Defending the German copycat

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photo by dotdean

We’ve been talking a lot about copycats in the web scene, and how the wealth of copycats has given Germany a bad rep. I’ve been part of this bashing, too. But maybe it’s time to switch perspective for a moment and look at this thing from another angle. And so I present you:

A Defense of the German Copycat

As a silly joke goes, “you know your startup is successful if there is a German copycat.” There is a grain of truth in the joke.

Copycats help internationalize! Yet, these copycats are an expression of demand in a market that is underserved by those companies that focus too strongly on the US instead of thinking globally. The StudiVZs, Hyves and Orkuts of the worlds only grew to their peak reach because Facebook didn’t care for, or at least didn’t target, most other countries. Interfaces stayed untranslated, cultural specifics and legal requirements were ignored. As soon as Facebook actually had even weak (machine-translated? crowdsourced?) interfaces in other languages, they easily pulled ahead of everyone else in the game and crushed them. (Except for the legal requirements, which they still ignore. Let’s see where that will go.)

Copycats foster diversity! Often, while copying the basic premise (or even layout) of a service, the copycat tweaks the idea slightly, adapting to a specific need that wasn’t targeted by the original service. This way, they foster diversity – think of them as a user feature request.

Copycats foster innovation! Most importantly, though, think of the mechanic behind innovator and copycat. If no one was chasing the original service, do you think they would keep innovating, or maybe slow down in their development? If you know a well-funded copycat is playing a permanent game of catch-up and has the added advantage of being able to learn from your failures, you know that you’d better keep getting better. Once you have an army of clones chasing you, you won’t stop innovating. This means better outcomes for the users. (Maybe, just like monopolies are kept in check by anti-trust action, a similar mechanism should kick in and a few copycats should be publicly funded to keep the original web service on their toes?)

Discuss!

Update: For the record, I wasn’t serious about this. (In fact, I’m almost shocked how many people took me serious here.) I do see how these points could be legitimately made, and how there is a role that copycats play. As I commented on Parker’s blogpost, I wrote this “…with a bit of a wink. While there’s a legit role for building on the work of others, I still don’t quite get how people get up in the morning to build a clone of another service.” He rightly points out how important it is not to mix up the “copycats” with the “inspired-bys”.

Photo by dotdean (some rights reserved: CC-by-nc)

7 comments

  • I can see where you are going with this. And I like how you played devil’s advocate here. Yes, I agree a copycat can keep the original service on its toes and push them to innovate. At least when the copycat has gained some traction and is a worthy copy. What I mean by that is if the copycat is just a poor implementation of the original idea it won’t be much of a driving force for innovation. It will just be looked upon as a petty attempt not worth thinking about.

    But I can give you a full ACK on the internationalization claim. Sadly, it does take a while for lots of big services to acknowledge the benefits.

  • Hi Peter, those are definitly valid points! I’d like to share some of our own insights into the topic:

    In 2009 we did a small piece on what we came to call “fakesumption”. The focus was China’s vivid scene of fakers and buyers of fake goods: http://www.slideshare.net/TrendBuero/fakesumption

    Jörg (you might know him from next11, he curated the mobile track) presented the findings at lift09: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x9u532_jorg-jelden-the-future-of-fake-lift_tech

    Greets, Florian

  • It’s funny that more people are taking you seriously than you expected. I wonder if the people who do more than roll their eyes at this are international? Don’t want to get armchair psychologist on you, but I suspect the modifier “German” here means more than, y’know, from Germany. Maybe it’s kind of a shorthand for the Samwer-style cargo-cult copycats that you’ve had to read about and groan for years.

    In the past year especially, a lot of people around the world are learning about start-ups from Germany, and it’s not nearly as grim a picture as you’ve been looking at. There are a number of “inspired-bys” that come awfully close to the original, but many are no more similar than, say, Reddit was to Digg, or Facebook was to Myspace.

    Over the past year I’ve been making some of the points you’re joking about in earnest — I’d rather Kickstarter came here for example, but until they do, why shouldn’t somebody fill that niche in German? I think those people could probably get up in the morning with the same general ease that Kickstarter employees do, even though the latter were knocked for being an IndieGoGo “copycat” until it became clear they were doing something special.

  • @Peter 2nd try. Not sure, what happend to my comment. Maybe I failed to post it, or it didn’t get approval. Still wanted to share this:

    Yes, copycats are lame. Not original, not innvovate. And there’s often an ugly side to how ruthlessly they are copying. But some of them still answer to consumer demand in the most pragmatic way: Give people what they want, when they want it.

    There’s more truth in what you wrote than you might think. (even if you don’t seem to have been serious about it)

    We did this small piece on fakers and buyers of fakes in China in 2009: http://www.slideshare.net/TrendBuero/fakesumption I think you have to take a broader approach on the topic, trying not to forget the demand side.

    Cheers, Florian

  • Florian, good points. And no, I wasn’t seriously defending copycats. However, there is (as Parker pointed out) a big difference between copycats/clones on one side and “inspired-bys” on the other. A better way than to just look at the service might be to try to judge the teams by their motivations. Tricky, admittedly, and error-prone; however, I trust we can somewhat reliably estimate who’s in it just for the money, and who to make a difference. This can be expressed in the style of the product, in love for detail, in company culture, in the track record of founders and investors.

    I’m not going to name a negative example here, but rather a positive one: Take 6Wunderkinder, who announced the Berlin Anti-Copycat Alliance. Now, their first spin-off product is a to do list. That’s hardly something new, so they could be labeled a copycat. However, I don’t think anyone would, because they still found a different take on the subject (here: design & usability), and they’re clearly not just in it to quickly grow and sell to AOL or what-have-you, riding the big to do list bandwagon. (If there is such a thing.) To be fair, they’re also working on a larger product yet to be released, so we’ll see where they take it.

    My point, though, to sum it up: I agree, some of the point I jokingly listed could contain more truth than I’d like. In this case, I’ll gladly attribute them not to copycats, though, but to those who really actually strive to fill those gaps we talked about, not just to freeride on someone else’s success to make some money quickly. (And, for the record, I still don’t think government-funded copycats are a good idea. ;)

  • Update: Florian, after I read your second comment I checked – your first one was caught in the spam filter. Just pulled it out there and approved. Sorry about the delay.

  • @Peter No, worries. Thx for sharing! Always a pleasure to follow your thoughts. :-) I hate copycats just as much as the next guy, esp. when they’re just about copying, growing and selling their rip-off product. What I wanted to add to the discussion is the point, that there are a lot of shades of copying. That’s why I posted our presentation about Chinese fakers. There are some really interesting dynamics at work there. But they – agreably – don’t apply to the start-up scene… ;-)