They own the problem. You own the solution.

The title of this post is a quote from The Mom Test, a book that teaches the art of having useful conversations with customers so they won’t lie to us about that business idea we’re eager to explore.

Why would people lie to us?

You might not think people lie to us. But it happens too frequently.

Think back to the last time you were excited about a business idea and talked to someone about it. It probably went something like this:

I have this fantastic business idea! I do X, Y, and Z, and boom, profit! What do you think? Isn’t it amazing?

What do you think they’ll say? How would you respond if you were in their position?

Yeah, that sounds great!

We think we got validation. We assume we have a first customer. But, in fact, we’ve just been lied to. Not in a mean way. Perhaps not even intentionally. But the damage is done. We spend months building the prototype, and then… silence. It turns out it’s not a solution anybody wants to pay for.

It’s our responsibility to find the truth

We could blame people for not being honest about the idea we presented. They could have told us it was a bad idea. But if you think about our questions, you’ll notice we were mainly seeking affirmation.

When we present our ideas as a pitch, it is hard for our customers to pop our excitement bubble right then and there. It’s much easier for them to say they like the idea and let someone else bring us back down to earth.

That is why The Mom Test puts the onus of truth-seeking squarely back on our shoulders:

It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to show us the truth. It’s our responsibility to find it. We do that by asking good questions.

So, we can’t blame customers for not telling us the truth. It’s not their job to do so. It’s our job to find the truth. And to do that, we have to ask better questions – questions to which they cannot lie.

And that is at the core of The Mom Test.

The Mom Test tenets (in my words)

  • Talk about your customers’ lives instead of pitching your idea to them.
  • Ask about recent, specific examples of acute pain that was unresolved. Don’t go into generic advice or opinions about what could work in the future.
  • Be an active listener.

To ask truth-finding questions, we have to change the focus of our conversation from pitching our idea to trying to understand our customers’ problems and pains.

That means we have to ask specific questions about their concrete life, not just some vague chat about how they might solve an amorphous problem. How did they try to solve “the issue” last week? What did they do exactly? Can they walk us through it? Even better, can they show us how they did it?

And then, our job is to listen – to really listen. We’re not listening to find an opening so we can finally pitch our idea. Instead, we want to understand their problem: how they see it, face it, and cope with it.

The measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers’ lives and world views. These facts, in turn, help us improve our business.

When we change the focus of the conversation away from our proposed solution, we can finally stop having useless, affirmation-seeking conversations and start having useful, insightful conversations with our customers.

They own the problem. You own the solution.

It boils down to this: you aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is, and in return, they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build. They own the problem, you own the solution.

That brings us to the title of the post. We aren’t allowed to tell our customers what their problems are. They own the problem. So, we can’t go in and present a solution to a problem we think they have.

Instead, we have to understand their problem, asking about their lives, pains, and difficulties. They won’t lie to those questions. And once we’ve understood their problem, we can finally look for a solution. That’s the part we own. That’s where we get to work.

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