediately bringing up your idea.
Number two is to ask for specifics from their past instead of opinions about what they want or what they might do in the future. That’s how you get lied to. And number three is talk less and listen more.
Let’s get into some specifics here about how you phrase these questions. Let’s say I do the default Indie Hacker thing. I talk to somebody about what I'm working on, and then I ask them, “Hey, do you think this is a good idea?” Why isn’t that a good way to start a customer conversation?
I don't know if this is a thing but it’s something you’ll notice. You can offload the burden of truth onto the other person. So when you say, “Do you think this is a good idea,” what you’re doing is you're offloading the burden of truth onto them. You’re forcing them to tell you the hard truth.
That’s an emotionally draining task for them. It’s like when someone asks you if they’re pretty. You’re like, “I don't know, man. Don’t ask me that. That’s awkward.” It’s an emotionally draining question because you're forced to think, “Oh gosh, is there ego involved? Are they going to cry?” You’re putting them in a difficult situation.
Let’s say you’re building an email tool. One version of this conversation is like, “Hey, I’m building a new email tool that does this and this and this. Do you think it’s a good idea? Would you use it? Would you buy it?” That pushes all the emotional burden onto the other person.
And they’re meant to deal with all their emotions and somehow deal with all the biases themselves and they’re untrained and they don’t really care and they’re meant to tell you the truth. That’s super hard.
The other way to do it is to take that responsibility yourself, where you go, “Okay. Forget about my idea for now. Let me just try to understand you and how you already deal with email, and what you do and don’t do.” And then I, as the entrepreneur, am going to take the responsibility for turning that into an insight from which I can take a visionary leap to my product.
You’re not trying to collect feature requests and you’re not trying to build a product by committee. What you’re trying to do is understand the goals and frustrations and lives of your users so that you can take a more accurate visionary leap or a visionary leap from a more accurate foundation.
You can still be wrong. You can get a good foundation and then leap in the wrong direction but hey, that’s life. That's entrepreneurship. But your foundation is still valid because you still understand your customers.
So you go, “Well, version one did not work at all,” but you’ve still got your foundation of understanding so you can try a different visionary leap to a different product version or a different way of dealing with it or a different business model or whatever.
Is it a good idea? It just asks too much of the other person. That’s not their job. Your job as the entrepreneur, it’s your job to figure out if it’s a good idea. All they can do is tell you about their life. That’s the only information they have access to.
Plus people are so optimistic about the future. Even if you go, “Hey, would you pay for this?” They go, “I would definitely pay for that. I would pay $50.00 per month for that for sure.” Then you go “Great.” You launch it and you build it. You spend a year and your life savings.
Then you’re like, “Hey, it’s ready.” And they’re like, “Actually I don’t need it.” You’re like, “What?” They’re like, “Yeah, I didn’t really think about how much of a pain it would be to change my whole workflow. I have to learn a new tool. I have to install it, deal with the security thing. I don't know. It just - I’m fine. I’m fine.”
You’re like, “Ahhh! You just wasted a year of my life.” But that was your mistake because you put the burden on them. You expected them to tell you the truth instead of you taking the responsibility for finding the truth.
As a side point, never ask people if they would pay hypothetical money. Either make your own decision based on what they’re already doing or ask them for actual money. Hypothetical money means nothing.
These are some great points, especially the point about founders asking customers to do their job for them. Nobody’s going to be able to tell you if your idea is good or you’ve got a great business. That’s your job to work out all those variables. That’s an incredibly complex question.
I’ve been in the other situation before plenty of times. People have asked me, “Hey, Courtland, would you pay for this?” I do exactly what you’re describing. I’m like, “Yeah, I think I would pay for it,” because I’m not going to sit around for an hour really thinking in detail about all the things that would get me to pay for it, and then the time comes around and they’ve launched and I’m like, “You know what? Never mind.”
It’s not ’cause you’re mean.
No, not at all.
I do it as well and I’m not trying to trick people. Just like every day I think I’m going to go to the gym and I never do. Every time a founder pitches me an awesome new product, I think I’m going to use it but I never do. I’m busy. I’m doing stuff.
But all your customers are busy and doing stuff, so you need to be able to navigate that. What’s the quote? “Expecting other people to always use common sense is itself a failure of common sense.” It’s the same sort of deal.
There are these questions that you shouldn’t ask. You shouldn’t ask, “Hey, is my idea good?” You shouldn’t ask, “Hey, would you pay for this, or how much would you pay for this?” What are some good questions that you should ask when you’re telling people about your initial idea?”
As you progress through a new idea, you’re going to get increasing confidence. You’re going to move from, “Does anybody care at all,” through to, “Which features should I build in which orders and which do I need for launch? What should my pricing be?” It gets more specific as you go because you’re building this foundation.
Why don’t we talk about the early stage questions, when your idea’s still nascent.
At the beginning, it’s like, “Do they care at all?” Do they care sufficiently that they’re going to be motivated to bother learning about, installing, and learning a new piece of software, a new tool or whatever?
What I’m looking for there is, I just want to explore how they feel about the problem. Give me a problem space or an industry or something.
How about productivity software?
Productivity software, great. Super aspirational, also, right? Everyone thinks they want to be productive. They read a lot of productivity blogs, but they never actually do anything. They’re just being actively unproductive while trying to learn about this stuff.
So you talk to someone and you go, “Hey, do you care about productivity?” These are bad questions, by the way. Don’t do this. “Hey, do you care about productivity?” “Yeah.” “How important is it to you?” “Very important.” “Oh, would you be interested in tools that help make you more productive?” “Yes, I would.”
