My observations are as follows:
1) No clones have caused my business to fail.
2) It is effing hard to convince people to rip off good ideas which require non-trivial work or savvy. Heck, it's highly nontrivial to get them to "rip off" those ideas when they pay five figures to have me write them down in a strategy document or build the prototype myself and hand them the working source code.
I mean, take A/B testing. I have said "A/B testing prints money" so many times that some people are tired of hearing about it. Empirically, most of my clients, many of whom have read my blog for years, do not A/B test before I work with them. I talk to a lot of startups, some of whom are highly regarded. Very few A/B test as a regular thing. The savviest guy who cloned me doesn't bother A/B testing, either.
Please, good HN readers, "steal" that idea from me (or any of the numerous other people you could steal it from, because I certainly stole it myself). The last company I successfully convinced to actually do it NDAed me vis-a-vis the impact. Let me hum a few bars: they offered to hire me at a quant's salary to do it full-time. (Cheapskates.)
And yet when we check back on who A/B tests here in February 2013, do you know what we're going to see? A few articles about it, with wise comments like "A/B testing can only get you to a local maxima" and "Didn't we read an article just like this on Smashing Magazine in 2006?", and fairly few companies who actually have someone do it every week, even among the savvier folks.
P.S. Would love to be wrong about that.
I find Patrick's posts and comments invaluable. He's made a real business selling bingo cards to teachers. He pays contractors and venders thousands of dollars per year.
He has this way of writing that makes what he does sound easy: "a SQL query here, A/B test there, and whoopsie, I just made $35K."
I set out to copy BCC. I asked my wife, "Is there a software product you wish existed, but doesn't?" She wanted a site where she can make custom cupcake wrappers. So I set about making it. It's been nearly a year, and we're only now over $200/month in revenue and +150 unique users per day. It's been a lot of hard work, but along the way, interacting with customers, I realized there's an opportunity to build a real business. We're about to buy a cutting machine and custom dies so we can move from just selling PDFs to fulfilling physical orders. Who knows, with all the emails I've collected, we may start a selling custom web hosting for bakers and party planners.
So, I just want to say: by all means copy something. Clone someone's successful website if you must, but copy their hard work. Copy their market validation. Build a real business.
Simple fact: there are orders of magnitude more people in the world struggling to use the most basic functions of Microsoft Word than there are people who can write Hello World. Anything which makes tasks easier for people in group A is valuable, even if it's already trivial for people in group B.
I for one would like to thank you for your perseverance, Patrick. I've read your posts here and your blog for years and it's only recently that I've really gotten value out of it. From the very beginning, I practically nodded in approval at the suggestion to prioritize testing. I was a huge fan of your blog, but that wasn't enough to push me over the edge and get me testing.
As you continued to write about it again and again, and I saw others using testing to great effect, it finally clicked in place for me. I've conducted a few A/B tests on my blog with fairly meager results due to low starting traffic, but I'm making adjustments and testing site-wide changes.
Even more significant is testing in life in general. I may, just may have found a way to control my tendency towards being a night owl! This is after more than a decade of regularly staying up until dawn at least 3 nights a week. I've also significantly improved my effectiveness at work due to a few other "n=1 studies" as I call them.
Perhaps nobody cares that much about the large concept of selling bingo cards or the broad hunk of small details it takes to make that happen? Perhaps if I describe in detail how to make 2K a month -- and it takes a huge amount of effort over a year and a few try to copy and flame out -- it just kinda proves my point? People naturally like jumping on a bandwagon. And don't forget that much of what you, I, and others blog about is how to make decisions, not step-by-step guides. For somebody looking for a quick fix (which I posit to be most readers), it's not that rewarding.
So for my purposes I'm specifically talking about low-input, high-output ideas. Things like knowing the personal phone numbers of a dozen tech journalists and successful ways to pitch them. That is something you're not going to see. Not a huge corpus of text covering every general type of startup there is and the concepts that make them work. We have a lot of that. Heck, we've got dozens of HNers that are making a business providing the same kind of thing you're talking about. Sort of self-cannibalization. If the generalization were true -- if there were no way you could get people to follow your startup advice no matter how much you shouted -- we wouldn't have people paying for exactly the same advice from others. Something does not match up here.
