Rob Fitzpatrick is a serial entrepreneur and author of the classic customer research book, The Mom Test. Rob talks to us about the importance of customer research as it applies to your business through the various stages of growth. Here are just a few of the topics we’ll discuss in this episode:
The incredibly cool story of how The Mom Test came to be Conducting customer research through different stages of growth Overcoming objections to customer research How to make customer research a routine Why sales is all about having learning goals The importance of forming organizational habits
Reaching out to Rob
Send Rob and email at email@example.com
Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Customer Conversations podcast. I'm cohost Sean Boyce, and I want to welcome my guest today, Rob Fitzpatrick. Rob has experienced building both startups and businesses for 13 years. He's been through Y Combinator and he has written a very popular book, one of my favorites called The Mom Test. He has previous experience in tech, but he has migrated since into sales. Hi, Rob, how are you? And welcome to the show.
I'm doing great. Thank you for having me, Sean.
Excellent. Super happy to have you here. As I've said before, and Mom Test is one of my favorite books. I recommend it constantly. For anyone listening, or hasn't actually read this book before, I'd highly recommend it, but Rob, if you could give us a little bit of your background, talk about the work that you've done, perhaps what you're working on now.
I started as ... well, I wanted to be an academic because I thought it was free of bureaucracy, unlike the corporate world, and when I was halfway through my masters, I realized that I'd been terribly wrong and that there was some bureaucracy, let's say, in academia. I see my friends who are professors struggling with tenure and whatnot. I really just wanted a direct connection between the work I was doing and the reward I got. I didn't want to have to play the games. At about that time, I read some of Paul Graham's essays, and he was starting up Y Combinator, and I thought, oh, startups seemed like a great idea. I didn't know anything about it, but I basically took my academic research. I pitched it to YC. They said, "No, that's a terrible idea. That'll never work and it'll never scale."
I was like, "Why did you fly me to California just to be mean to me?" It's a 10 minute pitch. You have 10 minutes to get the funding. We were now like four minutes into it, and PG says, "Well, we really like your team. If you can come up with an idea that doesn't suck and which does scale, we'll fund it." I was like, oh man, I've only got six minutes. He goes, "Hurry." I was like, "Will you help." And he goes, "Okay." We had a little idea jam, and by the end of it, he said that he would fund us. I jumped into startups knowing nothing about them, and we made a tremendous number of mistakes. I really believe there are some basic education that you should have before you try to get into it.
There's just some concepts like we're building a viral consumer app and we didn't know what a viral loop was. We were just woefully under prepared, but we had a great time, and some good people believed in us, and we tried, and the superpower, the entrepreneurs, the people who want to believe in you and support you. We ended up getting some big customers like Sony and MTV, and we raised some funding from good investors, but we ultimately went out of business three, four years in. I was pretty bummed out. After that, I switched more into freedom oriented, lifestyle oriented businesses, because I felt like I was burned out, I was broke. I'd been real beaten up by that first scalable business, so I was like, ah, I'm just going to take care of me for a bit.
I want to time to study and to think, and to relax. I ran a couple of little businesses. I switched into the education industry, built two or three products for universities, and then started up an agency business designing educational curriculums. Ran that for about three years, got that up to a million bucks a year. It was a good little business. There were only four people, so it was pretty profitable. But the founders all had different goals, so we peacefully shut it down, took our dividend, moved on. Since then, I've been ... Well, after that, I took two or three years off to mess around on my boat.
I brought it from London to Spain via the French canals. I thought I wanted to lay about at that point, and then I realized I quite like working, so settled down at Barcelona. Now I've got a little team of four, working with my best friend, my girlfriend, some other buddies, and we're building tools for independent authors, trying to mess with the publishers because I don't like the way they approach business, and I want to undermine them.
Very cool. That's a very interesting background, I will say. I love the kind of organic path that you've taken. I have to say I've followed something similar myself as I kind of realized what it is that I want to be working on, things I want to be doing. Curious to learn more about this sailing expertise that you've been picking up on. I was reading more about that as well, too. How did you get into that?