“Okay. If something could really help you get more work done, do you think that would be worth $10.00 a month to you? $50?” “Yeah, $50.00 a month. My work’s valuable.” You’ve just destroyed yourself. You come out of that and you feel like you’ve been rigorous, but it’s an enormous false positive.
Better questions are about what they’re already doing and why. You go, “Hey, you pay any attention to productivity stuff? Do you care about that?” a classification question. Am I talking to a potential customer, or are they completely irrelevant?
If you’re building a product for babies and you’re like, “Hey, do you have a baby?” And they go, “No,” you’re not going to be like, “Well imagine you did and let me pitch you something.” So the first question is, are they in my customer segment?
After that you go, “Great. I know they care about productivity.” And if they don’t care about productivity, you might ask a couple more questions to figure out why. Maybe they’re on the fence or that’s an interesting segment.
But once you realize they really don’t care, just leave them be. Even if you’ve only been talking to them for 30 seconds, the hour long meeting is the curse of customer development, cause most cust dev meetings take five minutes. You don’t need an hour.
So anyway, you know they care and you go, “Well what do you do about it? Talk me through your habits at the moment. What tools do you use?” They’ll tell you. And these sorts of questions, “Talk me through it. What do you use right now?” No one lies.
The lies disappear. It’s a fact about their life. You are not exposing any ego. You’re not putting any burden of truth on them. There’s nothing emotionally difficult about them answering. They’ll just be like, “Oh, I use this, this, this.”
“Oh, what did you try before?” “Oh, I used this and this.” “Why did you switch away?” “Because of this.” “Have you looked for any new alternatives to what you’re currently using?” “No, I’m pretty happy.” “Okay.” They’re pretty happy.
Probably, to me they don’t have an urgent problem, where some people you might ask that same serious of questions and these are all what are you already doing and why, talk me through it, that sort of thing, and they go, “Yeah, it’s driving me fricking crazy. I’ve tried Slack,” they name 10 other alternatives.
They’re like, “I’ve tried Kanban. I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that. I’ve used everything. It’s a nightmare. This is costing me a fortune. Client deals are slipping by. It’s the worst part of my life. I tried a PA but she stole all my money. I tried a virtual assistant but he ran off with my clients.”
And you’re like, “Wow, this person really cares. They’re spending a fortune of either their attention or their resources to deal with this. They’re super motivated.” Now obviously as your product becomes more mainstream and established, not every customer is going to be this insanely motivated.
As you become more mainstream you become acceptable to less-motivated customers, but when you’re a brand new, unproven thing, certainly with businesses you need that crazy first customer. They’re so emotional. They’re so like, “Arrgh!” So I’m looking for that emotional signal when I’m talking to them about their life. Then I’ll ask them for a commitment to prove that they’re serious.
So I was once talking to a woman who ran a creative agency, and I had some software that I was thinking of but I hadn’t even built it. To be honest, I hadn’t even decided if I wanted to build it. I was still exploring if it was worth it.
We had the perfect customer discovery conversation. We got along well. We were having a fun chat. She told me all about her workflow, her life, the way they handled problems at their agency. She seemed like the perfect customer for me.
I was like, “Listen. Can we switch the mode of this conversation a little bit? I’m working on some software. I know I said I wasn’t going to pitch you anything, but it sounds like it would be perfect for you. If you wanted to take 10 minutes, I would love to tell you about it.”
This is a good habit. Often when you set up these customer conversations, you do it by saying, “I just want to learn. You can help me out so much by telling me about your life and your work.” It’s a bit dishonest to then switch into a sneaky pitch, so if I’m going to do that transition, I always ask permission.
I’m like, “Hey, would it be cool?” and if I detect even the slightest discomfort in their face, I’m like, “Forget about it. Forget about it. You’ve helped me out so much already. I appreciate it.” You gain nothing by pitching someone who doesn’t want to hear it.
But anyway, she was like, “Yeah, I’d love to hear about it. Tell me.” So we went through. I drew some wire frames. We talked about it. She’s like, “This is so important. We need this. How soon can we have it?” Now that sounds positive, right? But it’s hypothetical. This is imaginary money. It means nothing.
She’s saying she might pay for it or she thinks she would pay for it. So she’s predicting the future.
Yeah. She’s predicting the future. And I don't know, am I going to bet my future on her guess at her future? No. No way. I want proof. The way you do that is by putting them into a buying decision, by asking them for something that would - hurt is the wrong word, but by asking them for something that they would only give you if they’re serious.
Usually that’s time, reputation, money, or if you’re selling to big businesses, it’s secrets about their buying process, their budgets, their procurement process, that sort of thing. So time, reputation, money.
Reputation is usually intros or public testimonials. Money is obvious, pre-order, letter of intent, blah, blah, blah. Time is the interesting one, and it’s also the weakest, but it means more than nothing.
So I was sitting there and I was thinking, what can I ask her for that’s appropriate given the fact that I have nothing to show, I have no product yet, that would prove whether she’s a customer. So I thought about it for a second. I was like, “Listen, this thing’s not ready yet. We’re going to start development soon. It sounds like it’s important to you. What would you think about me coming into your office this week, spending about two hours with the rest of your development team, to figure out if this product would solve this problem for them?”
The whole tone of the conversation changes, because I’m now asking for something that matters. I’m not asking for words. I’m asking for her development team’s time. That’s cash money. And she gets serious, she’s like, “Uh,” and I can see she’s conflicted, and eventually she goes, “Yes, this is important. When can you come in?” And I’m like, “Okay. She’s a customer.”