Detailed business plans with lots of blogging about A/B testing and so forth only serve to dull the audience to sleep. After all, who wants to really work at something over a period of years? (I hope I have learned the importance of this, but I suspect many just give the idea lip service)
Thanks for the comment. I'd love to be wrong as well. I got the whole thing about how you could paint your idea on a wall and nobody would care, but that's not what I'm trying to get at. I'm talking about all the thrashing around that goes on around high-level concepts. That's not all just insignificant, especially if you are looking to a peer group for feedback. I probably mucked up the point. Sorry about that.
I find that I have to read the same concepts many many times to be able to apply them to a different business model. Most times it doesn't seem like there's anything I can do with it. Many times I'm reading it going "yeah, but why in the heck do I want to chase 3% increase when I'm only making ten bucks anyway"? It's not that folks aren't publishing all kinds of instructions and broad generalizations and such, it's the tension between having nothing in your hand and actually being ramen profitable. A lot of these articles are written by guys who already have momentum. For them, yes, some of this matters. They're already months in, seeing money, and ready to stay for the long haul. But I'd bet the large majority vacillate between playing around with startup ideas and sitting back and observing. This post was meant for those folks.
ADD: Apologies to the folks who are pointing out the poor structure of the article. While I was writing it, it definitely had a feeling to it of my viciously thrashing around an idea without actually getting to it. Fortunately Patio has helped me clarify what the thesis should have been all along: because of both the mixed messages we send and the size of the HN audience, we've actually created something we didn't mean to: an environment where lots of copying goes on, but not many are really working in a way that generates good learning about startups. Instead it's much more of a copycat, cool-for-a-day, chase-the-herd atmosphere.
Don't do that.
This might be different if you made the same product with horrible marketing and bad SEO.
Indeed all it takes is for patio11 to get hit with a new Google update that 'thinks' he's doing something nefarious and you could well find yourself in top slot ...
1. Move the git hosting to github, but keep the web page on your site.
2. Create a mailing list with Google groups or something like that in the hopes that you're not the only guy out there adding patches and stuff.
There is a middle ground between getting really involved, and just throwing the code over the fence, of course, such as responding to polite emails, with even a 'no thanks'. Perhaps you feel like you're already there, but my inclination is that if you're too busy, it'd be nice to set up something really simple where other people can coordinate.
It's not as if you're not using a great deal of other people's free code yourself. Indeed, if I make millions, I'd be happy to share some with you when I'm done sharing with Linus, the GCC guys, the Rails guys, the Ruby guys, the Gnome guys, the Postgres guys, the LibC guys, the Debian and Ubuntu guys, and heck, even RMS. I wonder what he'd like.
Actually, on a trip down memory lane, that sort of thing isn't entirely unheard of. Redhat and VA Linux both dished out shares to people involved in open source, which was pretty cool given how much of a pain in the neck it must have been.
I get quite a bit of email, some related to OSS and much not. Triage is generally customers first, everybody else as time permits. I star things in Gmail if I can't get to them immediately, but some starred things never get answered.
I would like for that to never happen, but there exist other things in life that I like more.
If a hypothetical person absolutely needs responses from me in a particular timeframe, I'm not adverse to talking retainers or SLAs.
And again, if you think an email list for A/Bingo users would increase world happiness, nihil obstat.
> And again, if you think an email list for A/Bingo users would increase world happiness, nihil obstat.
The idea was merely that it's generally not a big deal to run that kind of thing for a small project, and yes, there often are benefits. Generally, however, open source projects also benefit from being somewhat centralized: far fewer benefits accrue to everyone when various random people just run off and fork things willy nilly.
No, seriously: I apply patches which fit the vision, do not break the reference implementation on BCC, and do not cost me time from things I value in life. Happy to have them. That is, ballpark, half of patches. (The most common reason for not taking a patch is that people break Rails 2 behavior when trying to bug fix for Rails 3. The second is sometimes patches generate work, and if a "I have reasonable project rates" email is less work, that is what I'll usually do.)
