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This article was published on June 9, 2012

Beware of cheap imitations? Copycat startups deserve media coverage if they’re good enough

Beware of cheap imitations? Copycat startups deserve media coverage if they’re good enough
Paul Sawers
Story by

Paul Sawers

Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check h Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check him out on Google+.

You can’t beat the real thing. That’s what they say, isn’t it? So much focus is placed on ‘original’, ‘authenticate’ and ‘genuine’, as companies strive to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

The power of the brand, for many, is worth more than the product itself, as consumers see the brand as a signifier of a superior product. But for others, brands are really just an excuse for companies to charge more money for something that is no different from the countless others on the market. Heinz schmeinz, Tesco’s own baked beans are just as good. Whilst the arguments for and against these contrasting attitudes would make for a lively discussion in itself, it’s interesting to look at how this concept translates into the online startup space.

Do folk attach more value to, say, Instagram over the countless other filter-based photo apps that hit the market in its wake? Instagram may not have been the absolute original photo app of that ilk, but it was the first to do it as well as it did, aided by good timing with the release of the iPhone 4 and its superior camera. It then got significant traction leading to other copycat developers trying to get their slice of the pie, but I think we all know how this one ended.

But how much exposure should we be giving to these slew of me-too apps? Should we turn a blind eye and pretend they don’t exist, or give credit where credit’s due in instances where clones also build interesting new features atop their pilfered work?

Startup copycats: You’re doing it wrong

Earlier this week we published a guest post by Stefano Bernardi, looking at some of the things to look out for if you’re ever planning to clone another startup.

Startup copycats: You’re doing it wrong took a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach (I think) to the subject, before asserting that consumer Web startups should be avoided, whilst highly regulated industries, or sectors with a need for a strong ‘local’ focus, were ripe for ripping off.

“Consumer Internet is a single winner market, where only one gorilla company emerges. There is no second place.

Please do not clone Pinterest. Do not clone Instagram. It will not work. Not matter what Pinspire and co. want you to believe. Cloning social startups is extremely hard as you face the same growth problems of the American startup, in a market with fewer early adopters and many more monetization challenges.”

In other words, if you’re not fast you’re last. The steady flow of press releases pitching copycat apps never ceases to amaze me, often offered under a ‘revolutionary’ or ‘unique’ banner. Are the PR people and app creators behind them really that blind to the fact that they’ve just copied Instagram/Uber/Pinterest? I’m usually too polite to ask, choosing to merely turn down their offer of an ‘exclusive’, but one of these days I may just pop the question. I’m genuinely curious.

Clone kings

Some clever souls have made their millions from copying others. The story of Germany’s Samwer Brothers is a fascinating one, not just because of their penchant for taking successful and proven ideas from one market and copying them, but making a lot of money from doing so by selling up to the companies they cloned in the first place.

But the question is this: Is it wrong to do what they do? Essentially, steal ideas and capitalize on the fact that tech firms can’t fully localize their product for every market quickly enough? It’s annoying for the original creators, sure, and it’s certainly cheeky on the perpetrator’s part, but heck isn’t it also a just a little bit enterprising?

As long as they do a good job of building and deploying the copycat product, it seems this can only be good for the local market. And when Groupon or whichever other tech giant starts to look at the market to launch its own product, only to realize someone has, erm, beaten them to it, they have a ready-made customer base to snap up (at a grossly inflated asking price, admittedly). Just to reiterate, it’s cheeky and annoying for some, but we should still be there to cover it.

Copycat case-study: Clear vs. Task

This is all a rather convoluted way of getting round to talking about an article I wrote earlier this week. I was sent a pitch for a to-do list iOS app called Task. It looked pretty nice, and given that we love productivity apps here at The Next Web, I thought it was at least worth a look. However, it was immediately obvious that it had borrowed – nay, copied – the entire interface and navigation from another app we’d previously covered, called Clear.

Just to be clear (pardon the pun), I wrote this at the time by way of acknowledging this blatant rip-off :

“Task is so unashamedly similar to Clear in just about every respect, that it’s hard not to be a little put out by this. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that it has been copied from the ground up.”

Normally, such an app wouldn’t merit a write-up, but because it had introduced a key feature that, in my mind, improved the app significantly, I thought it was more than worthy of a write-up. Whilst Clear is a straight-forward list app, Task introduces a calendar component with a reminder function that swings the pendulum in its favor. A very simple move, but one that makes the copycat app the better incarnation.

I suspected this move might irk some people, given we’re talking about a full-on copy here, but I thought ‘what the hell?’, and published it anyway. Why? Because with a single slight of hand, Task had produced a better app. But a few folk weren’t overly happy that it had received (positive) coverage. “Task looks like a straight ripoff of Clear, and you’re giving it a nod like this, let alone any press at all?” questioned one commenter. “That’s a bit insulting. If I copied and pasted your site’s source code and used it to fire up my own publication, I wager you wouldn’t shower me with the same praise.”

True, I probably wouldn’t shower you with praise, but that’s because you stole MY site. But, if you’d taken what I had done and improved on it, I like to think I would at least acknowledge what you’d done better.

So, here’s the crux of the issue. Do we do the noble thing and ignore startups and app creators when they appropriate other people’s creativity for their own ends, even though they bring their own thing to the table? Or do we write about it because we think people will want to know about it?

The onus is on the innovators to make the very best apps, and if someone comes along and takes what they did and makes it better, well, that’s worthy of coverage in my view.

Image Credit: Thrig | Flickr