technology

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!

Outsourcing With Care

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Challenges of international outsourcing

Many tech entrepreneurs face the question of whether to outsource software development to a foreign country. After all, there are good coders in countries like India, Russia and Argentina, while U.S. developers are quite pricey in comparison. But managing a team or project from afar can be quite challenging: communication often gets lost in translation and cultural differences; accountability is diluted across borders; pop-ins are not possible; contracts are harder to enforce; IP issues can come up; and even quality might not be as good as you expected. Here are a couple of simple (but often neglected) steps one can take to minimize risks.

Dealing with international outsourcing

First, make sure you consider firms or developers that have been referred by a client you know and trust. Don’t just pick a developer on Google or let yourself be lured by pretty emails selling outsourcing services. My LinkedIn inbox often gets messages from Indian and Russian developers offering their services. Maybe they are good, who knows, but I wouldn’t risk it. Client referrals are especially important when dealing with international suppliers in general. Ask a lot of questions to the referrer, such as how the developers deal with deadlines, if their English is good, if different time zone was an issue, how they heard about them in the first place, besides of course the quality of the job.

Second, before starting the work, have a face-to-face meeting at least once. Maybe your guy will come to the U.S. for a conference or to visit a client. Or, better yet, catch a cheap red-eye flight and go spend a couple of days with them. Meet the team, check out their office (garage?), go out for lunch, have a vodka (or whatever they drink) together. If the job is at least a five-figure commitment, visiting them is a relatively small investment and it will pay off. Despite Skype and all, in today’s world it is still important to shake hands once in a while, make things more personable. Putting a face to the partnership can help mitigate risks in the future and improve crisis management.

Don’t underestimate the complexities of outsourcing development to a foreign country. Knowing who you are dealing with, both through others and your own contact, is extremely important. An outsourcing job gone bad is hard to fix. Exit costs are high and transferring work to a new team may be difficult, if not impossible. If you don’t outsource with care, as we often say it in Brazil, “what’s supposed to be cheap becomes very expensive”.

See also An idea is Just That – Not Yet An InnovationImage: blogandretire.com

What’s your experience with software outsource? Leave us a comment!

With Disruptive Innovation, Customer Is Not Always Right

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Disruptive innovations and customer feedback

A recent study by ChubbyBrain.com listed the top 20 reasons why startups fail. The #1 reason, ahead of funding, product quality, pricing and other popular ones, was “ignoring or not seeking customer feedback”. However, there are two sides to this.

If your company is launching a disruptive technology, or a at least a truly innovative product, and you really believe in it, taking initial customer feedback at face value may not necessarily be the best way to go. A classic example is the walkman. When Sony was building the product in the 1970s it reached out to potential customers to learn what they thought of it. The most common reaction was to say that the walkman was a stupid idea! Who would walk around listening to music, instead of enjoying it while sitting back in the couch? How would you run errands or even jog with “speakers” on your ears, not hearing what’s going on around you? Had Sony been discouraged by this feedback, it would have probably discontinued the project and missed out on this huge hit.

If not a disruptive innovation, follow the rules

Now, if your product, like the vast majority, is not starting a new market or doesn’t require change in attitude or lifestyle, then of course the story is different. You should adapt to your clients as much as possible, not expect them to do so. This sounds intuitive, but many entrepreneurs (including myself in the past) think their product is so great that the problem, really, is with the rest of the world that doesn’t want it the way it is. Distancing yourself from your “baby” and taking client feedback into consideration is fundamental, both in the product development stage and thereafter.

At the end of the day, it is a judgement call. Do you believe so much in what you are doing – and how you are doing it – that you are willing to risk ignoring customer feedback? Are you breaking a paradigm of sorts to expect to be right over the majority of people you are supposed to serve? Only a very small percentage of startups would fall in this category. If you are one of them, you will have an uphill battle to change people’s behaviors; but one that can have a huge payoff.

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

What’s your experience with disruptive technologies? Leave us a comment!