Many entrepreneurs have wondered if they can build sustainable companies on the back of a copycat strategy.

After all, management professor Amar Bhide claims 85 percent of businesses around the world are inspired by ideas formulated by others. Fortunately, innovation doesn't mean reinventing the wheel. It means finding better ways to make the wheel, get the wheel to customers and improve its performance.

When my co-founders and I first began researching the mattress industry, we were alarmed by the lack of transparency sellers and stores offered shoppers. Opaque terminology often confused consumers and commission-driven salespeople were incentivized to push more expensive products.

In the past, mattress companies took advantage of uninformed shoppers to turn a profit. Rather than copy their business model, we "innovated." By producing articles, buyer's guides and other content, we educated our customers about what goes into different types of mattresses and how they can choose one that supports their unique sleep needs.

As a result, we've turned that consumer trust into customer loyalty. So, while traditional mattress brands are closing hundreds of their stores, our business has multiplied its sales year-over-year.

For more than a decade, my team and I have been innovating our brand and products. Here are a few valuable lessons we've learned:

Build a culture of innovation.

Great companies are built upon cultures of innovation. Their employees thrive in an environment that rewards creativity and vision.

When you craft a culture of innovation in your organization, you'll empower your team members to achieve things that wouldn't be possible under the umbrella of a copycat strategy. Company culture trickles down from the top.

When your directors, managers and entry-level staff members witness their leadership team commit to a strategy of innovation, they too will follow suit. That will have a lasting impact on your organization long-term.

The primacy of the value proposition.

Your business is the sum of hundreds of different actions, people and experiences. It's a combination of branding, products, prices, customer interactions, and big-picture strategy. All of these things help shape your value proposition, which determines whether or not a customer chooses to buy from you.

Remember to establish a value proposition that's unique and true to your product and brand. Otherwise, you risk being perceived as inauthentic. Avoid mimicking a competitor's value proposition too. Copycat strategies lead to you trying to outsell your competition based on their value proposition, and it's a futile effort.

Don't play catch-up, get out in front and lead.

Your company might be able to survive for a while by adopting a copycat strategy, but it will never be able to dominate its industry. Indeed, it may seem like an effective and rational plan to copy the market leader since you can let your competitor spend resources on research and development, market testing, product refinement, and so on. Then, your business executes every step of their playbook.

However, this kind of thinking will lead to you always playing catch-up. As soon as you're able to refine a product and process that enables you to compete, the other company might have moved on to something completely different. You'll be stuck sitting around and waiting for them to show you where to go next.

Don't be dependent on your competition to illuminate the path forward. Consistently engage your customers, discover how you can drive additional value for them through the relationship and free your own path.

Although it can take months or years to come up with a product or process that is truly innovative, it is a worthwhile pursuit. Rather than settle for a copycat strategy, you should strive to build something your competitors will want to imitate.

Published on: May 22, 2018