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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

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.

  • Ben Tytonovich

Introducing efficiency into processes is, rightfully, usually seen as a pure plus. This isn’t news. But the other side of this coin is that the systemization of processes also makes them more predictable and less creative. I find that this is often the case with the ideation and validation processes founders go through.


Specifically in Israel, there are two factors that made the ideation & validation processes more systemized in the past half a decade. The first one is the emergence of a new class of unicorns which is, fortunately, a lot more accessible to founders in their ideation processes than any other form of a target market has ever been in the past. The other factor is the tendency of more and more VCs to approach teams in earlier stages, already assisting in the ideation phase.


The wonderful upside of this phenomenon is that founders have a larger and more accessible audience to work with in the earliest stages. The downside, I believe, is that it often minimizes the range of potential directions founders choose to pursue. For example, if founders repeatedly approach the same set of unicorn VPs, it’s no surprise that they often end up hearing about the same set of problems. We, as VCs, are also responsible for this consolidation phenomenon (due to good intentions, but still). We provide advice aimed at avoiding past mistakes and therefore are often driven by what’s worked in the past at the expense of what may work in the future. This contributes to a deficiency in new directions.


These two factors are more ecosystem-specific, even if they are somewhat global to an extent. There is a third, macro factor, we're all familiar with and which has more to do with fashion. Every now and then there will come a macro trend (e.g. web3 in 2021) whose hype will drive many founders towards it. This has always been the case (not only with startups, but in any entrepreneurial culture - music, films, etc.), but that is unavoidable (and has clear benefits to us all as well).


Finding problems worth pursuing outside the mainstream flow at any given point is obviously easier said than done, but I believe it’s worth the extra effort and time it takes. Aside from the clear advantages stemming from the competitive edge you get, there is also a certain fatigue investors have from hearing the same problems being pitched time and time again. Avoiding this fatigue has a surprisingly strong effect.


Aside from the clear advantages stemming from the competitive edge you get, there is also a certain fatigue investors have from hearing the same problems being pitched time and time again. Avoiding this fatigue has a surprisingly strong effect.

There is a wide variety of ways founders can take to overcome this consolidation issue and originate ideas in different directions. For example, mixing up your target ideation/validation audience with personas from other geographies (again, easier said than done, but it’s a part of the entrepreneurial challenge) is one approach. Mixing up business types (adding more traditional mid-market customers in addition to unicorns) is another. Speaking with founders who are at the forefront of your problem space is also usually a successful recipe for diversifying the ideation process.


Lastly, getting a better understanding of the inner dynamics of your target market (e.g. understanding the business from the accounting perspective - what is driving their margins, what is holding back higher profitability, etc.) and speaking with low-to-mid level management instead of only approaching the executive level, could also introduce some more color into the process.


All in all, the landscape as it is currently shaped is a much better ideation playground than it has been a decade ago and that's something to celebrate. But as with any other process, a certain amount of mindfulness towards its limitations is highly important.


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