No money had changed hands but now I completely trust because she’s willing, and she may not. Stuff happens. She might not convert in the end. But at this moment, she was in a buying mindset and she made a buying decision so I’m going to take her very, very seriously.
Those are the stages it goes through. It starts with this early, “Just tell me about your life. What are you doing and why?” And then at a certain point you’ve learned everything you can. You understand. You’ve got a good mental model of how they make their decisions and their priorities.
Then you can switch into this like, “Okay. What commitment can I ask for to put them in a buying mindset to prove that yeah, they’re going to follow through on this? And again, you’re not tricking them. Sometimes people hear me say this and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. It’s a clever sales tactic.” No, it’s the reverse of a clever sales tactic.
You’re intentionally trying to get rejected, because you only want to spend your time with the people who really care. It’s anti-sales. You’re like, “Please reject me. I’m giving you every opportunity to reject me.” If they give the slightest hint that they are rejecting you, you’re just like, “I’m out.” Trying to push them, they will eventually say yes.
It’s like if you’re annoying enough in a bar you can always get a fake phone number but that doesn’t help you. With a customer you can always get them to say you’re smart and your idea is brilliant, but that doesn’t help you. If you're annoying enough you can get people to lie to you, but don’t do that.
Yeah. You’re only hurting yourself. I used to date a therapist and she was excellent, pointing all these subtle almost unconscious reasons why we do things. I think for a lot of founders and Indie Hackers, we say we’re talking to people about our ideas in order to learn and improve, but if you listen to what we’re saying we’re just fishing for compliments.
We just want someone to say something nice, someone to say our idea is good, whereas like you said, you’re trying to get people to say no. You’re trying to get a definitive answer. You're trying to find out if there is some reason why this person isn’t a customer, if there is some reason why your idea isn’t important, or if there is some reason why they’re not going to buy.
Yeah, and the ones who are lukewarm, I still write down their name and email. I keep track of them and I send them updates and I stay friendly. And maybe in six months I’m like, “Hey, that thing we talked about ages ago, it’s out. People love it. If you want to take a look, it’s there.” You can always convert them later, but they’re not going to be your first customer. Your first customers are going to be frothing with emotion, so look for that.
Let’s talk about validating your idea by asking your customers questions. In your book you talk about the fact that you should be terrified of at least one of the questions that you’re asking the customers. What does that mean, exactly?
Maybe this is only me, but sometimes there are questions that, if you ask them and you get a certain answer, it just means you’re going out of business. For example, a common one is, “Do you have the budget for this?”
Obviously, any salesperson listening to this would laugh at me, but as a non-salesperson, as a techy dude who is asking for what I felt was a lot of money at the time, it was terrifying to me. I was stuck in this song and dance of these unending meetings.
I was demoing better and better versions of products and they were giving me nicer and nicer compliments. I was hoping it would magically turn into a sale and they never did. Then eventually I was going through this terrible, infantile sales process with MTV.
One of my buddies worked there. He came to me through the back channel and he’s like, “Hey, you know why that deal didn’t go through, right?” I was like, “I do not know but I would love to know.” He told me and I was like, “Wow. I screwed that up, huh?” It was something with legal and something with budgets and something with music rights, whatever.
It was simple facts that were in the way and I had always feared those things might be problems but I didn’t want to mention them in case I spooked the customer, whereas now I’m like, “What’s the scariest thing possible? What’s the worst thing they can tell me?” Then I’m going to try to actively search that out.
Now there’s an appropriate time for this stuff. If you’ve just met someone for the first time it’s difficult to be like, “What’s your budget?” But that question’s got to come at some point. You have to talk about pricing. You have to talk about money. You have to talk about the legal side. You have to talk about their boss.
It’s like, “Hey, it seems like this is exciting for you, but your boss would need to sign off on this too, right? And maybe legal, and maybe tech and maybe procurement?” And they’re like, “Actually, not legal or procurement. This is a small enough purchase. It’s under five grand. Yeah, my boss would need to see it, and our tech guys.”
You go, “Can I talk to them?” That’s the scary question in that moment. “Will you introduce me?” Cause if they say no, it means that the sale’s over. That’s a reputational ask. That’s saying, “Will you risk your reputation by introducing me to your superiors?” That’s the scary question.
I found that I have a natural compass where the thing I least want to ask is probably the most important question. I try to hold myself accountable. Now it’s easier for me because I’ve been doing it for 12 years. But for the first six years I was so terrified of these conversations every time I was having them, so I came up with a couple little hacks to keep myself honest.
I would write on a piece of paper, my note taking paper, I would write the three big things I wanted to learn about. Which tools do they use? What else have they tried and abandoned, and what are their thoughts on security, for example?
Your questions will change depending on the state of your company and where you’re at. And then at the bottom I would be like, if it goes well, what am I going to ask them for as a commitment?
One of the three questions on that had to be something that I was terrified on. So I’m ready to ask for money and that’s terrifying. Or I’m ready to ask for an introduction to the boss and that’s terrifying. I’m ready to talk about budgets or legal or whatever. I need to learn about whatever. And that’s good. It bubbles out those problems sooner. It keeps you on the straight and narrow.
How do you figure out what these scary questions can be? I think for you, you’re experienced enough to intuitively say, “Here’s the question I’m afraid of asking. I should ask it.”
For a lot of newer founders, they’re not sure how to detect whether or not their idea’s important or people are going to buy or people have the budget for it, or even what the existential risk factor is. How can they figure that out?
