Innovation is relative, originality overrated
Innovation is one of the sexiest words in the business vocabulary. However, originality can be overrated, especially when it comes to the opportunity of bringing a proven business concept to a new market. The world is full of examples of copycat business models that were successfully replicated in new countries.
The Chinese watched the successes of Amazon and eBay and launched Alibaba, which today has higher revenues than both U.S. firms combined. Indians followed suit with e-commerce Flipkart. Brazil’s Peixe Urbano, in turn, mirrored itself on e-coupon websites like Groupon and LivingSocial. Pretty much every country or region in the world has its own travel booking website, inspired by Expedia and Travelocity. And on and on we go.
The main benefits of copycat business models
The first benefit of being a copycat is the fact that the business model you are implementing has already been proven elsewhere. Of course, this doesn’t mean it will be a hit in your country, but at the very least you can incorporate several lessons before developing the product and launching the business. The risk therefore is considerably lower than that of an outright innovation, with no benchmarks to fall on. In fact, lessons learned can be applied not only at entry, but also from the moves and mistakes your reference company makes along the way, for it will always be a few years ahead of you. You benefit from the best of both worlds: innovation (at least in your target market) and proof of concept/benchmarking.
Second, pitching the business to investors and potential partners is easier than with other startups. What’s not to understand when you tell someone you want to start “Colombia’s SalesForce” or “Turkey’s Paypal”? Investors quickly relate to your idea and can tell you if they like it or not. This may seem trivial, but it comes in handy when you are dealing with people who are used to listening to dozens of business ideas every week.
Third, copycats have the privilege to be born with a potential exit strategy already in place. If you are Turkey’s equivalent of Paypal, and market conditions are favorable, you can always approach PayPal for an acquisition or at least a partnership. Of course there’s no guarantee of that happening, and they may decide to compete instead, but the path is clearer than for many startups. In fact, copycats are often approached by their inspirers wanting to expand into new markets through strategic acquisitions.
Challenges with copycat companies
Nevertheless, there are a few particular challenges associated with copycats. Barriers to entry for replicated business models are by definition low and you usually have no IP edge. The innovation doesn’t belong to you and, unless there is some sort of local IP protection (rare), anyone with the same idea and resources can jump in. As an example, after the first couple of crowdfunding websites emerged in Brazil, dozens followed suit, ironically “crowding” the market. The only things that keep you on top are first-mover advantage, fast market-share growth, good marketing and continuing innovation.
Also, adapting the business model to a new market can be tricky. Country and cultural differences have to be taken into consideration. For instance, in certain regions of the world, you can’t really launch a peer-to-peer lending website because charging interest from peers is not considered a socially acceptable practice. Also, trusting strangers in web2.0-type interactions may not be something that the local meme supports (yet).
Macro role of copycatting
At the macro level, copycatting plays an important role in technology transfer, from developed markets to developing ones. New solutions and businesses are internationalized at fast pace and relatively low risk, benefiting the economy by fostering local innovation, creating complementary businesses and generating jobs. It is also one of the best ways for budding entrepreneurs in less mature markets to learn from more experienced ones. A copycat venture is a great first gig for an entrepreneur. And, who knows, we may get to a point where increasingly we shall see Silicon Valley startups copying innovations from Brazil, India and other developing markets.
See also An idea Is Just That. Image: Brad Jonas for Pando.