If you build or sell products, it’s important to be able to differentiate between cake and frosting.
Cake represents core functionality, the product features that actually provide the value that the user is looking for or that the user benefits from. Cake often looks plain, unprepared for the spotlight, but cake is the foundation. It works. It gets the job done.
Let’s pick a non-edible analogy. A simple household item — a tap. A tap delivers water. A tap that delivers water is a good tap. It does what it was born to do. Now, that tap may look old, plain, simple, and out-of-place with the decor of your home, but it is still a tap. And a good one, as long as it delivers water into your hands.
And, then, you have bronze taps, gold-plated taps, copper taps, marble taps, taps with motion sensors, taps that auto-adjust the temperature, taps with spray nozzles, taps that gush, and taps that swirl water. And let’s not forget the taps shaped like fish, swans, waterfalls, dragons, and lions. Graceful, gasp-worthy, museum-worthy taps. But, they are still just taps. Their job is one thing — to deliver water.
A tap delivers water. That’s cake.
A tap may look like a work of art. That’s frosting.
The tap is still a tap without the frosting.
The tap is no longer a tap without the cake.
Image by Farooq Sharif from Pixabay.
Does frosting matter?
We’ve all heard the sayings.
You eat with your eyes first. The sizzle sells the steak.
In product management, I often see product owners trying to build frosting first, or obsess over frosting before they decide on the cake. Frosting is fun, it’s visible, it’s glamorous, it’s exciting to debate about, it’s thrilling to tell your friends about, it elicits admiration, and it sells. It’s tempting to work on frosting in the early days of building a product because it can be beautiful and visible progress. I’ve seen innumerable post-it brainstorming sessions where people bring up frosting use-cases that elicit oohs and aahs in the room.
If you look at the number of cooking competitions around baking, it’s clear that frosting wins awards. Frosting makes reputations. Frosting sells.
Because frosting sells so well, people often forget to make the best cake and instead fixate on making frosting that wows. This is true of investment pitches and sales pitches, too. I’ve seen products purchased purely on the basis of a glossy pitch deck and a mesmerizing, stirring video to go with it. I’ve seen customers falling for a product because of the elegance of the website, its graphics, its animations, and its sleek look. I’ve seen buyers be disappointed later when they realize that the beauty of a pitch deck and a website may not always translate into good engineering.
The more beautiful the frosting, the easier it distracts from the cake’s flaws.
In defense of cake. Good cake.
I am here to stand up for cake. I am here to defend cake that wows. I am here to defend the production of high-quality, scrumptious, dependable, memorable, melt-in-your-mouth cake that makes someone fall in love with the cake. I want cake that makes someone run to buy the unfrosted cake for its own yummy sake.
When I sit through sales pitches, product demos, investment pitches, I ask for one thing.
Give me cake.
The next time you build a product,
the next time you buy a product,
the next time you hear a sales pitch,
the next time you hear an investment pitch,
the next time you see a product demo,
the next time someone shows you a slide deck,
the next time someone shows you a website,
The fancier the frosting, demand to know more about the quality of the cake.
“What’s cake, and what’s frosting here?”
“Let’s see the plumbing instead of the PowerPoint.”
“I don’t care how great it looks. Tell me how it works.”
“Forget the frosting, show me how good the cake is.”
You might buy a cake for the first time because of the frosting. But, you’ll buy it again because of the cake.
Don’t get me wrong. I love frosting. I’ve been known to lick the last bit of frosting off spoons. I am just here to say — don’t put the frosting before the cake. It’s important to build a spectacular cake that you are sure of, before you dream up any frosting for it.
You see, cake can exist without frosting.
Frosting, well, frosting can’t exist without cake.
And that takes the cake.