Imitation as the Death of Innovation

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Yesterday I wrote about Snap Inc’s foray into the world of wearable tech and how it was indicative of a wider trend in the technology sector during which I touched on the topic of imitation. It may be the highest form of flattery but in tech it is indicative of a terminal disease which is spreading.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a history of ‘borrowing’ in technology which enriched the user experience and ensured relentless progress, mass adoption of the mouse for example, but the current climate of big tech companies ripping off entire products of smaller competitors and exploiting the mass platform of people they already have goes way too far.

It not only leads to unnecessary dilution of the current market, it significantly and detrimentally affects the overall user experience. This fracturing of user bases across multiple platforms is not only pointless; it wastes precious engineering resources on problems that have already been solved. Where is the end game? If you are relentlessly copying your competitors you are complicit in encouraging a lack of innovation. And it’s anti-competitive. Legal monopolies adopting defensible strategies to protect their market position by reducing the likelihood of innovation.

I wonder how many opportunities have already been defeated by individuals giving up as they believe whatever new features they develop will be pirated by a multi-billion dollar industry. I hear your protests that a patent system is effective, I just don’t buy it.

You either sit down and are acquired by an international conglomerate or they rip off your product. What motivation is that? That is what acquisitions in technology look like, a veiled threat to conform or prepare for war. Instead of developing something revolutionary, our massive tech companies focus on the present. It is indicative of the insularity they adopt once they haemorrhage to a certain size.

It’s no longer about moving fast and breaking things; it’s about jumping from craze to fad and getting those features to millions of users as quickly as possible. And it’s depressing. Start-up’s once so renowned for thier relentless innovation become bureaucratic monoliths drained of their creativity in search of profits.

Think of it like a game of chess. You can copy your opponents every move until there is a check or capture, then what? When your strategy is reaction instead of creation, you will forever be constrained by the next move prescribed to you.

I look at some tech companies and question where their creativity is and where it has gone. The lights are still on but nobody is on and their creative genius founders are complicit. What is their only purpose? To return value to their shareholders. Rocket internet took huge flack for copying every successful internet startup from the states in Europe, and rightly so, but they are paying a heavy price now. Imitation is not a strategy, it’s an aberration. It leaves you vulnerable and at the mercy of your competitors ability to continue creating.

But those not busy being born are busy dying.

I look at Elon Musk and admire his boldness. Whether you agree with what he is doing or not, you can’t argue that he isn’t a visionary. The future is created by dreamers, those innovators who embrace the unknown and understand their potential is only constrained by a lack of imagination. Elon is doing that. There are two types of people in life, those who create the future and those who consume it.

And that is where we and tech are failing. We have seen the tremendous successes of companies in areas we believe are easy and seek to replicate it instead of solving the next problem. We look at Instagram and think photographs are simple, facebook and see that social networking is easy or uber and think anyone can do it. The truth is they only become simple, easy or obvious so after the fact.

But not everybody can do it, a pre-existing platform of hundreds of millions of users is a tremendous competitive advantage and it is a pre-requisite if you want to participate in the innovation game. Rolling out imitated products identifies your frailties though, you’re days of creativity have evaporated. It is a beacon to others that you have ran out of ideas.

We need to focus on solving bigger and harder problems even if it makes fund raising more difficult and is less likely to succeed. As entrepreneurs many people are driven to solve their personal issues right in front of them, which leads a disproportionate number of founders to focus on: music, bars, restaurants, photos, etc. but what about creating what follow?

It’s about being mission driven. ‘Become an interplanetary species’ or ‘change the face of transport’ rather than ‘copy everything our competitors do’. Imitation can never be a mission.

I look at it as an aversion to innovation though borrowed conviction.

The genius of human progress has always been relentless innovation. We solved our problems or died. Those fears have mostly vanished and been replaced by an acceptance of mediocrity marked by imitation.

In school we are taught plagiarism is fatal and pay a heavy price but in the life the reward can be meteoric or survival.

Imitation is the death of innovation, it constricts and strangles the opportunity for alternatives and upstarts. The sad reality is that it doesn’t even have to win to have an effect — it just has to eat market share and restrict the exponential growth of a competitor. Look at what Instagram is trying to do to Snapchat.

Now they’ve introduced spectacles and await Facebooks reaction.

Imitation never ends.

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CEO / Founder / Coach @FirstbaseHQ Empowering people to work in their lives not live at work ✌️✌

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