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The case for copying business ideas (clearfounder.com)
165 points by gx 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

It should be noted that the concept of originality and its associated "mighty pioneer Vs lowly copiers" mindset is mainly a Western cultural artifact. For example in China during most of its history if you wanted to become, say, a renowned painter, you were expected to spend your formative years copying the masters, because in that culture mastering your craft is (much) more important than being original.

I don't hold originality in that much high regard for two reasons: first, it tends to downplay the part that's not original, and most of the time that's most of the product. Everything Is A Remix [1]. And second, I would have more respect for distinct products if they didn't result in endless copyright/patent extensions -- it becomes a bit too easy to say it was "your idea" if it applies to stuff created 60 years ago. At some point it should become part of the baseline, instead of undue revenue for rent-seekers.

[1] https://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/

> For example in China during most of its history if you wanted to become, say, a renowned painter, you were expected to spend your formative years copying the masters (...)

This is exactly how you were supposed to become a master painter during the Renaissance in Europe as well.

That sparks a link to a nice little story: A couple of years ago in IJmuiden (a Dutch harbor town where I used to live) a containerload of 'old Dutch masters' was seized by customs. Inside endless copies of famous Dutch paintings, meticulous work made for peanuts by very talented Chinese painters who had learned to copy from their masters as well as ours.

How many ground breaking innovations has China had? How many has the west had? Case in point, copying is not productive in the long run.

This is a tired and myopic dismissal and we can't learn anything from it. Could you please increase the level of substance in your posts?


People said that about Japan 40 years, they said that about Korea 20 years ago, and it's already becoming irrelevant about China today. Yes, they caught up by copying, like everyone else did (including the USA).

There are now entire product categories which come out of China and no-where else. Drones. Camera gymbals. Personal electric scooters. Heck, their entire system of government could be called "innovative" - certainly no-one else has ever tried that before.

Give it 20 years and it'll be onto the next developing country which is copying to catch up, and China will be amongst the lead innovators - if not, as I suspect, the easy winner.

>Heck, their entire system of government could be called "innovative" - certainly no-one else has ever tried that before.

Authoritarian one-party rule with a strongman at the top is nothing new, they just have newer tools to enforce it.

Every shelf at your local store filled with imports from that one-party state is pretty new in my book. And "strongman"? What are you basing that on? Saddam Hussein was a "strongman". Xi Jinping is unusually powerful for the president of the CCP, sure, but he still needs to be re-elected in 2022.

Or of the United States in the early 19th century. The 1851 Crystal Palace exposition was quite a shock.

Care to expand on that? Why was the 1851 Expo a shock?

Because the US was considered a backwater at the time by Europe, Britain particularly.

Merrit Roe Smith, STS.050, MIT


Steam engine?

Gun powder?


Movable type?

Clocks, compass, alcohol and on and on.

Really this is a 'What did the Romans ever do for us?' type of question.

How many ground breaking innovations has China had?

Quite an impressive number. Enough to fill over 27 volumes in a project spanning nearly 70 years: Joseph Needham's epic Science and Civilisation in China.


The point isn't that the west hasn't copied things. The point is that the west puts emphasis on originality and "innovation" and downplays the value of copying.

Learn to do it right (copy), then figure out how to do it better (innovate).

That’s the point: what makes “innovation” so good and noble, and duplication so bad? Why is originality the measuring stick?

I happen to think an inexpensive copy of a useful product is far better than a newly invented product that’s expensive or less useful.

Example: Cheap generic drugs vs expensive patented name brands.

Exactly. The obsession with "innovation" is how you get feature creep. You can improve something by copying it and figuring out how to do it easier/cheaper/quicker.

As @jacquesm noted, you kind of picked the wrong target there.

But to get to the root of your argument: accepting copying as normal does not mean "no innovation", but "different innovation". Does that mean ground-breaking stuff would pop up noticeably less often? Possibly. But it's also likely that once released these products would iteratively reach a higher level of quality than what we have now (I cannot equate "learning from the masters" with the existence of Windows 8 or Gnome 3, for example). Different paths, but headed the same way.

For most of human history, China was the most advanced civilization in the world.

Smart people have always stolen ideas from completely unrelated industries.

I mean, Gutenberg invented the printing press after seeing a wine press crush grapes. Velcro was invented when some guy found burrs stuck to his trousers.

Genius isn’t conceiving some magic new technology. It's taking a mature technology and transplanting it elsewhere.

