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.

Location-Based Services in 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of location-based services lately. The first thing that occurs to me: nobody talks about location-based services anymore. There are just ‘services’.

It occurs to me that Location, in and of itself, is not an ‘experience’, per se. It is an enabler of experiences. Allow me to explain.

There are two critical aspects that make up a location-based service:

  1. The ability to accurately detect the real-world location of the user (or, more specifically, the user’s device) and communicate this back to a service in real-time.
  2. The ability to accurately place this, and other, locations of interest on a map.

Take a classic “location-based service” such as Foursquare, where users ‘check-in’ to venues, stores or other locations with the app on their smartphone when they visit the store physically. The location of the user is the enabler that allows the check-in to take place, and the rendering of a map of the area is the enabler that allows the check-in to be viewed and consumed later.

Location itself isn’t the point or motivator for the experience. It’s just what makes the experience possible.

Hence the term “location-based service” has fallen a bit out of favour. Location is no longer an exciting differentiator among mobile experiences, and the location is very rarely the real point of the ‘service’. The point is always something else: find out how good a hotel is (TripAdvisor), review a restaurant (Yelp), find a new place for lunch (Foursquare), find deals nearby (Groupon, iBeacon), etc.

So the thing to remember about Location: it’s not an experience. Location is an enabler of experiences.