It’s a valid question. After all, isn’t that one of the most common things we think when we see some simple product making a fortune? “I could have done that!”
So, can we copy another product or startup concept and find business success? The answer is that it depends on what you mean by copying.
Take a product to a different market
As Pinterest evolved, for various reasons, its target demographic seemed to be young women, especially mothers, and many boards revolved around fashion, makeup, recipes, cooking, and similar traditionally feminine pursuits. Pinterest tried to expand its user base, but found that it wasn’t particularly successful.
Different Pinterest-like sites evolved to serve other groups who had a different focus of interest. Gentlemint is the most well known. The site is quite different from Pinterest visually and from a user perspective; only the basic concept has really been copied.
This is a legitimate form of copying; taking a concept that exists to a market that isn’t currently being served. Other examples include creating publishing wings devoted towards writing books targeted at people in college, instead of high school, and calling it new adult instead of young adult, or creating women’s lingerie that is designed to blend in with darker skin tones than traditional “nude” lingerie.
But what about more direct copying?
So, making another Netflix, or another Amazon, or another Microsoft?
The truth is: It’s probably not going to work. Need some reasons why?
- Each of these companies became huge successes in a very specific time and place. There’s a saying in business that each moment only comes once. Even if you could recreate each moment that led up to Amazon, you’d be doing it in a world that already has Amazon. The time that created Amazon initially is over.
- Innovate or die. Companies need to find fresh ideas, bring out fresh concepts to fresh customers. Now, if there’s a concept out there that’s doing a horrible job serving it’s market, that’s not to say you can’t do better. Offering a different core value and unique value proposition isn’t copying; it’s following a different business model.
- The money is less likely to be there. Even the name of the funds tells you what the world is looking for. Venture capital, kickstarters, and innovation funds. No one wants to fund the thing that already exists. What they’re looking for is something new, something different, something that will knock people back a pace and make them really think.
- Even though it looks like you can copy a business from the outside, you’ll generally find that the parts that really make a business succeed – its employee training, customer service model, soft skills, and marketing strategies – are more difficult to copy. You can’t capture all of those things.
And the biggest reason?
If you copy directly, you may be infringing on copyright or trademark law, and be subject to legal penalties.
Every day, the world notices knock-off websites, knock-off ads, copy that’s been plagiarized. Even if you don’t get legally punished for using these techniques, you will be noticed, and your reputation will plummet. In a world that revolves around social media, your reputation is the only currency you have that matters, in terms of capturing sales leads and customers. If you can’t treat your competition respectfully, why would any customer trust that you’d treat them respectfully?
So to answer the broader question: maybe you can succeed, over the short term, by copying a successful firm, but it’s much more likely that you’ll waste your time, your money, and your energy. You’re better served by looking for your own business idea, or applying a successful idea to a community that isn’t seeing reach. There are so many underserved audiences and underdeveloped business ideas out there. If you can’t find anything better to do than copy from other successes, than it may be that entrepreneurship isn’t the best path for you.