Brian Bailey

July 29, 2022

The Pizza or the Toppings

Product strategy is continually asking,
What is the pizza, and what are the toppings?

What defines a pizza? At it's core, it's a round base of dough baked with a topping of tomato sauce and cheese.

If you're opening a restaurant and want to be known for great pizza, that's where to start. Experiment over and over again until you perfect those three elements—the crust, sauce, and cheese.

Toppings are important, too. Imagine the possibilities! Maybe you'll use wild mushrooms, grilled sweet onions, or specialize in artichoke hearts and pepperoncini.

All in good time, but first, you have to get the pizza right. Every day you spend on sourcing toppings and dreaming up exotic combinations is wasted effort if the essentials are still in flux. The best toppings won't help if the pizza is subpar.

You can't hand someone a pizza without a crust, but you can deliver a great pizza without capers. It's the same with a product or feature. What's the crust and what are the capers?

In my first few months at 37signals, I've been struck by how skilled the team is at finding the essence of the problem we're solving and the solution we're building. Asking questions, peeling off another layer, editing and refining, until the demand side is clear—what someone is trying to accomplish and the struggling moment that stands in the way of their progress.

It doesn't stop with understanding the problem. The same approach applies when shaping the solution. Is this the simplest, most direct way to solve the problem? Is each piece essential or has the solution grown to include some perfectly good things that are nevertheless unrelated to the goal?

You might think it's straightforward once you start building the feature, but that's when the most ideas surface, tempting toppings at every turn. There are so many more things it could do and more elaborate ways to do it.

Knowing when to stop takes a lot of practice and the answer is rarely obvious. It's easier, though, if you get the crust, sauce, and cheese just right first, then layer on the toppings if there's time. If the essentials are missing or poorly done, the extras won't matter. And getting distracted by the extras early in the process keeps you from the hard, time-consuming iteration needed to make a great crust or sauce. 

The push and pull

I used to think that the key to reducing a solution to its essence was taming the optimistic, forward-looking energy that's always dreaming up one more idea—the exciting pull of future possibilities. 

I'm learning, though, that it's just as important to resist the cautionary push. There's an unlimited supply of edge cases and hypotheticals. Change comes with risks that can't be eliminated.

Both the push and pull are essential, but successful product development is artfully trimming scope in both directions.

Teams are often good at one, but it’s rare to be good at both. It makes it possible to do more, faster, with fewer people.

A great example is HEY World, the very thing that lets me publish this on the Internet. You send an email in HEY that's posted online and sent to subscribers.

It's a newsletter and blogging tool. It does everything you need and nothing more. There are hundreds of other things it could do, but it's great at what it has to do. The pull of what else it could do was resisted, and the hypotheticals didn't keep it from shipping. It was built by two people in a few weeks. 

Now, sometimes a cheese pizza is a little plain. The toppings add flavor and texture. They're expressions of the chef's taste and creativity. They differentiate one pizza from another. And they're delicious!

Products need toppings, too. They make your product uniquely yours and are often what users love the most. By all means, add them.

Just get the pizza right first.