Sailing has always been on my bucket list. My parents met as a sailboat crew. My dad was a captain and my mom was a cook. She'd been a nurse, and basically, through some sort of crazy bureaucracy, had been forced to stand by and watch terrible things happen. So, she was like, screw it. She was in London. She's like, "Screw it. I'm a student nurse. This is garbage. I need a vacation." She went out to Spain, and while she was there, someone was like, "Do you want a job on this boat? She was like, "All alright." Met my dad and they ended up getting stranded in America. They were both British, and so that's where I ended up being born and growing up. So, it was never something I did, but it was always something that was kind of in my history.
It was on my bucket list. Oh yeah, someday I'd like to learn to sail. Then one year when I was super stressed about work and bummed out and wasn't really feeling the startups, and it was more stress than value for my life at the time, my buddy and co-founder, he got me the introductory sailing course, the five-day course to learn the basics. Then my next birthday, a year later, I realized I still hadn't used the coupon he gave me, and I was so embarrassed. I was like, "Oh man, I got to just schedule this." My head was up my ass. I was just so stressed about my business. I wasn't living life. I did it cynically. I was like, "I'm not going to like this, but let's give it a try." I came back from that five-day course. You spend five days on the boat, the next day I woke up, it was a Saturday morning. I was in bed. I picked up my laptop, I opened eBay, and I clicked buy it now on a sailboat.
That's awesome. I love the story. I can't say I haven't had similar experiences. I think it's important to find that mix, that balance of like, so passionate about the things that we do, but I think it's also important to step away and have those mental breaks and pick up other skills, and I think that's super complimentary to the work that we do, so that's cool. Keep me posted on the expeditions. I'm always interested to learn more about that. Next question I have for you, of course, is I've always wanted to hear the story as well, so but how did The Mom Test come to be? Because I'm obviously a big fan.
Well, very kind of you. There's two parts of this. There's the me figuring out the skill and then actually writing it as a book. Figuring out the skill was just like, man, I think it's so hard for people who are good, naturally good at sales, to empathize with people who are naturally bad at sales. And I was definitely on the bad at sales side of the spectrum. Most investors are pretty good with people, or they've already reached a point in their career where they're like, they've figured it out already. Paul Graham was like, "Just talk to your users. Just go talk to them, talk to them." I'm just like, "Man, I'm trying it. Nothing's working. I'm getting lied to." Then our next investors out in London, they were like, "Yeah, just go talk to them, just go sell. You got to hustle."
I'm like, "I don't know how," and I was reading every book on sales. I was trying to apply it, and I was telling people what I was doing, and they're saying, "Yeah, that sounds correct. It sounds like you're doing everything right, but we just weren't getting the results." At the time, we were burning not a huge amount. We were still a small team, but we were burning, say 20 grand a month, and I'm like, Man, my failures in these meetings are costing us 20 grand a month because I just can't move the company forward." We would occasionally get a lucky deal, where just the stars aligned, and it happened to work out, but it wasn't repeatable. I didn't really understand why it was working or not working. Eventually, one of my advisors, a dude named Peter Reed, who's amazing, we were chatting with him catching up. The advisory board is so helpful.
He was saying, "Listen, you guys have been struggling with the Sony Pictures deal for months. I'm going to be in LA next month. Why don't you guys fly out at the same time, we'll go into Sony Pictures together and we'll chat with them." I said, "All right, amazing." We went out there, we showed up in the cheapest rental car imaginable, because we were basically scraping the bottom of the bank account. He shows up in this red convertible, he's like, "It's Los Angeles. You got to live a little." We went into this meeting and I started my normal meeting pattern. After just a matter of minutes, he cut me off and he took over the meeting, and he basically ran the meeting and I played support.
At the end of it, he goes, "All right, I know exactly what you're doing wrong." And I was like, "I see exactly what I'm doing wrong." It wasn't until that moment where I was really confronted. There's this idea called a pseudo teaching, where if you tell people the correct answer, they'll map their current behavior to what you said. They'll reinterpret their behavior, and I was doing that with sales. People were like, don't ask leading questions, do this, do this. I was like, "Oh yeah, I'm doing that." I was just shifting my understanding of my behavior to fit what I was hearing. When he actually saw me in the act and when I saw him in the act, I suddenly understood my mistakes. After that, boom, my learning opened, and we were too late.