If it’s a long sales process you’ll get the idea eventually. It’s the unspoken thing or it’s what’s holding you back from closing the deal. In smaller sales processes you’ll still probably figure it out over time. It’s just that you figure it out over multiple difficult customers instead of a single customer.
But it’s helpful if you can get a sales advisor or a sales coach. They’re expensive so you wouldn’t want to hire one, probably. But if you can swap favors with someone who is good at it, they’ll help you do postmortems on your sales meetings, all your meetings really.
Ideally, someone who is good at startup early stage. A sales founder would be preferred. Salespeople are too focused on pitching and converting, whereas what you need is someone who’s comfortable with the Mom test stuff or the customer discovery stuff, where they’re exploring and looking for the strong signal.
But what you do is you take good notes during the meetings, and then afterwards you don’t go, “That meeting when well,” cause that gives them no information. What you do is you talk them through the whole meeting, the conversation.
“I said this, then they said this, then I said this, then they say this, then this happened, then this happened. I showed the demo. They asked this.” You just play by play back from your notes. Then it’s like, “What should I have done differently. Did I miss any important questions? What should my next question for them be? What’s the most likely thing that’s going to sink this sail? What do you think they didn’t tell me?”
There are a lot of clues between the lines that someone who’s a bit more experienced with this stuff will be able to immediately pick up. I’m advising a team right now. They’re the best at this ever.
I’m able to be so helpful because every meeting, they take total notes and every week they post all their notes of all the meetings they had that week, and I can just read through all their transcripts. Then I know exactly what they’re missing, the important questions. It’s so, so helpful.
With a lot of other teams, they don’t give me that information. They’re ashamed to reveal the actual facts. They’re just like, “Yeah, we talked to a customer. Went well. I’m sure they’re going to convert soon.” It’s like, “Well I can’t help you.”
So if you want to use a sales helper effectively, you need to take notes and then you need to walk them through it play-by-play, and then they’ll be able to help you with all this stuff. There are some Indie Hackers who are strong at sales, like Louie Swiss. I’m sure there are a bunch of others. So there are people who will help you for free and there are people you can swap favors with.
Shout out to Louis Swiss. We’ll see how many emails he gets asking him for some free help.
He just writes such good stuff. Every time he writes an article about sales and marketing I’m like, “Yeah. That guy’s smart.”
Yeah. He knows what he’s doing. I talked to Hiton Shah on the podcast last year. One of his big rules of thumb is that you should solve problems related to your customers’ top challenges.
This rang true for me because I get a lot of emails pitching me products. A lot of times the products are useful, but they’re just solving problem number 55, or problem number 100 on my list of priorities.
So these founders are solving my problems, but they’re solving problems that quite frankly don’t matter that much to me, so I just don’t end up using them. I worry that so many people are starting companies where they’re solving problems that don’t matter that much. That strikes me as a potential scary question. How do you ask a question to find out if the problem your product solves is important to your customer?
That one you can’t ask directly because they’ll lie to you. It’s a very lie-inducing question because you’re putting people in the moment. You’re leading them there and they have nothing to benchmark it against.
You’re like, “How annoying is it that sometimes your shoes come untied? How annoying is email? How annoying is traffic?” And people are like, “Traffic is super annoying. Traffic’s the worst part of my life.” And it’s like, “Oh, have you thought about bicycling or switching jobs?” And they’re like, “I would never do that. I love my car.”
So just asking how much a problem matters, to me, it means nothing. Whenever I see that on a survey, well first off surveys are a ridiculous waste of time. But you can’t ask people how important their problems are. You need to look at their existing behaviors, and not their aspirations but what they’re already doing.
Say you’re making anything, like a music training app, and you’re like, “Hey, would you love to learn an instrument?” Of course everyone’s going to say, “Yeah, I’d love to be more musical. Who wouldn’t?”
But then it’s like, “Well what are you doing about it? How much time are you currently spending on learning music? How much time have you spent in the last five years?” Then someone’s like, “Well I do nothing now. I gave up. But three years ago I spent a hundred hours on YouTube tutorials. I bought a bunch of books. I was trying to learn this. I looked for a coach but couldn’t find one I trusted in my area. I travel a lot. It’s hard to stay regular.”
You’re like, “Ooh, that’s interesting” Even though right now they’re doing nothing, in their past they’ve devoted resources to this. That’s the main thing I look for. Have they already done something about it? Even if that search resulted in failure, the fact that they attempted it legitimately means a lot to me.
Like security. All sorts of people have bad security but how much have they looked into it? If they haven’t looked into it at all, I’m skeptical no matter how important they claim it is. Whereas if they’re like, “Yeah. I tried all these things, but honestly it’s impossible. There’s always a new phishing attack. There’s always a new scam. Feels like whatever I do I can’t stay on top of it. It’s a nightmare. I did a ton of research and then I just gave up.” That might be a customer.
That’s the non-consumer but maybe a customer, as opposed to the non-consumer who really doesn’t care and will never be a customer. I watch what they’re doing rather than listen to what they’re saying if at all possible.
I love the point you made about seeing where they’re diverting their resources to. Where are they spending their time? Where are they spending their money?
I just read a post on Indie Hackers about how to brainstorm good business ideas, the very first step where you’re trying to come up with an idea before you’ve even talked to anybody. A huge clue is what are companies or customers already spending a ton of money on?
That’s a pretty huge clue that there’s something that’s valuable there. People don’t spend a ton of money on things they don’t care about. So I love this idea of asking a question. “How much time have you spent trying to do this? How much money have you spent doing this? How much do you care?” That’s a shortcut way of asking that.