For Christmas, I bought myself a pass to Masterclass.com. They have classes by people like Malcolm Gladwell, Helen Mirren and Martin Scorsese.

I found that watching them sparks all kinds of unexpected epiphanies that you can apply to your life or your work.

For example, Deadmau5 has a folder of unfinished loops and melodies. He calls it his "Mr Potatohead" bin. He spends his time building little components – and then once in a while experiments with different ways of putting them together to make a track.

That's actually very similar to how I write.

Observing other professions is a great way to get your brain purring.

>For example, Deadmau5 has a folder of unfinished loops and melodies. He calls it his "Mr Potatohead" bin. He spends his time building little components – and then once in a while experiments with different ways of putting them together to make a track.

KRS-One reportedly did something similar:

> ‘Go to the car, and get me the black, blue, and green bags. And bring those here.’ They bring them in. ‘Great.’ He unzips these duffle bags full of stacks and stacks of rhyme notebooks. Rhymes he wrote in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He’ll go, ‘Umm, let’s see here, and that, and here, give me that yellow one, okay, and give me that brown one. Okay, let’s go lay the song.’ And he uses like three different rhymes, but they all sound relevant. And they sound like something he just wrote. He just skims through it, and murmurs then goes, ‘Okay, I got it.’ These are rhymes he been had, and they sound like today. That’s amazing.

from https://www.complex.com/music/2011/02/dj-premier-tells-all-s...

I'm pretty sure he was referencing this practice in 1, 2 Pass it:

>I'm the difference between indo and oregano. Imagine how fresh I am now; I made these lyrics up a year ago.

Until the modern era. Now those ideas are copyrighted and patented. The Wine Press Industry would've sued gutenberg and the entire book making industry for making "a device that can press plant material" if this were the modern era of Intellectual Property.

That's what Toyota did for a while. They recycled existing technology to make their little engines better and faster, instead of developing new engines at a much higher cost.

The Samwer brothers have turned this into a huge business.


(Fun tidbit: that photograph is also a clone, of a sleeve for a Kraftwerk record: https://nerdist.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/maxresdefault...)

I think that qualifies as a homage rather than a simple "clone".

There are probably very few original ideas anyway. Google wasn't new, search engines already existed. Yahoo! wasn't new, web directories already existed. If you trace it hard enough, you could get to filling cabinets and folders. Over the years, I have realized that the idea of 'idea' is itself problematic. It implies that you can describe something very complex with a simple phrase (in hindsight, of course). What was iPhone? A smartphone done right? To get to iPhone, Apple had to solve thousands of tiny problems and it's rather simplistic to say that other companies missed the wave because of complacence. You don't decide to make a better smartphone, and declare your victory.

The same problem is with the word 'talent.' To quote lines from one of my favorite research papers:

> What we call talent is no more than a projected reification of particular things done: hands placed correctly in the water, turns crisply executed, a head held high rather than low in the water. Through the notion of talent, we transform particular actions that a human being does into an object possessed, held in trust for the day when it will be revealed for all to see.

I think better way to think about all this is in terms of problems and their solutions. If you know a your customers face certain problem and it has already been solved, go ahead and copy it. Customers don't care where the idea came from when you do what they want/need.

This whole concept of idea ownership is pretty damaging to progress - most progress in 20th century was seeing several companies compete in same space and take ideas from competitors, iterating on them and integrating them in new, improved products.

Imagine if one car company could "own" the idea of blind spot monitoring. Or navigation. Or rear view camera.

I would go for much simpler things. Like a differential gear on your drive wheels. Without it, you either have a solid axle that literally drags and squeals your tires on every turn, or you only get one drive wheel so your car has a permanent biased to turn one direction and not the other. Or direct injection which would give a permanent advantage in fuel efficiency over competitors.

On the other hand, there is little incentive to spend a billion dollars developing a one dollar product if it gets copied by everyone else. It can incentivize stagnation.

I imagine that scenario applies to very few industries and should not dictate the norms of others.

On still another hand, essentially placing a $1,000,000,000 barrier to entry on product innovation can incentivize stagnation as well.

or to put it another way - execution trumps ideation. A great idea executed badly (or even mediocrely) will still suck, but an average idea executed to perfection will have the opportunity to seize the market.

"Ideas are just a multiplier of execution" https://sivers.org/multiply

Exactly. My quote is ideas are nothing and at best a head start. Execution is everything and execution at scale is legendary.

This sums all that is wrong with business. A few original pioneers at the beginning and the rest are at best slightly improved copies as they require lowest energy to spend, yet boasting their awesomeness everywhere in order to sell.

