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?)
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”.