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Why copying a business idea isn’t cheating .. it’s genius

Source | LinkedIn : By Ryan Holmes

“Talent imitates; Genius steals.” (variously attributed to T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso … and me)

When it comes to copying, one social network’s rap sheet is a mile long. A few examples: their signature Like button was featured earlier on a site called FriendFeed; when one-on-one messaging apps really started to take off, they conveniently rolled out Messenger as a smartphone app; and in response to the explosion of YouTube video, they ramped up their own native video platform (which now gets well over 8 billion views a day).

The latest heist by Facebook: Snapchat’s “Stories” format, a fun way to show off pics that expire after 24 hours. In this instance, Facebook made no effort at all to hide its work. It basically copied the entire concept from Snapchat, even using essentially the same name in unveiling Instagram Stories earlier this year.

Underhanded? Unethical?

Nope. Brilliant.

Time and time again, Facebook has swallowed up competitors’ features and made them bigger, better and accessible to a larger audience. Far from a crime, this act of copying – when done right – represents a powerful, and all too often misunderstood, business stratagem.

The art of the copycat

When it comes to innovation through imitation, Facebook is only the latest in a long line of masters. Art and music are largely built on the creative copying and adaptation of what came before, after all. Whatever the Robin Thicke verdict may say, selective borrowing of riffs, chord progressions and lyrics is par for the course in pop. And the Internet itself is nothing if not the result of distributed innovation and development. The golden age of open-source may be behind us, but it’s hard to argue that tech accelerated so fast precisely because of the culture of imitation that once thrived out in the open.

Why, exactly, is imitation such a powerful tool for innovation? First, consider it from the perspective of the company doing the copying. For Facebook and other serial imitators, copying radically decreases development costs. Equally important, Facebook gets the assurance of product-market fit. The network knows, for instance, that Instagram Stories is a viable product because Snapchat has already gone to the trouble of proving an appetite exists for day-long disappearing photo collages.

Or, to put this all another way, imitation is a no-brainer: both cheap and effective for the copier. And Facebook is far from the sole practitioner in the tech world. In our early days, for instance, we looked at the huge traction that URL shorteners like were getting and we decided to build our own variation into our product. It helped us get users at a critical time and it was a surefire bet.

How users get to reap the benefits

But the benefits don’t stop there (and if they did, imitation would be nothing but a cheap money grab.) The imitators, almost inevitably, put their own twist on the technology in question. This can be as simple as broadening its reach. Take the Stories concept. Snapchat has around 100 million daily users, most of them firmly in the teen demographic. Instagram, by contrast, has 300 million daily users, from a much broader cross-section of the population.

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