In India, Flipkart is often criticized for "copying" Amazon's idea (not that "sell stuff online" was revolutionary to begin with).

But the thing is, Flipkart entered the Indian market before Amazon.

As a consumer, I derived more value from Flipkart's "copy" that served me than from Amazon's "originality".

Same with Android. As a consumer, Android may have copied iOS, but Android's copy was far more affordable to me, and hence, I derived far more value from it than the original.

As a European and an android user, without the "copiers" most of those "original pioneers" would deliver no value to me, so I'm very glad the "copiers" exist.

Don't want your business copied? Make it available to everyone yourself in the first place.

What if the discovery process is risky and expensive? Protecting the idea is what pays the investors back.

I think the idea is that if you license your work for slightly less than the cost of copying, everybody wins. But if you refuse to license, it's a net loss. This model goes far but does break down as the ratio of cost of creation to cost of duplication increases.

I'd rather there be a few investors making products that I get to use than a lot of investors making products that I don't get to use.

This sums up everything right with business. Market forces drive technology to constantly improve as new products build on the ideas of the past.

- Business is not art.

- Even art isn't totally original.

Being a pioneer does not mean success. It is the execution that counts. The core business idea is important, but less than half of the whole picture.

Customers want iteration, evolution, and low-risk change. If every new product was a wholesale paradigm shift very few people would ever change what they spend their money on.

Nah. Customers want low friction and solutions.

Fact: NO ONE wakes up and thinks "I gotta buy me some iteration today."

Iteration, evolution and low-risk change are means. They are not ends.

This reads like so much marketing blurb. Opinion dressed as fact.

I would argue, but would not presume to state as fact, that the large majority of Japanese actually prefer iteration over radical innovation, almost all of the time.

This also reads like opinion dressed as fact

I didn't have supporting evidence for my opinion, so I explicitly did not claim it as a fact.

Please point out why you felt I claimed an opinion as a fact, perhaps I could improve my communication with your help.

Would you argue that most businesses want to massively retrain their employee base every few months?

My work experience tells me that companies commonly put off major updates because of retraining costs and scheduling.

But that creates companies like Behringer; they are right now in the process of cloning every single famous synthesizer that has expired IP, selling it for 5-10x less than the original manufacturers. This would obviously lead to market full of cheap clones (of course welcome by customers), but the original designers would end up on the streets or are forced to change their mindsets to cloners, likely in 20 years completely destroying the market. If nobody is taking risks in bold original ideas, there is no longer any meaningful progress, rent-seeking becomes rampant (we see it with the massive push to subscriptions everywhere already) and once creative exciting industry becomes stale and unappealing.

Sitting on an idea indefinitely is not a good prospect either. Original developers knew that IP would expire and still produced original design. There're always risks, originality has some protection but so is availability and freedom of innovating at manufacturing, freedom to compete at costs. Original things can't be plenty if you can't base your work on something that someone made before. These synthesisers are based on complex previous developments, and those were an IP once. And surely those devs wouldn't end up on the street, that's ridiculous.

Look at what is happening with Gibson (sellers of CakeWalk, Oberheim etc.), how many bankruptcies/forced mergers happened in that space recently; now imagine getting a perfect clone maker to the mix, selling "legends" for cheap that might be good enough for 90% of users; the original idea people won't have any funding coming from their older works, some of them might risk it for some new idea that if not received well bankrupts them personally and they indeed end up on the street. It's happening all the time, we just don't like to hear about it.

Didn't Gibson profited enough from their acquired IP? Surely they have to compete at some point and not just own idea forever doing nothing but moving shareholders property. Most importantly, engineers and idea-makers behind original solution made more than enough profit since CakeWalk and Oberheim were produced. Poor Gibson can't buy right IP at the right time so they can do nothing and not make anything new - who cares.

>some of them might risk it for some new idea that if not received well bankrupts them personally

Owning IP exclusively forever doesn't change this at all. If IP is good then you can defend it for a some time to make profit on edge.

>It's happening all the time

Not with synthesizers/software/ee developers because of IP expiring too soon.

>now imagine getting a perfect clone maker to the mix, selling "legends" for cheap that might be good enough for 90% of users;

Imagine what all these people could do now! They could produce new innovative things.

Imagine Gibson was shit and would make shit new software that would cost as much as possible and own IP forever. That's easy to imagine because IP rights holders pushing hard for this change. That's sucks for everyone but Gibson since they get $ doing nothing. They cn also easily fire anyone involved in this innovation and prevent them from working with anything similar.