That was like two and a half years into the business already. By three years it was clear that we didn't have the runway to continue. The 2008 financial crisis happened just as we were raising our first big rounds. Suddenly, our business was worth half of what it was worth the day before. People are going through that now as well. Anyways, so that business had to shut down. But in the following year, I was like, ah, I now have this nugget of truth, which pointed me in the right direction. By talking to other entrepreneurs, especially a guy named Salim [Virani 00:09:27] , who now lives out in Bulgaria. He's a Canadian Indian entrepreneur.
Working with him and we're doing this customer development stuff together and we're swapping notes and lean startup was a new thing, and we're comparing how it worked with that. Eventually, it sort of clicked into place. Then, through the education agency I set up, we helped set up a lot of accelerators across Europe. Basically, the accelerators were happening in California and New York, and then they came to London and we helped set up some of them there and deliver their education programs. Then, as that wave pushed East through Europe, through central Europe, then Eastern Europe, and then down to the Middle East and Africa, we basically followed that wave and we helped them design their education and mentoring programs.
That gave me a chance, and we would teach them the first couple of cohorts, we would deliver the education and the mentoring, and then, we would hand it off to their in house trainers. That gave me just like a three year crash course in working with other entrepreneurs. I realized that of all the things I thought I knew, the one that was valuable and unique was this Mom Test idea. I was like, okay, great. I'm adding value. I'm happy, but I'm building a business. I'm doing other stuff. Then the way I actually wrote it down as a book is, I got drunk at this bar with another dude named Rob. It was like on the backend of this startup meetup we had, where the only rule was, you're not allowed to say anything nice about your own business, your own product.
You're only allowed to talk about the problems you have. Like, if you said anything positive about your business, you just got kicked out and weren't invited back, and it became this great. We had 50 people every week just being like, "I am so screwed," and it really revealed the weakness and allowed us to help each other. I met a lot of co-founders and great business partners that way. But this dude, Rob, the first time I met him, we got super drunk. By the end of it, he'd been like, "Oh, what are you doing for New Years?" And I'm like, "Nothing." He's like, "I'm going to Bavaria with my wife's family. You should come with us." And I was like, "Yeah."
I woke up the next morning and there's a message from him, and he's like, "I know that was a terrible idea, but if you want to come to Bavaria, the offer is still open." I showed up there, and the father-in-law was just this dominating, a super alpha dawn of a small Bavarian village. He owns the power company and the sewage plant, and the one bar, and the one bowling alley, and keep shut down. He's just so dominating. They put me in this little cottage on their property with no internet and no TV and nothing. He was such a personality that I just felt I had to get away from him. He was wonderful and charming and super hospitable, but I needed some time. I was there for like 10 days, and so I just sat in this cabin in Bavaria with no media and no contact with anything. I had a blank notebook, and I just wrote the whole first draft in that week.
Wow. That's amazing. It's such a cool story. The things that you had mentioned as well, too, with regard to sales and the challenges and struggles on the earlier side of things. I'm an ex techie as well, too, I guess probably a terrible techie still, but I struggled to make that transition as well, too. As far as like, when I was trying to learn sales, I was reading a lot of what people were telling me to read, and it really wasn't helping. The epiphany that I had sounds like an epiphany you had at some point as well, too, obviously to create something like the Mom test, but epiphany that I ultimately had was starting with the problem. That was it. At the time, I didn't know, because I'd seen so many bad examples of sales, I thought that was how sales was done.
I thought the salesperson did most of the talking, not most of the listening, and that was completely wrong too. Once I found out that like, everything starts with a problem. Everything has to start with a problem. Without that, it's just ... Until you get there, you're not there and you can't really make progress, so the Mom Test seriously helps me reinforce that.
Well, it was such a relief for me to discover that. Exactly what you said, because I'd always carried this deep seated belief that sales was sleazy and pushy, and that's not the way I wanted to interact with the people I was trying to serve. It only feels sleazy if the product's not right for the people it's built for, because then you're trying to fit the square into the circle. It's like you're trying to push and you have these perverse incentives where your short-term gains come at their long-term expense. Once I realized that, like, okay, sure, that's a problem if you get yourself into a bad situation, but once you're aware of that, and if you start earlier in the process, you can make sure that if it's a square hole, you're building a square.