I remember when hn-books.com launched, and I vaguely remember some of the clones. None of them are that great. They all suffer from the same issues I've had with other "organize your books" types of sites, with crappy UIs and generally poor categorization and filtering. (What's JQuery in Action doing in the FP section of hn-books? Where's Appel's compiler books in the compiler section, and why isn't Lisp in Small Pieces there? etc... the site that was announced in the Show HN post above suffers from the same issues)
I point out these flaws not to pick on DanielBMarkham's work, because it's a decent site and I hope it's a success. But my point is, bring on the copycats! If no one "copied" anyone else we'd be stuck with an awful lot of shitty first attempts at things. I know this post was about these kinds of web businesses, but in general think where we'd be without copies.
By all means, don't publish the recipe to your secret sauce, and don't do it while you're still brewing it. But don't get pissy about these supposed hordes of copycat programmers just waiting in the wings of HN.
We hacked on it for about 2 weeks between classes. During that time, someone wrote a beautified version of Who's Hiring with regex search. By the time we posted it, there were several comments on the thread to the effect of 'I was actually writing this'.
A similar situation took place in the last few weeks with Bootstrap theme-ing websites. For each posted, there were a slew of 'No way! I've been working on this too - see here'.
I don't necessarily think it's a matter of people copycating, per se. There is a certain amount of emulation that can be seen. Consider when Path created a unique menu that gained some attention on here. Within a week, numerous JS clones were released. A week later, CSS3 complete clones started rolling out.
Overall, I think the story here is that you've got 100,000 users browsing HN. Many of whom have similar skillsets and 'scratch your own itch' engrained in their personalities. The result is often an almost autonomous convergence on a few good ideas. I think this can be attributed to a sort of pidgeon hole principle of code hungry hackers and a few obvious but good ideas.
This practice itself isn't really new. If you look at mathematics alone, you'll find many things with multiple names or a concatenation of names. This is usually because n people happened to all be working on it at the same time without knowledge of each others advances. Sometimes ideas just seem to be 'in the air' at a given point in time.
Yep. Multiple discovery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_discovery http://dl.dropbox.com/u/5317066/2011-kelly-what-tech-wants-c...
So you set up your easel and get out your paints in front of a nice-looking house and start to puzzle over how to start. Suddenly 500 other people all arrive -- some of them who actually know how to paint -- and set up all around you. Not only is it annoying, it's also distracting. And it can lead to a kind of herd mentality where everything is attempted, but nothing is really tried.
This is called "competition" - you will find it everywhere you go. Is it "annoying" and "distracting" that you are not the only one thinking about or working on something? Maybe. But it will never happen that way in life. And even if you are the only one and you finish your work, as soon as it's out and someone sees it, they will copy you.
The way that you deal with competition is to be better than everyone else - not seek a place where there's no competition. The approach this guy advocates and the way he complains about competition is not the way to approach problems. If someone shows up at the house who actually knows how to paint and you don't, it's time to bow out - you just lost. Practice up and come back next time knowing how to paint.
 I'll take better than everyone in this case to mean better at painting and not better at everything.
Just as in mathematics, solving a problem vs. simply checking that the solution is right do not have the same degree of difficulty.
You wouldn't openly discuss a "oh my god I've just stumbled across x from Ycorp" tip on the trading floor tea room now, would you?
That aside, I do agree it adds an unnecessary level of pressure. You know, the thing is too, theres plenty more spaces out there.
There is a limit to this "ideas are worthless" theory. We don't talk about it enough. Instead we either treat all ideas as precious or all as worthless. The truth is much more nuanced than that.
I think people who are just getting started need to know and understand where to draw the line -- and more importantly that other people are already drawing the line in their public communications.
Yeah, the startup process is heavily weighted towards execution, but if you have a stellar idea - and let me just say when I say "idea" I really mean "model" - then sure its got worth. If you know of a stone that nobody's overturned, and hell there's plenty of them you should sure as shit sit on it until you've got a flag ready that you can put in it.