Exactly. Any sort of attention, it doesn’t have to be money. Money works. Sometimes money can backfire as well. It’s so non-obvious. It’s such a subtle thing to get to the truth. It’s a craft. It’s something you learn about.
I was trying to sell some stuff to universities once. During the talks they’re like, “Yeah, this would do the job that we’ve currently got a team of four fulltime people doing.” I’m doing the mental math and I’m like, “Oh, that’s worth at least a quarter million a year.”
Public salaries and stuff you can figure it out. I’m like, “Oh, wow. This is great.” So I’m only charging them 20 grand a year. That’s a no-brainer. That’s a10x savings. But what I hadn’t realized is a public institution, they’re not allowed to fire anyone. Everyone’s union. Everyone’s protected.
The salaries are already an allocated budget and they can’t just switch salary budget into tool budget. Their tool budget is also already allocated and it’s much smaller. The pitch of “You get to fire four employees,” while that might be compelling business, it’s not compelling to a public institution. So that was a case where the money misled me. I thought because I was saving them $230,000 per year that they would like my software, when in fact it was a total nonstarter.
So there’s this whole broader range of questions where you’re trying to find out details like that about your customers. What do I not know about these people? What are my assumptions might I be having? In this case your assumption was this university operates like a business. At some point you discovered that that wasn’t the case. How did you find that out?
Well, I went out of business was the main way. No, what happens is over time you’ll find some of the people you’re talking to you’ll click with really well, and it’s a phenomenon that I describe as they come around to your side of the table.
It stops feeling like you’re pitching them or interviewing them or learning about them and it starts to feel like they’re on your side helping you to understand the rest of their company or the rest of their industry.
The whole dynamic changes and you feel like all the shields drop. You can just be like, “Listen, I am so confused. I think we’re onto something exciting but I have no idea what we should be doing about this.”
You feel like you can reveal that level of weakness and they don’t see it as weakness. They see it as an opportunity to help. They’re on your side. They’re almost like the customer cofounder. This is what Steve Blank calls his early evangelists.
They’re rare, one in twenty, one in a hundred, but when you find them they’re super precious, and that’s when you can fill in all these blanks about what’s going wrong, and all these weird little quirks of the industry.
You can sometimes also get it a bit more directly by going to industry experts, journalists, investors, founders who have sold a company in this industry and have since quit so they no longer have a competitive interest, executives who were senior in your industry and have recently retired. All of these people are quite bored and they’re happy to share their hard-won expertise about the industry.
You can sit down with a person like that. Now they’re not a customer, so you don’t value their feedback in terms of whether or not people are going to buy your product, but you very much value their feedback in terms of like, “Hey, how does this industry work? What obstacles are going to be standing in my way? If this was your business, what you be most frightened by? What information would you be looking to gather most aggressively?”
I have a couple conversations with an industry expert. I don’t have nearly as many of them as I do with customers. I try to talk to a few customers every week just to keep a steady drip of information coming in, whereas I might talk to one or two industry experts at all, one time. Just do my due diligence.
Obviously, you want to learn as much as you can from Google first, because you don’t want to seem like you’re not respecting their time, but they understand. Even with an industry that seems simple, like online advertising, there’s so much subtlety under the hood that’s not written about anywhere. You need to someone who’s been in that industry for 10 or 20 years to explain to you all the nuance. So they get that, and they’re happy to share their secret knowledge.
Yeah. I see this a lot on Indie Hackers. People confuse talking to potential customers or people who might buy their product with talking to other founders and maybe experts. That’s not the same group of people.
These people are not your users. Unless they are. If you’re selling to startup founders, that’s fine. But if I’m talking to you, Rob, I’m going to be asking you for strategic advice. I’m going to be like, “Rob, how do I talk to customers? Should I send surveys? Should I do whatever?” I’m not going to be asking what’s going on in your life or asking what you think about my landing page or whatever, because your opinion doesn’t matter on that.
I think it’s crazy. They’re not your customers. What do you care what they think? Unless you have a specific ask, like you're a non-native speaker and you’re trying to make sure your language is sharp, but if you’re asking, “What do you think?”
If you're asking them to proofread something, maybe that makes sense. But you said something earlier that I wanted to ask you about, which is that you shouldn’t send surveys, that surveys are ineffective. Number one, why are surveys ineffective, and number two, what are these other forms of communication that you should be using to talk to your customers?
Occasionally someone makes the mistake of sending me a survey and asking me what I think about it or whether it’s good questions. I always just end up being like, “Don’t use surveys.” It makes me so mad. It’s a pet peeve.
The issue with surveys is that anything that fits on a survey, someone else has already done the research about and you could just Google it. Any question you can ask on a survey could be Googled, whereas the things that you can’t ask on a survey, like decision making process or where they get nervous or scared about this area, or the emotional side or the decision making side. That stuff does not come across at all in a survey.
You’re like, “Yeah. I’ll leave a text entry field.” That doesn’t work. You get random ideas and garbage. You can’t evaluate, “Are they customers? Are they fans?” And this is the case where having a big audience works against you cause you get a bunch of people who are fans of yours trying to be helpful.
They’re like, “Well yeah, I’ll go fill this in,” and now your data’s all corrupted. A million pieces of bad data is not as good as one piece of good data. The bad data at scale is still bad data. It becomes worse. It decays. It has negative value because you get more confidence in it, but it’s now statistically significant bad data. That’s not the way to run a business.
If you’re tempted to survey it, Google it. Get what you can from Google, and then sit down with five people in person. I’ve honestly never seen a survey question that I thought was useful, and a lot of people have sent me their surveys to have me look over them.