If they don't align, you just spend longer in product development until they do a line. Then by the time you're ready to tell people about it, it's like, they're like, wow, thank goodness you brought this to my life because I was in pain, and now this thing's here. Suddenly, I was like, whoa, I'm not being sleazy. I'm adding value, or I'm helping them. It was such a switch for me. I still think I'm not an optimal sales person, and I'm never going to be an optimal sales person, but I think that's actually okay in the stages. Sometimes being an optimal sales person is a bit too short term, where what you want to be is like a learning machine, where you're trying to figure out, I think you're going to love this. Do you love it? Oh, you don't quite love it. Let me go back to product. Let me understand why you don't love it. You're trying to find this love fit, where it really plugs into people's lives and makes them happier.
Absolutely. Couldn't agree more. Yeah, it's more of a process, like a cycle to go through. It's like your work's never done, and it shouldn't really be thought of like that, at least in my opinion. There's always more to do. There's always other problems. I refer back to other books that I'm a big fan of as well, too, like The Goal, and things like that, and The Phoenix Project, where they talk about finding the bottleneck and eliminating it. Once you eliminate one problem, that was the top problem. Now something else is the top problem, but it's your job to find it. Yeah, I think it's an outstanding framework and it really helps shape how to do that particular job. Well, and it's been an inspiration, and it has offered a lot of help to a lot of product people that I know, a lot of people that I work with.
We need to better understand here's how ... We don't just build stuff and then push it out to market. That's bad product, that's bad sales. It's like you said, trying to force a square peg in a round hole. Instead, you need to find out what type of box you should be building. The only way to do that is to find out what the actual shape of the peg is, and you have to do it by following the framework and guide laid out there in the book.
I feel like we maybe started too abstract if you don't know what the book's about. The idea is people always expect customers to tell them what to build. It's like, hey customer, do you like this? What should I change? What should I build? What features does it need? What I learned is that that just doesn't work. When you ask people about your product, you tend to get compliments and opinions, which aren't very useful. What I eventually realized is that there's two phases. Steve Blank figured this out, but whatever. But the first stage is just like, I want to understand my customers like I understand a friend.
When you're buying a present for a friend, you're able to get them ... the better the friend, the better you understand their life, the better the present you're able to surprise them with, because you understand what their life is like and what they've already got, and don't got, and what they need, and what they're trying to accomplish, and what frustrates them. And you can give them something that they didn't necessarily explicitly requests, but which delights them and which fits right into their life. Equally, sometimes you know your best friend and you get it wrong, and that's why you include a gift receipt. Then, okay, fine. We'll try again. But if you're starting, if it's someone, a stranger, imagine buying a birthday present for a stranger, it's impossible. You get them something generic, something that's okay, but they don't love it. They never love it.
The first goal of customer conversations, it's not about your idea at all. It's just understanding them like you understand your close friends. That's discovery. You don't even mention your idea. You just ask about their life. What are you already doing? Why are you doing it that way? What else should be tried? What didn't work? Then you can switch into the second phase, which you might consider the actual giving of the gift itself, where it's like, hey, does this fit into your life? They usually confirm or reject that with their behavior. They either give you money for it, or they use it every day, or they introduce you to their boss, or they make a polite excuse and get away. That's the flow. It's like, not expecting people to tell you what to build, but trying to empathetically understand them as best you can, and then be like, "I think this is what you need." And get the commitment to confirm or reject it, and then try again.
Absolutely. One part of the story I always love telling too, and perhaps there's no better person to tell it than you would, in terms of the title and where the title came from. Every time I mention the title, I get a good reaction, and I end up telling that part of the story. If you could also let us know why it's called The Mom Test.
It's because people say like, you shouldn't ask your mom if your business is a good idea, because your mom loves you and she loves everything you do, and she believes in you blindly, so you're going to get biased feedback. People say, don't ask your friends for feedback. Don't ask your parents for feedback, but I actually think that's the wrong conclusion. It's the correct observation, but the wrong conclusion. The correct conclusion, I believe, is that you shouldn't ask anyone for their opinions about your ideas. Rather, you should frame the question in such a way that even the most biased person, your own mother, can't lie to you. If I say, "Hey mom, what do you think of my cookbook business?" She's going to say, "Oh, it's great."
