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Why Copying Will Kill You Faster Than Curiosity

It's easier to copy than invent--but it isn't necessarily safer for your business.

In competitive marketplaces, an obvious and easy way to compete is to copy what other successful people and companies do. That's what Google did with Android, and it's why (despite Apple, Google and Samsung spending a fortune on lawyers) all our cell phones look the same, why tablets are indistinguishable, cars have little choice to offer, and much journalism relays the same few formats endlessly. Instead of inventing and exploring new ways to thrive, it's easier just to check out what sells--and copy it.

So what's wrong with that?

One salutary lesson comes from AutoTune, the software that adjusts and tunes singers' voices in real time. This is the best-selling plug-in in history, but it's also sparked a lot of debate within the music community. (Jay-Z's Death of Autotune was the most engaging.)  When I interviewed AutoTune's inventor, Andy Hildebrand, for A Bigger Prize, my book on competition, he acknowledged that his technology made a vast amount of music sound the same.

The Problem With Copycats

I can't blame Hildebrand--after all, no one made singers and producers adopt his technology. But it has resulted in vast amounts of music sounding identical--which in turn makes music boring. Industry experts tell me that one reason older bands like the Rolling Stones are popular again is because at least their recordings still sound human and distinct in a market where everything increasingly sounds identical.

The lesson? Being unique in a marketplace that rewards copycats--at least in the short term--reaps long-term benefits.

Why is shopping for a cell phone such a soul-destroying experience? Because there's really nothing to compare except the tortuous small print of the contracts. Why is shopping for a new car so disappointing? Because all the cars are the same, incorporating all the same novelties that everyone else has. Why can so-called original journalism be generated by software? Because so much of it is bland and formulaic. It's striking to consider that, rather than innovation and choice, competitive markets often produce homogeneity on an epic scale. In simple products, this is just dull; in products like mortgages it can be downright dangerous.

Copying your competitors is a tempting option, because you know you're tapping into taste that you don’t have to find, define, or explore. But instead of exploiting enthusiasm, you'll just burn it out. When everything's the same, is any of it interesting? Instead of making a market, are you killing it?

Great entrepreneurs would rather take an interesting risk than be predictable. When he was being lambasted because Apple owned less than 2 percent of the PC market, Steve Jobs didn't turn Apple into a PC company; instead, he just kept focused on the market Apple owned: that of computers costing in excess of $1,000. That's a zest for focused innovation Apple could do well to revive.

When Method Home Care products launched its intensely concentrated laundry detergent, only to be copied by Unilever and P&G, it didn't stop innovating but doubled down on its commitment to innovation. Mozilla's tech strategy is defined by pushing the envelope so that other companies have to follow it. All of these companies refuse to choose the lazy route of imitation. 

They do so in part because they can't not--autonomy and self-determination are too important to them. But they also appreciate that true originality is what keeps markets alive, vibrant, and valuable. They'd rather invent audiences than bore them to death.

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 7, 2014

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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