If copying you is all it takes, you’ve already failed
Despite awakening the brightest ideas in our minds, science-fiction failed us on the day cloning was depicted as “Input your DNA, output an exact copy of you”. Growing a successful clone actually takes a lifetime, but SF made the fear a little too close to our comfort zones, especially for young entrepreneurs.
Last week, a founder I’ve known for a long time discussed with me an issue his company was having: his data was being copied. Let me rephrase that: HE framed it as an issue. Way before meeting him, I already knew what my answer would be:
“Yup, you’re gonna be scrapped like there’s no tomorrow, you cannot escape it. Is it really an issue?”
- Me, everytime I hear you whining that you’re gonna get scrapped
No, it’s not. It should never be. And if it is, you’re having issues bigger than how to prevent scrapping. Because unfortunately, your idea has no value, and neither does your data.
Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy
Beyond the motivational aspect of this Fight Club quote, a great truth lies. Ideas don’t spread in a vacuum and all the ideas you’ve ever had came into your mind because of what your life experiences exposed you to.
Whether your startup is “On-demand movies for dogs” (Netflix + Barkbox) or Airbnb (come on, it’s existing industry + C2C, try harder), there’s always a root idea that’s already been done and exploited six ways to Sunday.
The effect isn’t limited to startups. Harry Potter? It’s all Hero’s Journey. Which also inspired Star Wars. And Iron Man! Actually, comics are a REALLY good example. Ever heard of that dude in blue spandex and a big red “S” across his chest? Yes, that Superman, the OG. He’s been copied by his own owners (Red Son variant, Ultraman,…), by Marvel (Gladiator, Hyperion, Sentry,…), by Icon Comics (Superior), by Image Comics (Supreme), and more than I could list…
Now take a guess at which of these is still published in June 2017 (appearing monthly in three comics) and which ones are completely out of the picture.
Superman is a great example of why two similar recipes will never give out the same product. The only reason the publishers ever agreed to publish a single page of paper for any of the above-quoted superheroes was that they all took a different spin on an established formula that was different and interesting enough to work for a limited time.
But if you don’t believe me, did you know you can also publish Snapchat/Instagram-inspired statuses in Whatsapp?
Nature vs. Nurture, and none can be cloned
Another big reason Superman cannot be copied is that he’s been published since 1933. Sure, he’s a mainstay of comics (so much that his comic-book death in 1992 was covered in medias at the time). But like a popular archeologist used to say: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage”.
Like everybody targeted in here, I see you coming: “What do we care about Superman and Indiana Jones? The competitor is launching his copy of our product tomorrow”. Don’t let it bring you down and start building your own copy (you can call it “your next endeavour” in Medium to explain the pivot). Since it’s easy for your competitor and they don’t look like the sharpest tools in the shed compared to your A-Team, it should be even easier for you. Here are a few ideas:
We all know any Swift developer worth the title could write a Zenly clone by next Monday. Now, which one will end up on the App Store as “Battery Drain App (with Maps)” and which one has three years worth of knowledge and experimations with the iPhone’s battery, GPS and geolocalisation?
Fuck iPhone apps. Just rent some servers, write a pretty frontend and you’re ready to launch YouTubis, the new and improved™ video streaming service. Now you just need to learn everything YouTube has learned about video compression and streaming over the last twelve years and your service will be a great competitor.
Forget technology. Call a few VCs, get some money in the bank and you can be the new and improved™ Save! Repairing phones shouldn’t be that hard, there are plenty of videos on YouTube. Now you just need to learn about scaling a retail brand from your first shop to the 168 next shops. Over seven countries.
Let’s go simpler. Just install a Prestashop and pay ten dollars for Merci Two-hands-y dot com. Now you need to learn about hand cleansing gels manufacturing, and imagine studies about what flavors work best together (if nothing comes to your mind, just copy Ben & Jerry’s).
Hand cleansing gel manufacturing is too hard and you still need to bring something to the plate, I hear you. Enter TwoShape, the new and improved™ smart food. Just buy some soylent and start reading the laws regarding sale of edible products (if you’re in Europe, look up CE 178/2002 and CE 852/2004, plus your own state’s multiple regulationS).
Okay, fine. You know what? You don’t even have to sell your own products. Keep the Prestashop from before and rename your store to AfriKopy. From here, a community of African creators is all you lack to start making mad money.
Now delete that Prestashop. If installing it was the only thing you learned in your company, you can also stop paying for your company’s servers because your money shouldn’t go in a glorified Wordpress.
Humans cannot be cloned
Just in case you paid upfront and still have your servers up and running for the rest of the day, take a last look at them. You had a good run, maybe even had a lots of fun. Come on, log in, I’m sure there’s still something in there that may be of interest.
Now look, they should be in /var/log. Files called nginx_something.log. Type this in the console: wc -l /var/log/nginx_*.log. That number you get? It’s how many visits you’ve had since your engineers last flushed the logs. Depending on the number, maybe you did have something unique after all! If you read the files line by line, you will even know whether your users were desktop or mobile and which pages were the most visited.
Fetch the numbers from your GoogleDocs or ask an engineer to navigate you around the database. There should be something about “customers” or “users” somewhere. No matter how many there are, even zero, you’ve just learned something else your competitor doesn’t know: you know how many visitors will come back and pay (or not) for what you’re selling.
Crunch it further. Everybody lies, numbers don’t. Are there comments somewhere? Feedback of any kind that your customer left you? Run all this data through algorithms and see what parts of your product they liked and which ones they didn’t. Cross-match with the most and less visited pages and you’ll know a lot of shit your competitor won’t figure out until the next few months.
It’s not rocket science, it’s barely “big data” and Google Analytics should already be doing the math for you. It’s the secret ingredient that turned yesterday’s startups into today’s giants: users.
This data is your goldmine. You wonder why Instagram, Whatsapp and Tumblr cashed out that high? Users. More users. And even more users. Users every-fucking-where.
Nobody does it better (than those who know their customers)
Your customers are the toughest people on earth to please. You know it, because you’ve spent the last months trying to tailor your product to their usage. Somehow, it even seems that you gained a bit of their love (and maybe some money) in the process.
I know, I know, the competitor’s coming tomorrow and he’s promised features you don’t have. Don’t worry, if you followed all this, you should now have an ace in your sleeve: the best feature a product can have.
You know your customers.
So much power in four little words. Say it out loud: “I know my customers”. Say it again, loud enough for the whole office to hear you. Go to the window and scream it, loud enough for the competition to shit their pants. Sit back and relax, breathe in, breathe out.
You’ve entered the virtuous circle of acquisition:
users => data => know your users => improve user experience => more users => more data => etc…
From there on, your users will get the best experience they can get from your product. The best recommandations tailored to their specific uses that you’ve learned all the time you were together.
And you’ve made something completely original that can never be copied. How does it feel?
You are special: you’re a beautiful and unique snowflake
Take these template NDAs and shred them. Remove the CAPTCHAs and any rate-limiting from your public pages, just keep enough to avoid savage scrapping or a DDoS. If you want to improve your geek cred, make your app public on Github.
You won’t be copied tomorrow.
You’re not unique because of some code, magic formulas or datas that were public in the first place. What makes your startup truly unique is the road you took to build it and what you learned in the process. Whether you’ve learned which customers don’t drink alcohol, which ones have an iPhone,…
What makes you REALLY unique is the power this whole knowledge brings you. This is your edge and this is why you were chosen.
But if you’ve done none of that…
…if you’ve never acquired unique experiences with your product.
…if you’ve never pushed yourself to know the limits of your market.
…if you’ve never taken care of your users and brought them a unique experience.
You will be replaced by a better copy.