If I say, "Hey mom, when's the last time you bought a cookbook?" she's going to say, "20 years. Why would I need another cookbook?" By just shifting it from being less about your idea and more about their life, boom, suddenly you're getting truth, and hard truths. Then you can go away and cry in your closet and then come out and decide like, okay, what do I need to change about my business and my product to make it work with this customer reality?
Yep, and so the cycle repeats. That always gets a great reaction, by the way. I love that story. Having said that, another area that, or what I wanted to move into, and it comes from the work that The Mom Tests talks about how to do it, is this importance of customer research, and doing it as you're building your business, your B2B SaaS business, your software business, whatever it is that you're building, whether it's early stage or you're on a rocket ship and it's experiencing hyper growth. The importance of customer research. Why you should be doing it, when you should be doing it, how much of it you should be doing. Can you give me, and us, a little bit of guidance here in terms of a framework, as far as, what should that process look like through the various stages of building a business?
If you're completely entering a brand new industry that you have no idea about, you should probably take a while to just talk to people, but a lot of startups, assuming you've already gone through that, or assuming you're starting your business in a field where you already have some expertise and some contacts like you had a career in that or whatever, there's a couple myths and ways people get this wrong. I think probably the biggest myth is the idea that you do all your customer research upfront and then you know exactly what to build and you just build the perfect thing. It's like lining up the cannon shot and then it's going to be perfect. What I found is that the, and this was observed by Steve Blank in his book, Four Steps to the Epiphany.
He said each step of customer contact you do allows you to make a smarter set of decisions on the next cluster, a product decisions, and each time your product advances, that allows you to get more information out of your customer conversations. He said, you don't do one before the other, you do them both in parallel, and they're feeding into each other. The product allows you to get more information from your customer conversations, and the customer conversations are affecting your product trajectory. The way I implement that in my teams, and what I recommend people do, is I never like to think about customer learning in terms of weeks or months. Whenever I hear someone saying how many weeks or how many conversations, I'm like, "You're doing a super wrong."
I like to hear about it in terms of an ongoing commitment of time per week that you're going to do for the life of your company. This might go up and down depending on the stage and your immediate priorities, but if someone says, "Well, we always do 10 sales calls or 20 customer support tickets per week." What we've done is we've just made a habit of the first five minutes of those conversations we use for customer discovery. I'm like, "Ooh, very nice. I like that. Because that's a low time cost. It's not so time consuming that you're going to abandon it. I like that, and that's an easy, ongoing, weekly commitment, which will ensure that no matter what you're working on, there's going to be this flow of learning coming in to sanity check you.
If you're early stage and you don't yet have the sales meetings or the support tickets, someone might say, once a week I go to an industry event and I don't even tell them what I'm working on. I have these learning goals and I just chat to people about how they're dealing with those things. Brilliant. You've turned one meetup into 20 customer interviews without having to schedule any. Very efficient use of your time. You have to go in there with learning goals. You have to be a bit weird about, I'm suddenly taking notes at a bar room conversation, but that's doable. One of my favorite little hacks was some buddies of mine, the founders of Songkick, it's a London app ... They've exited now, but they ran it for about seven years.
It's a London app for live music. It helped people find concerts that were coming near them. It's like, oh, we see from Spotify that you're into these bands. We think you'll like this concert, they're showing up next week. They did so incredibly. They went through YC. They were in our YC group in 2007, and they were going great. They raised money from really good investors. Then once the team got to like 30, 40 people, their momentum sort of stopped. The product had gotten fairly complicated, it had a lot of different features. There was a lot of technical debt and organizational debt they were dealing with. They were arguing over, should we do this or that? They made a whole host of changes. But one that I loved is they started running a Friday afternoon party in their office.
Because it was a mobile app and they had location, because they had to for the basic service, they basically found their most passionate users in London, and they emailed them, a subset of them each week, and they said, "Hey, we're throwing a party on Friday at our office. We know you love the app. We're going to have live music, beer. You can meet the team. We'd love for you to come in." So, every Friday, they would have their 40 team members and 40 of their most passionate users. They didn't really have an agenda. They're just like, hey everyone, just hang out, have drinks. We got a great band playing.
