The rise of copycatting machines: Why (some) copycat product are more successful than the original !

Copycatting is the new black.

After investors calling for TikTok (and the rest of 58 chinese apps) copycats, it seems copying successful products will soon be a normal (it has been, but is now pronounced well in the public domain).

1. HDFC securities copies the design + copy of a fintech startup, Orowealth.

2. Newly launched JioMeet, the ‘made in India’ video platform from Jio has pretty much same UI and UX as Zoom.

Is copycatting bad?

It is often said that copying product ideas are bad – but then, if you are a smart cat, you can play it to your advantage. Without getting into a theoretical debate, let’s take a look at some of the examples where copycats have performed better than the originals.

Facebook News Feed vs. Twitter

Facebook wanted to acquire Twitter. Twitter rejected. Facebook went ahead and copied the news feed idea, which literally took Facebook to a new level.

Is Facebook more successful than Twitter? Well, it is no secret that Twitter is a great (?) place to have public conversation / debates, but Facebook News feed has resulted in a massive advertising business for FB and the revenue numbers speak for itself.

2019 Revenue: Facebook $70Bn, Twitter: $3.46 Bn.

In fact, pretty much most of Facebook’s latest ‘innovation’ are inspired from companies FB failed to acquire (case in point: WhatsApp status -> Snapchat)

Freecharge vs Paytm

Yes. You read it right.

Paytm took a lot of inspiration on the free recharge model from Freecharge in the early days (right from even copying the idea of giving away free coupons inside cold drinks bottles)

As of today, Freecharge (which saw a handsome exit, and then was sold for peanuts) now exists as a namesake brand while Paytm continues to build on top of its recharge userbase and is way more valuable.

A broader use-case strategy works if you are great at copying and weaving the story for the end user.

Most SAAS companies started as a copycat of an existing product.

For instance, the grand daddy, Salesforce offered pretty much similar feature set as Siebel.

Similarly, Pipedrive has been an inspiration to almost all of the companies who have launched CRM products.

Of course, let’s not forget what Bill Gates told Steve Jobs, when Steve Jobs accused him of stealing his idea,

“Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

Why some copycats work better than original?

Conventional wisdom often tells us that being original is cool and all. But then, TS Eliot said it all.

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Some copycats are more successful than original because a possible mix of following reasons:

1. Much better distribution
If Facebook copies your startup idea, chances are that idea has more eyeballs than a startup can garner (unless it is is Snapchat).

Remember: It isn’t about the product, but the distribution that matters and copycats like Facebook have way more distribution powers than a startup.

2. Much better aligned with customer journey

Ultimately, it’s all about the customer journey. The one who is better aligned with customer’s motivation and taste stands to win, no matter whether that entity is an original or a copycat.

People, you see, do not care  so much. They just need to get things done and whether you have a xerox machine or a HP machine, as long as it can xerox, it works !

3. Pricing / Different positioning.

Pricing is often a positioning statement.

What Salesforce did with Siebel is a great case study on pricing and positioning.

No software, said Salesforce eliminating all sorts of installation / maintenance and pre-sales consulting etc costs.

The two CRM products pretty much did the same thing, but Salesforce was priced at a fraction of what Siebel was charging – and Salesforce went hard and aggressive on its stand.

Similarly, companies like Zerodha have created traction by bringing down the cost by a huge percentage.

Before you thing copycats always win

There are 2 types of copycats – dumb vs. smart ones.

Copycats who win are not the ones who are just passive copycats, but the aggressive innovators, and the best example is Facebook.

Facebook goes after a feature (for e.g. Snapchat’s ephemeral status) and doesn’t rests till it has perfected the product.

Copy, but bring your heart and soul to it! Make it ‘your own’, i.e. align with the customer journey better than the originals.

“If you take that word (steal)… and replace it with ‘make it your own,’ I think the underlying idea is that you can’t do great design by copying something because you aren’t going to care about it. If you take something and make it your own, what really happens is now you care about that design. It’s your design, and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing.” [Apple software vice president, Bud Tribble]

What are the other examples of copycat product beating the original?

By the way, you wanna learn product management for free and learn to make successful products? Apply for an invite here.

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