What’s wrong with being a copycat?

Oct 31, 2011
Vote on Hacker News

It’s funny almost to the point of hilarity. We applaud numerous copycat companies around the globe (Yandex anyone?) but are quick to criticize when it comes to Europe.

The good faker.

Take China’s Renren, the local Facebook equivalent. Despite being in Chinese, it looks an awful lot like Zuckerberg’s website – down to the interface and the colors. And it’s not alone. With sites and applications like Baidu (Chinese Google), HappyFarm (Chines FarmVille), TaoBao (now Ebay) and more, one would think that China is just overflowing with copycat companies. Yet the articles that gloss over Chinese copying – like those in FastCompany and more recently in the FT– don’t belittle Chinese entrepreneurs for inspiring themselves with already-existing technologies. Why?

Because everyone loves a good fake.

“What? You don’t think that I can tell the difference?”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-bsf2x-aeE]

Trust me, this video (somehow) is relevant.

Oh, Germany.

Everyone knows that the German Samwer brothers have been wildly successful at copying US companies in Europe. Having made multiple exits and local equivalents to Ebay, Airbnb, Birchbox, Facebook, Groupon, Zappos and more, these guys are leveraging their knowledge of the big, German market to quickly execute before the Americans can enter.

A continent of copycats. Yeah, so?

But aside from the Samwers, Europe is for some reason insecure when it comes to copying – even in Germany. But as Davor Hebel of Fidelity Investments points out,what’s wrong with being a copycat? After all, US companies Facebook, Apple and Google are all – yes – copycats. And it isn’t like Europeans are the only ones copying; did Vente-Privée not inspire the likes of Gilt?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeTybKL1pM4]

Copying is not creative?

The one argument that people love to present when they criticize copying is that it lacks in creativity. Uh…really? Sure, you may not have had the idea to begin with – but then again, nobody copies without the intention of doing it better. In addition, is it really copying if you are executing in a different market and having to adapt the product to numerous local differences? Honestly, there is creativity in copying and some of the best entrepreneurs have been successful by shamelessly taking it to the extreme.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW0DUg63lqU]

Why Europe should copy more.

I, of all people, never thought I would be an advocate of copying. When I first started getting into tech and entrepreneurship, it was the creativity and the inventiveness of entrepreneurs that I fell in love with. But it would be naive to think that great entrepreneurs don’t copy. They do and they should copy. And this is why I don’t understand why Europe is so defensive about it. In fact, why don’t we actually embrace the Samwer model in more countries? Perhaps because Europe’s other markets are smaller and more fragmented than Germany – or because some countries seem to prefer US-made tech. But it is definitely one-way that Europe can capitalize on the fact that American entrepreneurs tend to be incredibly US-centric…is Europe just supposed to sit back and wait for American entrepreneurs to finally take an interest in launching abroad? Puh-lease.

The Opentable problem.

Not only do American companies take their time before they actually take an interest in Europe – there is also the chance that they will poorly execute in a foreign market. Ever wonder why nobody uses Opentable in France? For anyone who doesn’t know, the company launched in France in 2008 and then shut down their French operations when they couldn’t crack the market. But there are tons of local Opentable equivalents – La Fourchette, Restopolitan, TableOnline, etc. – that have all beat the NASDAQ-listed company at the international game.

So on that note, I’d like to invite Europe to stop criticizing and embrace its copycats. Thank you.