That gave them this habit of contact with their real users, and suddenly, all of these arguments between the engineering team and the product team and the blah, blah, blah disappeared, because they were like, "Oh no, I talked to someone on Friday. He said this." And everyone's like, "Oh yeah, we heard the same thing." Suddenly, as the organization grows, it's so common for the customer learning to slow down. It's really easy when it's a couple of founders. You're thrashing around, you're having some conversations, you're hustling it. But as it gets more organizational, I think you need to change from these personality driven customer contact.
It's like me, I'm learning everything. Trust me. I've got all the knowledge to these more organizational habits. I love when I hear founders talking in those sorts of terms. How do you make it sustainable? How do you make it low time costs? How do you make it a weekly habit that's going to sanity check all your decisions, not just your current decision?
That's excellent. I think also that's a really creative way to do it. I've heard of other people doing similar things, where they run events and happy hours with their customers. They use that as an opportunity, like you said, just interact with them. You get more of that qualitative data, that feedback, and that what you articulated too, in terms of like before, where they were butting heads, now all of a sudden, everybody's on the same page because they heard the same story. That's such a great way to drive everyone in the right direction, which is the direction the customer wants to go anyway. [crosstalk 00:26:21].
Imagine a big product argument. It could drag on for weeks, but you just say, "Hey, let's just table this. We'll talk to some people on Friday and figure it out." Boom, and then everyone can move on to productive tasks. Right?
Absolutely. Get everybody rowing in the right direction. Right? It's just hard enough to do without that amount of data. Those experiences are excellent. Fantastic. Another question I have is, what are some of the common objections you hear to doing customer research? I've been there, I've built products without doing customer research and there were embarrassing failures, so I have the scars to know why it's so important, but those that don't, or haven't prioritized it, or maybe got lucky or whatever, what are some of the objections you hear? Then, what is your response to those objections around customer research?
I'll try to give objections from both the technical side and from the salesy executive side. The tech objection is always, we could be coding, and this is busy work and it's a waste of time, and this is why I wanted to put it off for so long. It was part, it was emotionally draining and scary because you're facing real world rejection, and you believe that if the product is better, you won't get rejected. If the product is sufficiently well engineered, the world will throw a parade in your honor, but that's just not true. Also, I hadn't realized that, if you're building something people really care about, they're excited to talk about it. People love talking about their problems. That whole like is it good enough? It only needs to be good enough if you're acting like an asshole and trying to pitch it like it's perfect.
Like, we're changing the world. We're the most incredible entrepreneurs ever, look at our innovation. Well, yeah, then it needs to be pretty damn good. But if you're saying like, "Hey, I think you're suffering from an important problem and we're trying to deal with it, and we'd love to hear what you think," then you don't need any product at all. A big part of, I think, the obsession with how finished is the product comes from a place of ego and vanity. If you go in with humility and you're willing to reveal that you're trying to figure it out and you care, but you don't have all the answers, suddenly that fear disappears. That's one side on the tactical piece.
The other one on the technical piece is like, we could be coding. This is a waste of time. But actually, how long does a big feature take? Months, maybe of a team, say four engineers with a month? That's what? 40 grand 50 grand of cost of salary cost? If you can save one of those features and realize it doesn't need to be built every so often, suddenly, you've just ... everyone can go home early. You don't need to work overtime. It's like, go chill, see your dogs, see your family. For me as an engineer, it was such a turning point where I realized I don't need to bet months of my life blind. I can figure out whether I'm building the right thing and events. There's nothing more frustrating, as an engineer, than to build something beautiful, which no one wants to use.
True, that's disheartening.
It feels terrible, right? We built such cool, in my first company, we invented a whole new animation paradigm and technology and stuff, and like zero people used it. It's like, well, that's years of my life. How much money would someone have to pay you to go into a coma for a year? Probably a lot of money. I realized, wow, I just wasted a year of my life. I may as well have been unconscious. I built a thing that literally added no value to anyone in the world. It was a bit of like self-indulgent technical garbage. I want to help people, in whatever way matters to you. If you want to help them be evil, that's up to you, or help them get more, whatever. Whatever your goals are, but for your goals to be enabled, you need people using the thing.
