Curiosity and the Copycat

Expect to be mimicked, but don't lose sight of your vision.

There’s very little that’s flattering about imitation beyond grade school. Forget the clichés. Coming up with an idea, only to see a cheap knockoff pop up elsewhere, stings. The greater the energy behind the original product, the sharper the burn of its imitation.

Ego comes up in these cases. As much as I want to make an argument for copying’s bottom-line impact, the theft feels personal. Depressingly, it’s also often completely legal. In fact, there is even a business case – much as I dislike it – for being a “first imitator.” It takes a lot of energy to come up with an entire concept, much less to imitate and improve upon it.

I want to tell you this concept has no merit, but a Harvard Business Review interview of Oded Shenkar is changing my mind. Shenkar penned Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge. He makes two important points:

• Imitation is as old as human civilization, as well as an efficient means of innovation.
• Imitation can have a competitive advantage, as upfront development costs are typically lower than in pure creation.

Heartbreakingly, Shenkar points out that innovative companies who imitate can even become leaders. It’s not simply the idea, but the ability to produce, distribute and market it cost-effectively.

Let’s back up. Because what Shenkar wrote about is a process in which companies with creative capacity copied ideas from others, modified and improved them, and then gained competitive advantage with them. He researched multinational corporations like Walmart and Apple. 

The 10-person shop down the street ripping off your seasonal discounts, custom designs, etc.? Well, it’s pretty unlikely that they’re going to outpace you without some creative potential of their own. The trick, if one must imitate (read: copy), is to stand on another’s proverbial shoulders, not scrabble to hang onto their pant leg.

That’s the reason creative companies are so invested in sharing and collaboration. They can come up with more ideas and no one can truly imitate what they do. They have a vision that breathes life into the implementation of a new product, process, promotion – whatever it may be. 

Expect to be copied. It’s a sign that you have vision. Just one caveat: Don’t lose sight of your vision. It’s one thing that no one can steal from you, and the downfall of many a cheap copy. So keep stoking your creative fire, that which can never be stolen.

Signs of the Times June 2019

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