Maybe if you’re a super non-native speaker and you felt like you could not have a conversation fluidly, I could imagine potentially the survey being a fallback. But I’m still not sure that meaningful insights would come out of that.
I would rather that you look for representative customers in your native languages, learn from them, and then hope that those learnings apply. I think it’s still bad, but that would be a better signal than surveys.
It here really no use for surveys? What about quantitative data, trying to figure out where your users are from, whether or not they know how to code, stuff like that?
After you have a bunch of users, sure. I think it’s a fine to for understanding your existing user base because that has given you a population that is unique and no one else has data on it. It is now the population of your user base. So yes, by all means, to learn about your own user base, sure.
But to do it to validate an idea or to learn about your customers who you don’t yet have. I mean, I'm up for being proven wrong. If someone wants to send me their genius survey that totally fixed their business, I’ll write an edition to The Mom Test and I’ll add it in there, because that would be a breakthrough if you figured out how to do it, but I've never seen one.
But yeah, for your own customers, absolutely. There’s the product market fit survey which seems to be effective. It’s got a lot of data behind it. I've never used them in that way either. I have no opinion, but I could see it being useful. But I know they don’t work for customer discovery.
On the subject of talking to your existing customers, let’s say you have a business that’s working well. You have people using what you're building, and you’re asking them for feedback. I had Sarah Hum on the podcast. She has a company called Canny.
It’s a tool that’s explicitly for requesting user feedback. Your customers can go. They can make suggestions and feature requests. They can file bug reports. They can upload each other’s feature requests. Your left with dozens and dozens of these requests and you have to figure out what to do with them.
It’s probably not the right thing to add them all to your to-do list and work through them one by one. You’ve got to figure out which ones are good, which ones are bad. How do you sort through this kind of customer data?
You just need to ask one or two extra questions. “Why do you want this? What would this let you do that you can’t do already? How often would you use this? How are you getting by now while this doesn’t exist?” That sort of thing. It's the customer discover around the feature request. You’re trying to get one level deeper.
I think of it a bit like a metal detector. The feature request is the metal detector going beep, beep, beep. That is not the information. That shows you that there’s information below ground, but you need to dig to get it. So to me, the feature request is the beep, beep, beep, but then the follow up question is how you dig underneath to get to the real insight.
What normally happens is the customers have a goal or a problem or a frustration but they want to be helpful so they take the extra jump and turn that goal or frustration into a feature request, and then they give you the feature request. I don't know why, but that’s what they do.
Then you need to reverse engineer that and go back from the feature request to the original goal or frustration. Sometimes they’re correct and you build exactly what they want but other times you’re the product the visionary. Other times you can find a much better way to accomplish their goal or deal with their frustration.
So even the appropriate response to getting feature requests is to ask more questions and dig deeper?
If possible. I feel like this is a place where Indie Hackers probably aren’t struggling. You know what to do with feature requests. You’re probably not just blindly building every feature request you get. You’re probably already dealing with them somehow. I'm not sure I have massive value to add on that one.
But something I would suggest is to find some excuse to have a couple customer conversations each week, like one or two, not a huge amount. Two or three, maybe, and try a way to make that time efficient.
There’s a huge time cost to organizing a meeting from scratch. Commuting and following up and taking notes and all that stuff, the calendar dance. Huge time cost. It takes half a day when you could have been programming and stuff.
So what you want to do make this sustainable, especially if you’re still part time, is you want to find moments in your week when you already have incidental contact with your potential customers or your current customers, and then use that opportunity to ask a couple more questions. Support tickets and feature requests work well for this purpose.
You’re a product person. You can intuit what the feature request means, maybe. You get it. But if you can use that when the customer has already reached out to you instead of you reaching out them and use that as a cheap and easy way to transition into a little learning conversation, you can get a lot of value with a very low time cost.
So sometime when I say, “Yeah, I have a couple customer conversations each week,” people are horrified. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, my schedule.” But it’s like, “No, no, no. find the ones that are in your life.”
If there are zero customers in my life, that’s worrying. Can you do something to put more customers in your life? When I was serving universities, instead of going to drink at a regular bar, I would go to drink at the university bars, specifically the ones that the professors went to.
I was in contact with them. I got to know a few of them, and once you’re buddies with one professor, it’s easy to talk to all the others. It meant that I would go there once a week or something. I would go to the pub and I’d have a couple pints. I’d talk to five or ten professors or school administrators or whatever.
It was like, cool, that’s my customer learning done for the week. It doesn’t need to be a huge task. Songkick, a London startup around live music, every Friday they threw a party and invited 50 of their most active users who were based in London to come to their office. They hired a band. They had a ton of food and beer, and they had their team mingle with customers.
It’s like hey, hang out with them. Have some beers Friday after lunch, hang out. No more work. From that, the user experience team would be pulling people aside and be like, “Hey, if you’re interested we’d love to show you the upcoming version of the app. We’re going to be video recording it. Do you want to come see what’s new?” people are like, “Yeah.”
So boom, they’re getting their user tests. They’re getting their casual customer conversations. Everyone’s staying empathetic with their users. That was a consumer app, but you can do it with business, too.
You can do the business lunch, organize a meetup, go to meetups. There are so many ways, for example, meetups. I’ll mention this one, and then I’ll be done with these little tactical tips. Everyone screws up meetups and events. They go to a meetup or event in pure sales mode. They go, “Hello. I am Rob Fitzpatrick. I am an entrepreneur. I have a business. This is what my business does. What do you do?”
And the other person gives the same pitch and it’s like, “Great. Good to meet you. It sounds like we could do business together. Let’s exchange business cards and set up a meeting,” and then they both ignore each other, because that’s a zero-value conversation for both sides.
