Copycat Innovation

Pioneers – those innovative “first movers” who enter markets before competitors are often defined as engines of economic growth while imitators are generally scorned as copycats and shameful followers.

Calling someone a copycat isn’t a very nice thing to say usually. Many people think even imitation itself has a negative connotation. Despite this, tech companies are notorious for fiercely copying each other’s products and services, essentially “stealing” ideas. Well, “Picasso had a saying, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’

While some consumers and firms get frustrated with companies releasing copycat products, the reality is that this results in better products for the consumer.

What consumers fail to realise, is that a copycat company is putting pressure on first mover company to innovate to stay ahead of the game. Over time, these two offerings will continue to innovate and differentiate, pushing the other to do better. Indeed, what looks like innovation is often actually artful imitation. This is healthy competition, without competition, everything stagnates. When a product that has been in development for one year can be copied and brought to market in a very short time, first mover advantage has lost its … well, advantage. Once stigmatized, imitation is now acceptable. In fact, where innovation brings new things into the world, imitation spreads them; where innovators break the old mold, imitators perfect the new one; and while innovators can win big, imitators often win bigger.

Coming up with breakthrough ideas and innovations is indeed tempting and glamorous, if successful. Success could namely be market domination. However, this strategy carries the biggest risks and demands massive efforts and resources. It is an activity that is complex, costly and with very little promise of a return on investment. Work on the successor of the successful product has to start immediately, which means that the successive research budget must be increasingly higher than the original innovation.

In today’s expansive tech market, it’s almost impossible not to be a copycat. Don’t let that deter you. Do you want to be a pioneer innovator that carries great risks and get only 2.2% of your possible innovation value or be in the category copycat Innovators that could possibly reap 97.8% of the innovation value?

Companies can innovate more quickly by standing on the shoulders of their predecessors than by constantly starting from scratch. Smart companies steal from each other, taking some poorly implemented ideas and making them better

The intelligent design approach facing these conditions and the best and most efficient route to innovation is not just imitation or copying but copycat innovation.

Smart steps on the road of copycat innovation: Be able to ask the right questions to identify the core issue – identifying the causes and not just the symptoms, look at the market, observe consumers, steal ideas, convert them, redesign existing components, refine them, improve and optimize them, adapt them, built better, cut to the core, make sure to be ethical and respects intellectual property rights, test the ideas and prototyping rather than planning.

Design is not about being subtle. It’s about bringing up the distinctive character of a product and accentuating it. One of the key design principles of great designers is to make the assets of the product stand out. Design is about implementing user needs in a short period of time. It runs on the spirit of “put it out there and see how it goes.” Production cycles are very short and quality may be compromised, but over time the product is improved and becomes more stable. In other words, it is time to be innovative about imitation.

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