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Maple is an operators VC based in Tel-Aviv, focused on enterprise infrastructure and being the ideal all-round collaborator for technical founders right from the notebook phase

  • Ben Tytonovich

There are many ways for a startup to pivot. Pivots can be driven by switching target users, finding adjacent use cases, moving between industries or changing business models. One pivot method that is far less discussed and has always surprised me in how prevalent it is - is the “dumbing down your product” method.

In the past few years, I’ve seen many instances of products that only fit the early adopters niche of an industry but miss out on the vast majority of the market. The reasons behind this are usually a combination of the amount of friction the adoption of the product involves vis-a-vis the amount of market education the startup needs to perform in order to will the market into dealing with that friction.

Market education, as many founders will tell you, is far harder than it first seems at the very early stages. It is a continuous process that never really ends. Sometimes, it is better to let the market educate you than to be the educator.

A few years ago, I examined an investment opportunity in a startup that started off as an AR glasses company but eventually dumbed it down to a product that essentially replaced excel files. The technological gap between these two offerings, needless to say, is vast. But that is what the customers could adopt more easily to solve a particular problem at that point in time. Oftentimes, customers know better than us what they need right now (though admittedly, it’s not always that simple). And while educating a workforce to work with new AR hardware could be more beneficial in the long term, on the whole, making a more gradual technological hop could be a better fit for the situation.

To be clear, I am not advocating for less ambitious technological leaps - every now and then a startup arrives with the right approach that does move everything forward in a way that no one expected. That’s critical. And yet, I would argue that that happens when the technology does most of the leaping forward, while the user can still advance at his gradual pace. Also, these are usually the exception to the rule. And that is why dumbing down a product is really more of an art than a science. Founders need to be very precise in pushing markets forward while not pushing them too hard.

  • Ben Tytonovich

When speaking of his novel writing methodology, George R.R. Martin has a fantastic take on the difference between writer types. Essentially, Martin says there are two prototypes - the architect and the gardener.

The architect knows ahead of time how many rooms will be in the house he’s planning, what kind of roof he’s going to build and the type of plumbing he’s going to install. Everything is designed and blueprinted.

In contrast, gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They have a thorough understanding of the potential that seed has but they have no idea how many branches the tree will actually have. They have to wait for it to grow to actually find out.

Unsurprisingly, Martin is a gardener, as he attests himself and as suggested by the extremely elaborate maze of ever evolving plot lines his novels have.

A founder, just like Martin, is more of a gardener than an architect. It’s important to have an initial blueprint, but it’s dangerous to assume we can plan more than we are actually capable of.

Our job is to make sure we’re planting a quality seed in a part of a garden we believe to be fertile, without too many trees overshadowing us and with the understanding that we’re pretty qualified to nurture this particular plant.

I’ll go as far as saying that many of us start off with the belief that we’re architects, only to find out later on that we were actually gardeners. This is also a very important notion for VCs. Every experienced investor will tell you of the numerous times he underestimated a potential opportunity/market. This is usually us VCs taking the architect hat, trying to judge blueprints and houses while what we’re actually looking at are young trees growing dynamically based on a seed (no pun intended).

It’s critical that we don’t overestimate ourselves as architects and give ourselves the luxury of planting high quality seeds and navigate their growth as new information arrives.

  • Ben Tytonovich

The startup ideation process has been significantly influenced by product management methodologies in the past few years - and fortunately so. We are all much more attuned to our target personas’ pains and realize that what we do as founders and investors during the startup ideation phase is essentially a product management exercise on a larger scale.

One of the key aspects of tackling the ideation phase by leveraging product management methodologies is seeing the persona interview as a key part of the process. We understand that we have buyer and user personas and that only by obsessing over them can we actually bring a valuable product to market.

This approach has led many founding teams to double down on the “top 3 pains” method, which basically means asking the buyer/user persona what are her/his current top pains. The premise behind this process is that this target persona has recently reviewed their own processes and have a clear intent of optimizing them.

Also, it assumes that the target persona has managed to identify these unoptimized processes, define their problematic nature and occasionally, even provide a vision with regards to how to solve it.

This is what I call the “pain packaging” process. Truthfully, many of the more urgent problems do go through this packaging process (to a degree) within your potential target customers. But naturally, these packaged pains are more quickly targeted by many early stage startups and quickly become more of a rarity.

But, rarity is not the only issue with packaged pains. We’re all familiar with the (alleged) quote by Henry Ford - “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

I encourage you to try and trigger a process with target personas around unpackaged pains. There are several advantages to this - firstly, your creativity can lead to exponential leaps in the solution landscape rather than linear advancements (i.e. faster horses). Secondly, if you are the one connecting the dots, you are also likely to gain a degree of an edge over potential competition and get a head start. Lastly, and obviously, this approach is much more likely to originate ideas in otherwise barren landscapes.

It assumes that the target persona has managed to identify these unoptimized processes, define their problematic nature and occasionally, even provide a vision with regards to how to solve it. This is what I call the “pain packaging” process.

The danger with unpackaged pains is that they are occasionally unpackaged for a reason (usually, a lack of urgency). So it is definitely important to thoroughly validate that your pain packaging is indeed correlated with an urgent need using many persona interviews.

Moreover, for a founding team to be able to carry out this dots-connecting process, a certain degree of domain expertise is crucial before a persona interview is carried out. This is only logical and is an important part of balancing a top-down (theoretical thinking) vs. a bottom-up (persona interviewing) driven ideation and validation processes.

The last key part to point out when focusing on unpackaged pains is that this type of pain requires more market education already in the validation process. Target personas may be unaware of some of the dots you have connected and require some "education" before recognizing the pain. Consequently, you will need to already face some push back in validation and counter it with solid insight. Needless to say, and as mentioned before, you need to be careful that you are not connecting dots which make sense only to you. But if you manage to find the right ones - you are likely on to something big.

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