But that was a potential customer, and you’ve just wasted that opportunity. You wasted a conversation to try to set up a meeting. That is insane. You could have just asked what you wanted to ask in the meeting during that conversation.
My whole life changed when I started - well, not my whole life, but my whole customer development life - when I started going to meetups. I stopped bringing business cards. I'm like, this is not for pitching.
Someone would come up to me and they’d be like, “Oh, blah, blah, blah. I do this. I do this,” and they’d give me their business card. I wouldn’t even tell them who I was. I’d just be like, “Hey, super weird question. How do you guys deal with email security,” and boom, I'm in a discovery conversation. They’re there to chat.
And they love it because you’re the first person who hasn’t tried to pitch them, and then after that if it turns out they are relevant, you’ve had a real conversation. You’ve got a relationship started.
Then it’s easy to have the meeting cause you already know you’re relevant and valuable to each other. So just stop pitching. Pitching should always be the last thing you do, never the first thing you do.
How does it look over email? Cause I get a lot of emails from people who are like, “Hey, Courtland. Here’s what I'm building. Can I get your opinion?” And I'm like, “Well, that sounds like a lot of time.”
And on the flipside sometimes people will be, “Hey, can we get a quick lunch or meeting?” And that sounds like even more time. What’s the best way to solicit someone’s feedback or start one of these customer conversations over email if you’re trying to validate your idea?
It’s super hard over email. There’s as section in the book. I think it’s Chapter 7, where it’s like, how do you get these meetings? I divided it into the cold approaches and the warm approaches, inbound and outbound let’s say.
There are a bunch of tactical suggestions for how to cold approach people. But it’s deeply inefficient. You have to email a hundred people to get one good conversation, and that’s a huge waste of your time. It’s ironic because the whole reason people do the emails is cause they think it’s going to be more efficient.
And then they send a hundred emails. They’ve been rejected 99 times. They’re sad. They’re depressed. They’re crying. They’ve got no energy left to program. Their tear-stained fingers are slipping on the keyboard. It’s brutal to be rejected that many times in a row. Even if you rationally know it doesn’t matter, it gnaws at your soul.
When I talk to people they’re like, “Who do I talk to?” And they always rank their leads by potential or profitability or how important they are. I think that’s the wrong way to do it. I think what you should do is you should rank your leads by friendliness and ease of contact.
Then start with the friendliest ones first. You have to know someone through your extended network who’s representative of a customer, someone your dad used to work with. Someone he used to go to the same university as you. Someone who used to work at the same company as you.
If you start thinking about it, you can start to find these people you have some conversation with, some excuse to get a coffee or catch up or say hello. You start with those friendly people who will talk to you for no reason at all.
As you start answering the obvious questions, it’s the low-hanging fruit. It would be crazy to go to an apple tree and be like, “I sure want an apple. I'm going to get the one at the top first.” You start with the apples you can reach and then you work your way up.
So start with the easy leads. Don’t worry about the scalability because after five conversations you’re going to know a lot, a lot more than you knew at zero conversations. Some of those people you talk to will be like, “Wow, you’re really authentic and you’re trying to improve my work and my industry. Yeah. I know some more people who would be into this,” and it starts branching out from there.
So I see people worry way too much about scaling their conversations, but you don’t need that many. Once you get started, more become available. So start with the easy ones. See what happens.
And the last thing you want to do is start with your most important conversation, do one of these crazy things. There are these stories of sitting in some company’s lobby for 20 days until they talk to you. What a waste of time. And that’s your first conversation? You’re definitely going to screw it up. You want to burn your friendly bridges first, because they’re more fireproof. Friendly bridges don’t burn. So start with those.
Is there ever a point where you stop talking to customers? I know you said you’re still doing two or three customer conversations a week. What if you feel like you’ve learned what you need to know, your business is doing well? It’s growing. Would you still set aside time to talk to customers? If so, what should you be asking them about?
I like it, but the ultimate business hack is to choose customers who you like hanging out with. I like hanging out with authors and now I'm building software for authors. It’s like, “Well that’s fun. I love talking to people about their books. It excites me.”
So a lot of my friends like writing books and I find them interesting. If you can do that, that’s a little life hack. It doesn’t feel like such work. But if you can't do that, there are times when you get into a deep slog where it’s like, “Okay. I've gained all the validation and all the evidence and all the learning I can and I just need to crack this hard technical problem. I need the 3D renderer. I need the hardware to be better.” It just has to happen and you go into the tank for 6 months or 12 months and you just get it done.
There’s also some stuff like content marketing. You’re like, “Okay. This business is going to grow via mailing list and blog.” You don’t want to be looking at your metrics every day or even every week. You want to be like, “I'm going to commit to this strategy for at least three months. I'm going to hit it hard, and then I'm going to reevaluate.”
Cause one week’s worth of content marketing is as good as zero weeks of content marketing. You need to put enough wood behind that arrow for it to do anything. So it’s like slogs. You commit to the plan and there more data can hurt you, because it can sway you when what you need to be doing is following through with your plan and seeing it to its conclusion.
But then you reach the next plateau and you look around. Then you want to reengage with customers. It’s very hard to rebuild the customer habit if you’ve let it slide for too long. It’s a different way of working, so I like to keep it fresh.
It’s part of my weekly job, right? Stay in contact with a couple customers. It’s not that big a deal. Email a couple, be like, “Hey, how’s it going. Just checking in on you.” Don’t send an automated email to a thousand of them. Just hand email a few of them.
