It’s 2002. I’m running a dating site with a friend. Free Google traffic is all the rage. There’s also another dating site that copies our SEO strategy and eventually starts beating us. Boy, are we mad. Fast forward to now: I still do startups, and that other site (PlentyOfFish.com) sold for $575M last year.
There’s a topic in the business world which generates so much heat, especially when the parties involved are large. It’s stealing ideas. Or “borrowing”, or getting inspired — whatever you want to call it.
When that happens a lot of people start screaming like mad, among them are writers (who need to make a story), fanboys (who think that plebs are about to overrun their exclusive club) and idea authors who feel downright robbed.
Steve Jobs promised to spend the last penny in his bank to “right this wrong” about Android. I was a die-hard Apple fanboy back then, and while it was easy to agree that Android was a “stolen product”, I still believed that his sentiment was hollow. Fast forward to now: everybody is used to the iOS-pioneered interface, both platforms won, both have roughly the same features and nobody cares.
Why agonize over things that WILL be irrelevant in a few years? I haven’t heard meaningful answers but the circus of media bashing and fanboy wars will return with the next high-profile copycatting.
There’s that sentiment that if you copy someone’s ideas, that’s because you have nothing to bring to the table. If you can only produce uninspired copies, you will fail or, at best, will always play catch-up and never be the leader.
Certainly Google could afford designers who could come up with ideas. Being original should not be confused with avoiding other people’s good ideas.
If anything, it’s unproductive. When your competitor brings something new and it clearly makes sense for you to do something similar, there are no good reasons to ignore it. Your customers will appreciate if you adopt it in a way that makes sense for them.
Still, the society punishes or shames copying ideas. Patent holders will sue you, the public will judge you. This presumably should make you try harder to innovate. However, the opposite is true. Many people are afraid to do anything for the sole fear of being judged for unoriginal work. I’ve heard so much BS along the lines of “the world doesn’t need another design agency”, etc.
But take it further, there’s evidence that even literature copyright laws might stall progress.
We need to recognize the real reasons why we may be upset when someone copies our ideas, or why we hesitate to do so. It’s mostly ego, fear of being judged, fear of losing revenue, focusing on competition and other junk bewildering our heads. Our only guiding light should be doing what’s good for customers.
But it was MY idea!
The general argument is that it takes talent and hard work to innovate. Excuse me, but everybody works hard nowadays and talent is a lottery, what exactly are you proud of?
Think of it. Talent is random. Being proud of a random thing you didn’t earn is ignorant. It’s of the same nature as feeling entitled because of the “right” skin color or first world citizenship. Slippery slope, huh?
I’m a big believer that we are not our ideas. There’s that universal information space — call it god, or life, or culture brainwashing — that occasionally whispers the right things at the right time in our ears. We call talented those of us who can hear it clearly. Or are they just attentive?
So first, we are idea transmitters or connectors, not generators. Should a Wi-fi router take pride in a Wikipedia article it transmits to my laptop?
Second, the same ideas are known to come to many heads at once. It’s only important who can put an idea to the right use. And if the idea’s only value is what you do with it, does it matter where it comes from?
But I need it to win!
Let’s say, you are about to release a product feature. You think it will be instantly copied by your closest competitor. So, should you hold it back? Or, release an inferior version to mislead them?
If somebody wants to copy, what the hell, let them do it. You can’t prevent it and the outcome may not be what you fear it to be.
Ideas in the form of released features do not directly correlate with success. PlentyOfFish won because it was free (which was unheard of at the time) and managed to support its explosive growth. Our site failed because apart from SEO we screwed just about everything else.
If your idea gets copied by a competitor, it means that either another smart market insider agrees that your idea is so good they need to have it (awesome!), or your competitor is clueless and blindly copies what they don’t understand (double awesome!). There’s no downside to you, really.
Change your thinking framework
Whether you hesitate to copy a good idea for your product or sniff at someone for doing that, you are in business for the wrong reasons.
If you were an Inbill customer, I’d have a question for you: do you want us to be original, or do you want us to use whatever the world has to offer to serve you best?
The answer is obvious, and only customers are qualified to give it. Don’t ask your ego.
If Intercom announces a cool new feature, will Zendesk offer something similar? No? But it’s important, maybe we should switch then?
There’s only one thing we and our competitors should do: build the highest possible long-term customer value on each other’s shoulders. That’s true competition. If we insist on turning it into a fashion show instead, the customers will just stop attending.
Successful businesses do not run on ego.