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  • Copycat Syndrome – Good or Bad? By Marie-Therese Phido


    My daughter invited me to a Google dinner as her plus one a few years back. I suddenly found myself in

    the season where my daughters invite me to events as their companion.

    I jumped at the opportunity to attend this particular dinner, when I heard the name Google, as I will

    soon launch a technology powered business of my own (a story for another day). I wanted to start

    spending time and hobnobbing with technology egg heads.

    At the dinner, we got into the conversation of ‘what do you do?’ and I found out that I was seated

    beside a lady entrepreneur who had launched a technology driven business to address some of our

    everyday requirements, and other Google staff.

    When it got to my turn to introduce myself, I told them that I was working on a technology based

    project which I was not ready to talk about at the time. The lady beside me said, “please share your

    idea, I do not understand why people are always afraid to share details of the ideas or projects they are

    working on. Everybody is busy on their own project and nobody is interested in stealing or copying

    others projects.” I humbly thanked her and said, “while I respect your opinion, I still do not want to

    share the details of my project”.

    This conversation got me thinking. I asked myself whether I was being paranoid. Was I thinking too

    much of myself or did I think my project was so wonderful? I then compared my project to other

    projects in Nigeria, how ideas have been copied by various people or organizations.

    Let’s look at a few examples. Ndani TV which started as a quarterly e-Newsletter by GTBank and

    morphed into its online platform. “Skinny Girl in Transit” a signature programme has gained acceptance

    and taken the popularity of the platform to a whole new level with global engagement. Red TV by UBA

    and Accelerate by Access Bank have also been launched.

    I remember when the Lagos Fashion and Design Week started, which was meant to be a replica of the

    New York, London and Paris Fashion week. We now have the GTBank Fashion Week. What about food

    and drinks festivals under different umbrellas and name variations – Lagos International Food and Drink

    Festival, Taste Off Nigeria Food Festival, Eat Drink Festival, GTBank Food and Drink Festival, who first

    started this food festivals? Will be good to know as establishing who started is confusing.

    Oded Shanker, a Fisher University Professor in the USA, and author of “Copycats: How Smart Companies

    Use Imitation to Gain Competitive Edge” argued that “just copying a market leader isn’t clever, instead

    do what they do better and with a different spin”. Shanker’s argument has played out for the most part

    where copycats exist. Shanker seems to support the idea of copycats.

    Global examples will also attest to this, in this case Apple’s IOS and Androids. The claim is that Apple

    came first and Android followed and improved on the following features according to CNN Money who

    compared both products using these parameters: login, make a call, check the time, use apps, get and

    manage notification, listen to music and podcasts, check mail, get directions, find and manage contacts,

    search, set phone to vibration, talk to your phone, and send text. Android ranked higher than Apple.

    Crambler an online site also gave ten reasons why the Android is better than Apple. Categories used

    were: choice, customization, hardware, the Google Play Store, widgets & multitasking, expandable

    memory, user serviceability (remove battery), universal charges, durability and other features. Their

    conclusion was though Android phones and iPhones have their advantages and disadvantages, the

    Android’s advantages overpowered the advantages you get from the iPhone and gave reasons to back

    up their assertion.

    It therefore appears that copying is not such a bad business strategy. Luke Johnson also said, “true

    entrepreneurs are supposed to shun imitation and try to be authentic and original. I am not convinced

    this strategy makes commercial sense. Indeed the merits of being a copycat are underrated.”

    He goes on to say that “after all, every business is derived from something that proceeded it – what

    lawyers call prior art. The level of replication in any so-called new product or service is simply a matter

    of degree. Unless you specifically infringe on patent, design, trademark or copyright or are blatantly

    passing off a rival’s goods as if they were yours”. Some will say Johnson’s opinion lack morals. But, let’s

    look at it critically; there are very few ideas that are truly authentic and original. Many entrepreneurs

    find out that it is much quicker, cheaper and lower risk to mimic than to start something from scratch.

    Luke says, “entrepreneurs need to be humble enough to know when a legal version of someone’s model

    is better than anything they can devise. I would generally prefer to back a replica of a highly profitable

    and thoroughly tested business idea – but in a new territory – than invest in a genuinely pioneering idea.

    What we need to understand about the copycat syndrome:

    • Note that if you are first to market with any new idea or innovation, be rest assured that the moment

    you start to achieve traction and success it will be copied. Today we have copycats of Uber in the market

    – Lyft in the US and Taxify, Swiftly, Redcab amongst others in Nigeria.

    • Competition exists in all business markets. There is an advantage to this for your business.

    Competition keeps you on your toes, makes you innovate and differentiate your service or products

    which will make you more successful.

    • Copycats are inevitable and unavoidable. Your approach to relating with them will determine your

    continued success or demise.

    • Remember that imitation is the greatest compliment and flattery. When people copy you, it means

    you are on to something great. Anybody copying you is giving you accolades.

    In conclusion, and a message to myself to address my paranoia, let’s relax, work harder, say thank you,

    continually improve our service or offerings, improve our customer experience, differentiate, ignore

    copycats and not allow them steal our mojo!!!

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