But that only counts if its unique, if your going to build a "OMFG we have a startup that lets you post a 200 CHARACTER status about how what your eating makes you feel" then perhaps the idea might be "worthless" - because thats clearly a business that will make or break in its execution.
So yeah, I agree.
They could have build a vary different company using similar incites with a completely diffident idea and been just as successful, but realizing the cost of really large scale SMS messaging was not prohibitive was brilliant.
This would obviously only work if you had an inherent advantage in the market though haha.
Yes, it'd be great if you could have 100 people all starting from the same point and everybody learning the lessons of what worked and what didn't because of total openness, but that's just not happening. Instead you'll get 2 or 3 survivors writing blog articles about how awesome their startup is without actually reporting anything at the level of detail you'd need to actually improve.
Sharing your ideas in many cases I think is a bad idea. With all due respect to Patrick, who has commented elsewhere on this thread, one data point from the niche of Bingo Card Creators (old people referring by word of mouth?) doesn't match up with the high level of clones I see on HN every month.
And if a copycat has more stamina than you do then maybe you picked the wrong business. Really, don't worry about people copying you, take it for what it is: flattery.
Only reason I mentioned this is that it brought the essence of the article out in one sentence (tl;dr).
Please either delete my comment, let me delete my original comment, or stop downvoting me. What's the point in downvoting someone repeatedly? I'm not sure how the system works on your end (or if you can see how many others have downvoted), but seems pretty harsh to keep doing this when there was an honest mistake. Thanks.
The thing I find most interesting about Ping Pong is that you can often win without doing anything fancy or aggressive. A lot of players think the way to win is to slam the ball really hard. The problem with this strategy is that a slam is a high-risk/high-reward shot. If you do it right, you almost certainly score a point when your opponent fails to return the ball. If you do it wrong, you give your opponent a point.
Modesty aside, I consider myself a "pretty good" Ping Pong player. I can slam the ball when necessary, but I hardly ever do. I can beat most other players by simply returning every shot with a little backspin. Hitting the ball hard simply isn't necessary. All I need to do is wait for the other player to make 21 mistakes.
So even if you have competitors if you execute in a better fashion than they do, and don't f--- up, you can still be the most successful business.
When you see a clone of hn-books or bingo card creator or some other
idea, you're assuming the motivation for it is profit, and you're
assuming the goal is to create a business.
Your assumptions may often be correct, in fact, your assumptions may be
correct in the majority of cases, but unfortunately, they are not always
correct. You are too focused on "work," "effort," "skill," "business,"
and "profit" to see the less obvious and more idealistic side of things.
The less obvious side is, fun.
The greatest hackers I've known just love coding. They do it for fun.
Many are obsessive enough to use a pedal bike to power their CVS/GIT
server if that was the only way to keep it running. The challenge,
problem, or idea is mostly irrelevant. Though nearly everyone enjoys
having their accomplishments recognized by others, it's not a
competition for attention, recognition, profits, or anything else.
Great hackers often have the luxury of waking up, getting a cup of
coffee, and scratching whatever itch suits their current fancy. All
programmers suffer from the planning fallacy, or more accurately, an
over-abundance of optimism. When they see a challenge, their only
reaction is, "I can do that!" regardless if there is any realistic truth
in their statement. --HN is filled with interesting challenges.
The thing is, the fun is in trying. Whether or not they "succeed" or
"fail" matters very little since all the fun is had in just trying. It's
also fun to watch other people try, and learn from the lessons they have
learned through trying. Programming is not a spectator sport, but
learning from the efforts of others is as close as we'll get without
actually writing some code of our own, and possibly contributing it back
to those we've been watching.
I suspect at least some portion of the clones are merely people who
said, "I can do that!" and for fun, gave it a try. The idea of sincerely
competing in a business sense never crossed their minds as they fired up
their favorite text editor and started having some fun.
If the challenge that I found interesting and fun today was writing an
ebook on being a ScrumMaster, I'd enjoy my attempt at writing one. We
both know my results would undoubtedly suck compared to yours, but it
would still be fun for me, even though the result would still be yet
another bit of competition for you.
