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Copycat Businesses Can Be Great

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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.

What’s your favorite copycat business? Leave us a comment!

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An Idea Is Just That – Not Yet An Innovation

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Innovation and new ideas

I am frequently approached by people who want to share a new business idea with me. Some are actually good, others, well, you know. Usually the pitch is accompanied by a good amount of mystery and secrecy: “Andre, I’m telling you this because I trust you, but don’t tell anyone; this could be big”. So let me summarize what I tell friends who approach me like that.

Turning an idea (hopefully) into an innovation

First, don’t worry too much about secrecy. Your new idea is likely not as much of an innovation as you think, it has probably come up before in one way or another. And even if it is (almost) that great, you will only be able to go somewhere by sharing it with other people who can give you useful feedback and leads. The chances of someone stealing your idea are probably slimmer than you turning it into a business without sharing it with others. Competent people are busy and know how time consuming and risky it is to start something new.

Second, ask yourself what YOU would bring to the table. Are you business savvy? Have the relevant technical skills? Money to invest? An amazing network in the industry? Lots of time to spare (on top of at least a bit of one of the former)? If you answered “yes” to one or more of the questions, then great, you should move forward. Try to find the people and resources needed to complement your skill-set and hit the road. But if the answers are straight “no’s”, I need to say you should probably let go and try to think of another idea.

To illustrate this, once a friend came to me with a pretty good idea for a mobile app. However, he didn’t know a thing about starting a company or building an app, didn’t have money to invest, didn’t know anyone in the industry, and was not willing to invest a good chunk of his time on it. Seriously? Don’t expect that someone will start a company with you just because you had a decent idea, especially because the idea will evolve/change as the business matures. You need to bring something concrete to the table. Ideas are just ideas… We all have tons of them.

See also Not All Angel Investors Are From HeavenImage: shutterstock.com

Have you ever had a business idea? What did you make of it? Leave us a comment!

MBA For Entrepreneurs Can Still Matter

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MBA and entrepreneurs

At times it seems MBA programs are passed their glory days. Every so often we see articles saying that they can be a waste of time and money, especially if your goal is to become an entrepreneur. My two cents: if you have no business background and you can afford it, a good MBA is still a great thing! My background is in economics and I wouldn’t have started my first company without the skills and confidence I acquired in business school.

MBA for entrepreneurs

If your undergrad is in the sciences or the arts and you want to start your own company, an MBA can be a good idea. Some will say that all you need is a business-savvy partner; but you know what, it’s not ideal to rely solely on others. Of course you will not become a management guru overnight (you don’t want that anyways), but by going to business school you at least learn the basics, the jargon, and know where to find the answers. You can sit down in front of an investor or Board and not look like a big question mark when they start talking about P&Ls, financial ratios, or SWOT analyses.

In a good business school you also meet interesting people, from different countries and sectors, expanding your network and perspective on things. You can bounce off ideas with smart people and potentially find the partner you’re looking for. You become part of an alumni group that can be of service in the future. Hey, even some of your professors might not be as dull as you think and give you good advice and open doors for you.

Depending on your age and where you currently stand professionally and financially, it might be that a two-year full-time program doesn’t make sense anymore. The opportunity cost can be too high. But you can do a one-year program, there a great ones in Europe, Canada and a few in the US. Or do a part-time executive program. If you can afford it, it’s never a waste to learn new skills and meet good people.

See also Entrepreneurship, Innovation and ProsperityImage: linkedin.com

Are you an entrepreneur and attended business school? Leave us a comment!

Time to Start a Business – or Not

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What to ask yourself before starting a company

Before launching a startup, an entrepreneur must ask him or herself the following question: Can I support myself for the next 18-24 months? This is specially important if you’re in your late twenties or early thirties.

It doesn’t matter where support comes from. It could be your parents, your own savings, your partner’s job, or a liquid asset you’re willing to sell at some point. It could even come from your first investor, such as an angel, although very rarely outside investors are willing to pay you a (decent) salary, especially in the early days of a startup. The important thing to remember is that it will take longer than you think before your company is making money to pay you, or an institutional investor joins in with a paycheck.

Don’t expect short-term returns when starting a company

Drawn into the excitement of launching their ventures, entrepreneurs usually underestimate the sacrifices to come. Optimists by nature, they assume that something great is going to happen within a year: a successful pilot or beta launch, an investor, even a first client. Not gonna happen. Success stories about entrepreneurs who dropped out of college or left a job to support themselves on credit card debts are very sexy but incredibly rare. They do however get all the media attention. You won’t read a piece on TechCrunch about the entrepreneur who ran out of steam, shut down his company, broke up with his girlfriend in the process, and had to go back to his parents house.

The concept of time is very different for bootstrapping entrepreneurs and… well, the rest of the world! While you’re bleeding and resources are drying up, potential investors and clients will tell you comfortably: “Come back in six months or when you have more clients”. It’s a brutal catch-22 and it will drive you crazy unless you can’t support yourself and get into real world’s time.

If you’re in the early twenties or otherwise can afford it, screw it, take all risks! Starting a company – successfully or not – will be a great school anyways. If that’s not you, by all means, do also go ahead and pursue your dreams. But make sure you first do some planning on the personal front, soldier.

See also MBA For Entrepreneurs Can Still MatterImage: fotolia.com

Have you ever launched a new venture? How did you support yourself? leave us a comment!