The second Bernard Sadow added wheels to the bottom of a suitcase, he changed the luggage industry forever. Two decades after his four-wheeled suitcases hit the market, a Northwest Airlines pilot took that concept and added a retractable handle to a two-wheeled version--small changes that made sprinting from one terminal to another easier than ever.

In the startup world, we call this R&D, or replicate and duplicate. This isn't to be confused with research and development.

Scrappy startups don't reimagine what they don't have to. They go from zero to huge with limited resources by borrowing and sometimes even stealing ideas from other companies--always with the aim of doing something better. They don't reinvent the wheel; they just strap them to the bottom of a suitcase.

How I Replicated and Duplicated My Own Business

In my case, I didn't reinvent stand-up paddleboards. I just improved how they were being distributed. A lot of money was being wasted through the traditional surf/kayak distribution channels, so I decided to sell direct. Customers didn't come to my business because they thought I was unique. They came because I saved them money.

We even replicated and duplicated our design theme. I'm no designer, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate great design when I see it. Instead of going through a grueling design process when I launched the company, I looked to what was historically popular in the surfboard industry.

Needless to say, the 50-year-old triple-stringer design we decided on has been incredibly popular and stood the test of time.

4 Steps to Using R&D for Your Own Business

Perhaps you, too, have an idea on how to incrementally improve upon an existing business model or product. Get started now! At this point, it's not about how much starting capital you have to work with; it's about where you focus your time and effort.

1. Find someone who has already perfected what you're trying to do. This genius could be in a different industry altogether, and that's OK. Just make sure he was successful before you copy or improve upon what he's done.

2. Look to the past. Most people think innovation is all about envisioning the future, but you already have a perfect picture of what worked--and what didn't--from looking at the past. Copy the good stuff, and update it if you must.

Think cyclically. Like fashion, the history of many industries tends to repeat itself in a fresh new package. Consider cell phones: First, they were huge, and they got smaller as technology improved. When people started texting heavily and using their phones to surf the web, they got bigger again. If it happened before, you might be able to predict when it will happen again.

3. Use free or inexpensive resources. Function should always come before fashion. If you can easily customize a WordPress template to fulfill the functions you need rather than spend thousands designing a custom CMS, go with the version that offers a 95 percent functionality match at a 99 percent discount.

4. Follow the moves of other successful upstarts to stay on the cutting edge. Online marketing strategies and tactics are always evolving. Don't just settle on the first idea that works. Always be on the lookout for someone doing it better. Set your sights on startups that have gone from zero to huge, and take a look at their marketing to see what you can replicate and duplicate.

As the old saying goes, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." The same is true of entrepreneurs. Don't try to start with a blank slate. Examine what others have done, and look at how you can build upon it to make it better. By piggybacking on the work of others, you can stand on the shoulders of giants.

Published on: Nov 21, 2014