I was like, oh yeah, talking to them as the way that I can make sure that I'm actually using my life in a worthwhile and valuable way, instead of just blindly gambling it. Then from the sales side, and it saves months. I like to say about customer conversations, yeah, it costs you hours, but it saves you months. You won't believe me until you've seen it the first time. Then once you've actually experienced it, you will never go back there.
You're like, I'm not fucking programming that until you prove to me that customers want it. I've seen this from engineering teams, like the sales teams are like, "Come on and talk to customers." Then a month later, the sales team's like, "What have we done?" Because the sales team's like, "We need this." And the engineering team's like, "Prove it to me. Show me the customer quote." It's great. It's like a super power for engineering. You're like, 10X is your overall ... maybe 10X is a strong word, but it significantly multiplies your overall productivity.
On the sales side, gosh, and the executive side, it sucks to be selling a suboptimal product. A lot of the time, the sales kit is about optimizing each meeting, the sales toolkit, or it's about optimizing each lead in the pipeline. You've got like, I've got this lead, I want to get maximum value out of it. But actually, there's this important shift where you go, "Okay, no, no, no, I want to optimize the value of this product or this company." Often, that means discovering early the ways in which it is flawed and not pushing it down people's throats. When you do that, you can feed that learning back. Let's say there's a sale that's right on the line and you could force it down their throats, but instead you go, they don't love it.
And you leave it there, and you take that back to the product team, and you're like, "They don't love it. I think this is why." Suddenly, you've got a product that people do love. Now, sales is the easiest thing in the world. You're racking up incredible bonuses, you're the superhero of the team. It's like, yeah, that's product market fit. You don't have to convince people to buy it. They want to buy it. They're coming to you. I think it's good for everyone, but it's so counterintuitive on both sides to open the kimono and show the humility and the vulnerability and the weakness, and just be like, "I don't know, but I care. I'm trying to make it better, and I hope you care too. Help me to make this thing that matters to you better."
If they don't care, then change what you're doing, or change your customer segment, change something. Keep changing until you find something that people do care about. I will the the counter argument to this is truly visionary technology, like 3D printing. Still, nobody cares about 3D printing, and you might go like, "I don't care that they don't care. I'm just like fucking gambling my life on this. Let's go." I admire that, that's heroic, it's high risk, but if you want to go into that gamble, go into it eyes open.
Great. You've mentioned this a couple of times, that humility aspect of performing the work in this way on both the tech and the sales side. It feels like an uncomfortable conversation to have, because everyone's almost expected. The pressure is to always know what to do all the time. Isn't like, you wouldn't possibly be in that seat if you didn't know exactly what to do and what to say always, but nothing could be further from the truth, especially in any other aspect of anyone's life, so how would it be different here? It isn't. I've often found that, that humility aspect of these customer conversations can actually significantly benefit me and anyone that I'm working with and what we're trying to do, especially on the sales side. Because it's a unique experience, oftentimes that the client is having, as opposed to those examples of bad sales, and bad tech and so on and so forth.
Pushing something at me I don't want, building something I'm never going to use, instead, talk to me about my problems, like you said, which is super engaging, collect that data, now use that to actually [inaudible 00:33:59] something people want. Then, like you said, on the sales side, people come to you. Since I've been through that full cycle, it's unbelievable how night and day different the two experiences are. Like you said, if you've been through it, like I have, you'll never go back. I can't recommend strongly enough that people who haven't had this experience yet, heed these warnings and investigate this, using this perspective for themselves to prevent themselves from having to fall into any of these pitfalls. But thank you for sharing that. Some excellent examples of some common pitfalls on the tech side, on the sales side and what you could do to avoid those.
Rob, I can't thank you enough for being here. This conversation has been fantastic. I could talk to you all day about this. I'm sure you can tell. Which is just going to be some excellent knowledge that you shared with us for both myself and our audience. I have two questions for you before I let you go. The first one is, obviously we talked about one. I would love that for sure, but what resources would you share with our audience, books, blogs, anything like that, that you might mention that they can do some homework to learn a little bit more about this topic or others, anything that you might recommend?
