Tagcopycat

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)

Something is happening in Berlin (you can feel it in the streets)

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It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Berlin for a long time. (That didn’t happen until after I moved here, but that’s a different story.) So far, that was mostly for personal reasons: I moved here to study, I have friends here, the city is interesting and quality of life is fantastic – that is, if you like the run-down, alternative charm and everything-goes attitude of Berlin.

Besides, Berlin is a city of layer upon layer – of history, of social issues, of politics, of subcultures. Economically Berlin has been a wrack for ages – largely because of the separation and its effects that you can still feel today even though the Wall has been gone for 20 years: This is, after all, a city where “real” (read: brick and mortar) industries hardly had a chance. So even today, the biggest sectors besides tourism are politics and media.

More recently, though, another layer has been been added, and another sector is emerging, and strongly. Tech startups. While it has become a bit of a running joke that if a web service exists, there is a German copy cat of it, Berlin has become a place where young entrepreneurs (both German and international) come to build their new companies. The reasons are manifold, but there is a common pattern: Relatively cheap rent, high quality of life, good nightlife and a laid-back atmosphere take a lot of the hassles away that you have to deal with in other places.

That’s worth something. Maybe even enough to put up with the iconic German bureaucracy.

As many of my friends work in this new startup environment I’ve been watching this space closely, and there’s fantastic energy there. Now the press is catching up, and so are VCs: Hardly a week without some article about Berlin as a new European startup hub, or news that this VC or that plan to open an office here. There are closed-door, intimate lunches and open networking meetups galore, parties, everything.

There are two sides to that coin, obviously. Yes, there is tremendous stuff going on right now, which is fantastic. But it also shows (painfully, I’m tempted to add) all the things that hadn’t been happening before. That said, the trend points to a good, healthy future as this ecosystem is emerging.

So when I read this announcement about an anti-copycat alliance of Berlin-based startups it made me smile. I had heard the conversations before, but it’s good to see this made explicit, and to see so many friends directly involved. This shows that there’s a common denominator, a common spirit that ties this scene together more strongly. They – we – are getting bolder here.

Can’t wait to see where we can take this.

Update: Derk Marseille, a Dutch journalist who has been working from our office on and off for a little while, has kicked off a neat new podcast to capture that spirit: Radio F@6 – not to be confused with our after work drinkup #FatSIX.