Just Sell Donuts to Fat People

by Victor Cheng

The easiest way to increase your revenues in any economy is to “sell donuts to fat people.”

Here is what I mean.

When deciding what to sell and whom to sell it to, you can sell people what they need or should have, or you can sell them what they want.

The easiest way to make money is to sell people what they want… the equivalent of what I call “selling donuts to fat people.”

This lesson is especially apparent here in Silicon Valley where the landscape is littered with failed companies who created products that customers should have, probably need, but fundamentally did not want.

This always ends in disaster.

How do I know this?

Because I’ve made this mistake before and it has cost me dearly. There is a fortune that can be lost in trying to convince a customer they want something, they simply just don’t want.

It is MUCH easier to just ask customers what they want and give it to them. It is not much more complicated than that.

Too often thought, we are stuck in a very internally-centric view of our business. As in, “I’m a CPA. I am in the CPA business.” “I’m a retailer. I sell things.”

At the end of the day, customers don’t really care much about us. They just care about themselves and getting what they want taken care of.

What makes this simple principle more difficult to pull off in a recession is customers’ spending priorities often change… in some cases quite dramatically.

So if 2 years ago you were selling what customers wanted, but they no longer want it today… and if you haven’t changed along side them, then you have a serious problem.

One of the things I always tell my business coaching clients is to remember the easiest way to drive sales in any economy is to simply “sell donuts to fat people”. If your business is flexible enough to change what it provides to customers, the trick is to find the new “donut” your customers now crave.

If changing your products/services is too difficult (e.g, such as in a capital intensive business like manufacturing), then you my find it easier to find a different audience or market to serve with your pre-existing “donut”.

Either way, you gotta find a way to make this formula work. Just sell people things that the really want… even if it’s not what YOU want to sell them. In the end, the person with the money (the customer) votes. And their votes count a lot more than yours.

Comments

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Engin Guven October 28, 2009 at 5:57 AM

I think it is a problem of risk-return characteristics of the seller. Selling customers what they want is a safer approach than selling customers what they would eventually like and want, but they do not yet know about this. If all the innovators would have the first approach, we would not have those great new products that change the way of our lives dramatically. But it is true that the later is riskier.

Daniel Santana Vega October 28, 2009 at 6:12 AM

Victor,
Good content, bad analogy. I am not fat but it is a very sensitive subject to those that are.

Warm Regards,

Dan

Oliver Hoffmann October 28, 2009 at 7:19 AM

This story reminds me of David Lubars’ waiter-chef analogy, Victor. You’re advocating the role of “waiter,” in which I serve up what the customer orders and live off the tips. Problem is, there are many other waiters and donut shops to choose from. The chef discovers what the customer likes and then serves up a surprising and delightful dish that could not have been anticipated– or ordered. The key is cooking for the customer rather than for yourself.

FlemishDreams October 28, 2009 at 9:24 AM

Huh? Isn’t a waiter just a person that “waits” until you picked your dishes? Or gives some graphic descriptions about less-known dishes?
Ho can he remember al his customers’ preferences if he doesn’t carry a PDA?

And as to the fat people and political correctness about weight, you could also sell slimming pills and hi-tech scales to skinny people since some have this inborn anorexia nervosa urge.

Victor Cheng October 28, 2009 at 1:51 PM

@Engin Guven:

Engin – I totally agree. If you have $25 million in other people’s venture money, take a big risk. If you’re gambling with your kids grocery money, sell the proven seller.

Victor Cheng October 28, 2009 at 1:54 PM

@Oliver Hoffmann:

You make a good point. I should probably point out an additional distinction that I neglected to make in my original post. Sell people what they want, but not necessarily what they ask for.

In other words, ask buyers which problems are important enough to spend money to solve. Then solve that problem.

Customers are notoriously bad at asking for innovative solutions that don’t yet exist. So you’re right, if you just ask what kind of product/solution do you want, and give them exactly that, often there’s an awful lot of room for improvement.

BUT, if you ask them which problems they care about most and what a solution would have to accomplish in order to be considered a good solution, then that leaves room to innovate within the context of proven demand.

Victor Cheng October 28, 2009 at 1:57 PM

@Daniel Santana Vega:

I suppose you’re right… but people who are overweight do factually have fat on their bodies. I’m under no illusion that that stuff around my belly is anything other than fat. (I keep telling my wife there’s a 6 pack abs underneath there somewhere, but she doesn’t believe me).

I’ll probably do a post in the future on word choice, reality, and accurate thinking where I elaborate on this topic.

Thanks again to you and everyone for taking the time to comment and contribute to the dialog.

Katrina November 4, 2009 at 12:12 PM

As someone who has been called fat all her life, I thought the tagline was hilarious!

I’m sure my many neuroses are because of a childhood filled with ill intent. They were calling me something that was/is clearly a fact, so I’m pretty much over it. My comeback now is “wow… you are a master of the obvious, aren’t you?”

He could have easily said “sell drugs to drug users” (although even more politically incorrect and not meant to advocate any illegal activity…)

The intent of the article is obvious. It’s a hook that obviously has readers reading it. Brilliant!!

Many people need to figuratively (and literally) lighten up. Including myself!! 🙂

Victor Cheng November 10, 2009 at 11:17 PM

Katrina,

Glad you took the humor in stride. Personally, it’s easier to sell me donuts than it is to sell me a gym membership. One I buy because I want it, the other only because I need to. It’s a subtle, but important distinction. The question to ask is are you selling what people need or want?

Peter Farkas November 29, 2009 at 7:17 AM

This “donut” post really got me thinking and I immediately e-mailed my partner to “weigh in” as well. We just launched an IPhone App called the Right Bite. It’s a revolutionary patent pending behavior modification tool for weight loss and healthier eating. I apologize for the shameless product plug, but I’m really reacting to this notion of “selling donuts to fat people”.

Am I supposed to be selling them donuts or a simple, painless, practically free ($1.99 one time), scientifically proven solution? I hope it’s the latter. I don’t want to start now investigating a Krispie Creme franchise 🙂

Your thoughts and comments here and on our site are welcome.

Peter

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