My favorite and most valuable book that I've read recently is, Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. This is egocentric, but I describe it as like The Mom Test for negotiation, where like he talks about tactical empathy. He talks about going into these tents, like hostage negotiations. He was the head hostage negotiator for the FBI globally for international terrorist, like bank holdups and international kidnappings and stuff like that. Super competent dude, very unique experience. It's such a good book. It's such a beautiful blend of immediately actionable information, but the whole approach is anchored in ... you can't negotiate with someone through hostility. The crazy stuff that's going on right now in the world is so backwards. It's so proven to be counterproductive. If you go into these conversations where it's like, I don't need to agree with your worldview, but let me understand it.
Then like talk to you in a calm and ask you these questions. It was really a mindblower for me. For example, let's say someone gives you a garbage price in a sales negotiation. He suggests this question like, how can I do that? It's such a disarming question, because you're not being like, we're the best. We're amazing. It's just like, how can I do that? Immediately switches the other party, and he uses this in hostile negotiations. You need to wire us $50 million to this bank account. How can I do that? I don't even know if they're alive. I don't even know if you're going to give them back to me. Suddenly, the other side is put into your shoes, and they're like, "Oh, well, we could put them on the phone with you. We could put them in this safe haven as an intermediary," and suddenly, they're doing your work for you.
It's all about like using questions and using tactical empathy, he calls it. It's a complete reinvention of the way that I understood negotiation, high stakes negotiation. I'd avoided reading it for ages because I don't negotiate that often. When I do, it's just a pitch. I give them a number. They say yes or no, it's not a big deal. While I was reading it, I was like, oh, let me try to acquire this business. I just wanted a playground to use my new skills. I cold emailed this company. I was like, hey, I just used the script from his book. It ended up pulling through, but it went, to the end, we were haggling over price at the end.
And I was like, "Wow, that's something I just wasn't equipped to do. So, Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. Incredible. On the marketing side, This is Marketing by Seth Godin. It's kind of customer development like The Mom Test approach of empathy and understanding, but with a thread where you can't market a flawed product. So if you want effective marketing, you need a product people actually want. So, it draws the thread backwards from marketing through to product design. Both great.
Excellent. Thanks so much for sharing both those resources, excellent resources. I would obviously recommend The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. We talked a lot about that today. I'll link to all three of those in the notes. Then last question I have for you, Rob, is, who should reach out to you, and how can they get in touch?
I'm easy to reach. I'm easy to Google. I'm pretty sure my phone number is on my website, although I don't necessarily recommend you call me, but I'm firstname.lastname@example.org. All my contact stuff's at robfitz.com. If you have questions about implementing customer development or The Mom Test, or you run into problems, tweet me, email me. I'll make a little YouTube video and send it back to you answering your question. I like doing that. It's fun for me. I'm always happy to help if I can. If you want to help me, what I'm trying to do now is to help Indie authors, and yeah. Self-published Indie, if you want to work your way, write a book, put your expertise into a book, I'm working on a process, treating books as products, problem solving products, which you can design and test, just like you would any other product.
I'm keen for people to try it and let me know how it goes for them. If I can help you write a great book, I would love to do so. So reach out to me and yeah, that'd be super helpful for me, and maybe I can help you too.
That's excellent. Thank you for that, Rob. I'll link too, the contact info, in the show notes as well also. Can't thank you enough for being here and sharing your knowledge with both myself and our audience.
It's my pleasure. If I can give a final tip, I'd just say that a customer conversations aren't like math, where you can hear the theory and then immediately do it perfectly. They're more like skateboarding or pottery, where you're going to fall over or mess some stuff up a few times. But the stakes are pretty low. You go in with humility, that's no problem. It's like, "Hey, I'm confused," and then you ask some bad questions, who cares? Give yourself a bit of forgiveness and leeway to try this stuff and fall down safely. Start with the easy conversations and the friendly first contacts, take your knocks, make your mistakes, figure out what's working, deal with the serious high stakes conversations later after you're already pretty confident.
You got to get your hands on the clay. You got to try this stuff to get good at it, but you will, and it's a super valuable career skill. It multiplies everything else that you're good at.
Excellent point, and thank you for sharing, Rob.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me, and good luck with your businesses, everybody.