   If nobody is taking risks in bold original ideas,
   there is no longer any meaningful progress, rent-seeking becomes rampant 
Seems backward, it's IP protection by law that is rent-seeking

the original designers would end up on the streets

They've already made their money during the time they had the patent, so I imagine they'll not be on the streets in any literal sense. Also they have much more experience of successfully selling their product, so they could iterate to a new, better version.

Usually the main creative engineers that developed those products didn't really make big $, instead sold their companies before bankruptcy to bigger players that then made some bucks off them by economy of scale, product synergies etc.

Pioneers get killed; settlers prosper.

Pioneers die of dysentery.

2. It's likely not up to you anyway

This is the conclusion I'm coming to with pretty much all things that are popular. It's also why "timing" is the most important thing in determining success of - well - anything. I think the only way it really works to be successful, as in wildly successful with a paradigm shifting concept or idea, is to work with small wins on the same thing for decades and hope that the zeitgeist shifts enough to be open to adopting your vision which you can then accelerate.

One trap here though is getting cynical and jealous when a new market entrant gets all the popularity, while the long tooth person gets very little. Ted Nelson is a perfect example of this and it's a little sad to see - though I understand where it's coming from.

Overrated is probably overstating it. It would be better to say:

Originality Without Execution is Futile

Problem with Originality is that you have no one else's mistakes to learn from. Also the ecosystem and market around does not exist, so the execution is not only riskier but costly also.

Reading this article, the bar for something to be truly innovative is super high.

Using that logic we can argue that warp drive will be just 20% innovation because things already travelled to other planets prior, we just made it faster.

Also market is talked about as something constant, but it always changes based on zillion of events.

Some person wants to build huge ass wall. Well demand for anything to do with wall building goes up.

Recreational drugs getting legalized. Anything to do with that will go up.

It is always easy to look at something which succeeded and find reasons why. It is way harder to actually succeed irrelevant of innovation percentage.

If one succeeds it will be just enough. If one fails, it will be too little or too much.

It seems the recipe is to take a broad service, niche it down and improve specifically for that niche and you've got yourself something new but based on a previous success - taking out any guesswork whether it's going to succeed.

"The market only pays for what the market wants to buy."

This is a typical wrong free market argument. You can create demand, it is a known mechanism in capitalism.


Being able to create demand and market only paying for what the market wants to buy are not mutually exclusive. One can create demand for a product through marketing and people are still buying what they want.

This article seems to advance a lot of free market arguments (innovate, differentiate yourself, scarcity, problem solving...)

> So why are they so vilified?

Just look at them, you can already see they live on the results that others produce. It's just about cloning other company's business idea. It's also a philosophy such kind of people apply to their whole life.

E.g. to their employees they probably set nearly unachievable goals. Then they start a vacation, while the employees are left to resolve the mess.

Customers and business partners? Often hear promises, but day by day requests for updates are responded with suggestions that leave the partners in more complicated questioning situations, maybe even stuff they should do to clear things up, so that they don't realize that again they didn't receive any results.

I don't even know much about these guys but from life experience and that photo this is my guess. Let others confirm or deny how correct it is. The article seems to confirm it. (only read after typing my guess)

> "I very rarely do interviews -- almost never,"

public, written proof of promises nobody intends to hold are annoying, right?

> Oliver takes issue with the prevailing notion that he and his brothers are driven purely by money. "If I was motivated by money alone, I would have stopped a long time ago," he insists. Rather, he suggests that what galvanises them is winning: "To prove over and over again that we're the best," he explains.

Let me put another quote against that: "It is not sufficient that I succeed – all others must fail." I strongly believe this is really their drive. They would do the same even if it would make a lot less money.

> Christian [i.e. person in very important position] was one of 50 people to drive Rocket, so losing him has no impact

As a German I have to say they are a disgrace and I'm sorry for their existence. I can tell you this: This kind of thinking is Southern German thinking, Bavarian. However neither Bavarians nor Germans really consider them Germans. Germans really are straight-forward, hard-working people, not bullshitters. Sadly since roughly 1936 Germany is lead by Bavarian/Austrian people, because they have more money and where lucky+sneaky enough to end up on the winning side with each political change.

They seem to have government support though, since Mutti Merkel really wants to turn Berlin into a Silicon Valley.

Jut FYI: Lot's of downvotes but not a single person until now could argue what their problem is. Are you downvoters one of the parasites? Or do you like to get exploited?

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