Cakes, not whisks




BAKER is alone in the bakery, sweeping behind the counter. Cakes, muffins, pies, and cookies sit in display cases next to the counter.

BELLS sound as a CUSTOMER hurries in and approaches the counter, scanning the goods with a furtive air.


Hello, how can I help you?


I'll take a bag of flour, five pounds of granulated sugar, a pound of unsalted butter, and a French whisk.


Ahh, sorry... I, um... This is a bakery. I don't sell raw ingredients or tools.


What?! I've got to have a cake baked by this afternoon! You're taking my ■■■■■■■ flour and sugar and whisk away? Next you'll be telling me I can't have mixing bowls or a timer!


Well, I'm a great baker, and can sell you whatever cake you need. You don't even have to take a chance on it falling or you burning your hands.

CUSTOMER blinks, taken aback, then becomes visibly relieved.


Oh... that's a much better idea. Thanks!


Of course, this is just my playful elaboration on Harvard business prof and economist Theodore Levitt's famous assertion:

"People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole."

This phrase is legend among product managers for good reason—it neatly encapsulates the entire process of product discovery, from market analysis and requirements elaboration through to packaging and user testing.

But, Levitt's notion leaves out the fact that customers do ask for quarter-inch bits. No one at Home Depot looks for the hole aisle.

So we turn to that other great quotation, probably apocryphal, but attributed to the car maker Henry Ford:

"If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse."

Advertising trains consumers to look for a preconceived fix. We even do it with our doctors.

Product managers are on the receiving end of that conundrum too. Like good doctors, we know to go beyond the request to the actual pain point. Finding the root of a problem leads to healthier products, both in quality and profitability.

Consider the TAM

It's harder and more expensive to be a baker than a clerk selling dry goods. It's also a lot more creative and fun, with a much bigger total addressable market too. How many cookie or cupcake or pie or donut or croissant or bagel shops are there, versus the number of cooking supply stores? In other words, the TAM for baking supplies is everyone who bakes from scratch in their own kitchen. The TAM for baked yumminess is everyone with a mouth. (Including dogs, in the hipper parts of town.)

The point of that allegory should be clear: the market size of whatever you're making will be an order of magnitude bigger if you satisfy the core need rather than fulfilling a request.

So, here's a new quote for you, from a different Ford:

"Sell cakes, not whisks. There's more money—and joy— to be had!"

a delicious cupcake