You’re like, “Hey, checking in,” or like, “Hey, I saw you sent a support ticket,” or “Hey, thanks for your feature request, or saw you made an Amazon review.” Whatever. I don't know. Stop making it so hard would be my thought.
If you feel like it’s miserable and hard, then stop making yourself do the hard thing and start finding a way to make it easier and less miserable. But yes, it’s really good for your business if you can get into that habit.
You’re making everything sound so easy and pleasant. But I guess it doesn’t have to be hard or difficult.
It’s changing a difficult variable. Everyone does it the hard way and tries to make themselves work harder and be braver. But I think that’s stupid. It’s better to accept that you’re lazy and cowardly, then make it easy enough so that you can do it anyway.
That’s my whole strategy with life, with dating, with business, with customer conversations. I'm not going to try to make myself more brave. I'm going to try to make the situation more easy, bring it down to my level.
We’re going to have to have another episode, all about you giving dating advice, Rob.
I wrote that book once but I had beta readers and everything. It was a fifth draft and I just deleted the whole thing. I'm too ashamed to publish this. I have opinions, but I do not want to release them to the world.
Well listen, Rob. You’ve shared a lot of great opinions, a lot of good advice so far in this episode. You’ve written an entire book about this, too. It’s called The Mom Test. I feel like we’ve barely the surface.
There’s so much in there about how to talk to your customers, what questions to ask in which situations. I recommend everybody go out and buy it. It’s short. It took me two hours to read it. It’s only 120 pages or something crazy.
Yeah. You could probably read it in the time it takes to listen to this.
Yeah, you probably could. The audience listening to this is full of first-time founders and people who want to become founders. You started numerous companies. You’ve done so much around customer conversations and sales. What tips would you leave them with if they’re just getting started as indie hackers?
I’ll give one about customer conversations and then one about startups in general. About customer conversations, think of it like a craft or hands on skill like skateboarding or pottery and be willing to fall on your ass a few times.
It’s not science or math. You can read it in the book and you’ll get the framework and you’ll know what you’re trying to try, but you’ve still got to go practice. You’ve going to have some embarrassing moments and some whoopsies, but you get good at saying sorry.
If you’re respectful of people’s time and your authentic, everyone loves an entrepreneur so you get a lot of benefit of the doubt. Because what you’re trying to do is understand the worst part of their life and make it less bad. That’s a noble goal.
I know there are exceptions. You might be trying to screw them out of money or abuse their gambling addictions or sell them fake drugs. There are some evil businesses. But assuming you’re a good founder making a meaningful business, you’re probably trying to help people and build something that’s good for their life. So that’s cool. People like that.
It gives you a lot of forgiveness for your mistakes. I've said such dumb things in meetings that should have been so offensive, and people just laugh. I've even had people be like, “Look, I know what you’re trying to do here. You’re doing it wrong. Let me help you out. Let me tell you how this works.”
It switches from a me trying to sell them meeting to a them coaching me about how I should be trying to sell them meeting. People are kindhearted to entrepreneurs if you’re trying to do good work.
So yeah, be willing to make your mistakes. It’s like skateboarding. You’re going to fall over a bit, but give it a try. Find ways where you’ve made it easy enough. You’ve chosen the low-hanging fruit and the friendly first contacts, such that falling over isn’t overly painful.
You want to be able to make your early mistakes in a safe environment where it doesn’t make you miserable or terrified. And then as you get more confident, you realize, “Oh, I'm ready to get into bigger situations now, approach strangers” and whatever.
Then in general, for business and for startups, I think it’s helpful to figure out what you want from the business in terms of your own life and the sort of life you want to lead, because a lot of the Silicon Valley approach is like, you sell your company and then life beings.
That narrative, though, I tried to do that for my first company. We went through YC. We raised a bunch of money. We had good customers. We worked out butts off for four years and we were miserable.
We were like, “But it’s going to be worth it because we’re going to get our private island and our helicopter.” Then we failed anyway, and suddenly that sacrificed four years suddenly didn’t feel so good. It only feels good if you succeed, whereas since then I’ve tried to be like, “Okay. Well what’s my day-to-day life that I want? What are the activities I want to spend my time doing?”
For example, I hate marketing, so I don’t choose businesses that rely on marketing. I choose businesses that allow me to talk to customers I like and hang out with them and spend time with them and build cool little products that don’t need a big support team. It’s like, “Oh, that’s great, and nothing I need to show up to work for. I can do it from my home or do it from a café.”
You can make those choices. I see way too many people focused on the exit and not enough focused on how many hours per day am I going to be spending on the activities I like versus the ones I don’t like, and will I get to hang out with people I like and admire, or people I'm cynical about?
For me, that’s been a huge night and day shift in the way I chose my ideas, and everything’s been a lot more fun and a lot more successful since I started approaching it that way.
But anyway, it’s exciting. I wish you guys luck, and you can find all my email and everything at robfitz.com, and links to the book. I'm [email protected], and I’m on Indie Hackers and always happy to answer your questions about this stuff if you’ve got any.
Rob, thanks so much for coming on the show.
It’s been my great pleasure. Thank you for having me, Courtland.
Listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this episode I would love it if you would reach out to me and let me know. I am @csallen on Twitter. That’s C-S-A-L-L-E-N. Feel free to just send me a tweet. Give me your feedback. Tell me your thoughts. Send me some suggestions as to who I should have on the show.
I'm trying to mix it up and do a few more educational episodes like this one every month, in addition to, of course, three or so interviews every month and maybe some debates and discussions. Again, that’s @csallen on Twitter. Thank you so much for listening, and I will see you next time.
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