The above was a poor example, but I wanted to point out how the "fun for
me" can also be "harmful for you," even when no harm is intended. It's
quite similar to people who drive too fast, or in the opinion of law
enforcement, drive faster than allowed or faster than is safe. Some of
the "fun" people have is inconsiderate and harmful.
Does anbody know what he is referring to? Does he simply mean instapaper, readability and the likes, or are there some other interesting solutions out there?
Basically, software people like writing software, but often don't have a project that really excites them. Reading about something on HN gives them the inspiration to take that idea and implement it themselves.
So yes, if you're making a weekend project that is nothing special and don't want anyone to use, don't talk about it here because someone else will reimplement it. But if you look at complicated things that make money, like Flickr or YouTube, you don't see a lot of people cloning those because it's not as easy.
The latter part of your comment is completely correct, "software people like writing software" and that's often why they clone good ideas, the first part of your comment contradicts this. It has nothing to do with "supporting the community", people build their own versions of open source software all the time.
search.cpan.org was the default interface to the CPAN for many years. The author didn't share the code and did't really take suggestions from the community, and so it got forked and is now gone. Nobody wanted to fork and rewrite the software -- it was good enough -- but the author wouldn't play ball with his users. Now everyone uses MetaCPAN.
But if you - in an afternoon or a long weekend - create a web site as a small project, expect a lot of people to do that too. Some do it for fun, and some may actually be serious about competing with you. But if you have passion for it, and they don't, it won't matter.
I look at the stuff Patrick does (BCC), and it looks kinda hard to really copy. He's open about his processes, challenges, and all the work he put into it (particularly marketing and generating repeat business). I may be bold enough to say it's easy to copy the technology and hard to copy the business.
But, sometimes I just let it all hang out because I know that there's no possible chance for someone to copy my efforts.
The few businesses that are easily copied are usually short term projects because sooner or later everyone finds out the secret. The best projects I've done are the ones where I'm going full open kimono because there's something about my personal network, skill set or etc that gives me an inherent advantage over everyone else.
Best examples are my personal connections to marketing firms and my professional licenses.
We realized that product B would not be a good seller and did not invest any money in it. However, the competing company somehow finds out about the plans and invested a lot of money to get product B out the door before we could (even though we had let the idea fall to the side).
They lost a lot of money and it helped us gain additional market share with the original product A.
Note: I only had a small part in this company but makes it easier to write the story with "We".
(I'm not actually working on one. Really. _looks at watch_)
I would say this is correct IF you have a mailing list to peddle this 'product' to; a lot of internet millionaires are working exactly like that. They create some crappy product and get their list to buy and sell it.
Daniel, you shouldn't even be worried about the copycats; they're not your true audience. Those 500 people who show up to paint the same house as you? They're not your true disciples. They'll play around getting paint on themselves for a week tops and then move on to the next shiny thing. The 3-4 who stay? THOSE are your disciples.
So go ahead. Shout from the rooftops. Share your ideas. The copycats will slavishly praise the good advice, will implement it poorly, and then move on. And the 2-3 people who actually understand you, take your advice to heart, and with diligence and patience implement it will love you forever.
Ideas are not the only diamonds in the rough; people are as well, and only diamonds can recognize diamonds. Don't bemoan by the vastness of the rough. Celebrate the rare diamonds you find instead.
All ideas are stupid until proven successful. By then, copying is too late.
* On copycats: When I release something on HN I get a couple tweets or private emails where the sender basically tells me "hey, I'm going to copy your idea/site/layout/whatever. Just thought you should know." Which is fine because I don't think anything I've done is uniquely original. It is a little weird though to get a heads-up each time.
* I am incredibly candid in my communications about my projects ("startups"). I enjoy the transparency. It makes for a good learning experience, both for others and myself. Lately I've been extra-transparent, though I'm starting to get a feel for when it's time to reel it in.
So, thanks for this -- it really made me sit and think about how I should take care not to divulge something that is key, even if it seems obvious to me. Others might not have found it so obvious or would not have pursued it if they hadn't been handed the answers.
The problem then becomes that some ideas might not turn a profit fast enough.
The solution to that is to use the fake landing page method or the kickstart/indiegogo to have the market decide for you what to build.