On copying well: apply with caution

The Exponent podcast this week on the history of messaging apps talked a lot about copying. They referenced a previous piece from Ben called “The Audacity of Copying Well”, where he talked about Snapchat stories, and how this was so obviously and shamelessly copied by Instagram to make Instagram Stories.

They argued that in business, copying what works from the competition is not only inevitable, but it’s what businesses do to survive and thrive.

If your business is based on something that is easily copyable, then you don’t have long-term competitive advantage. Someone will copy you, do it better and then you’ll be dead. Period.

Every basic business strategy class will teach this. So why do we have this moral outrage when it comes to copying in tech?

There should be no moral objection here. All new tech businesses are essentially taking a known product or theme and building on it; expanding it. On the podcast, James argues that the fact that we have so many companies building off each other’s ideas is precisely the reason there is so much innovation in tech right now.

I wrote yesterday about the danger of copying when you don’t know if it’s working. I was thinking more about copying UX patterns or conversion tactics – but the same is really applicable to business models as well. Learn from your competitors. If they have built something that is easy to copy, and that thing can help your product/business succeed, then use it.

But the warning here applies to copying business models as well. By all means learn from business models that are working elsewhere: but apply with caution to your own business and your own market.

Copy with caution.

The danger of copying

It’s normal when building and optimising a product to take a look at how others have solved similar problems in the past. In fact, this is a critical part of the design and product research phase.

But be careful with assumptions like “Company XYZ does it this way, and they know their shit: they wouldn’t do it that way if it didn’t work, so we should do it that way too.”

I’ve heard PMs and designers say things like this all the time, and although it’s tempting to believe when you’re under time pressure to ship, it’s rarely the right decision just to blindly copy the competition or whatever reference model you’re looking at.

The thing is: from the outside looking in, you have no idea why they decided to solve the problem in the way they did. You don’t know the context of their users and their business.

And you don’t have the data. You don’t know if it’s even working.

Maybe that solution isn’t performing at all and the product team hates it, but they haven’t had the resources or time to improve it yet. You just don’t know.

Get inspiration from those who have solved similar problems before you. The product world is full of incredible people that ship innovative solutions every day, and it would be foolish not to learn from that. And yes, there’s no point re-inventing the wheel. But remember that not every wheel fits every vehicle. Implementation and context is everything.

So don’t copy blind. Don’t assume it will work for you directly. Learn from the best; then make your own decision. Then instrument with good analytics, measure and iterate.