Don’t Copy the Greeks: The Necessary Originality of Unwelcome Distribution

Matt Wensing
The Startup
Published in
3 min readJan 10, 2019


If market access is guarded by incumbents, how can unknown upstarts win? One common growth tactic is mimicking prior, successful attempts at gaining distribution. Founder stories get canonized, and eager disciples imitate.

But, vulnerabilities exploited by upstarts get patched. Success of the mission aside, Troy would be caught off guard by the pregnant wooden horse once and only once. The next Instagram will not be able to piggyback on Facebook’s social graph. The next Tweetdeck will not be able to use what’s left of Twitter’s API’s. The next Zygna will not be able to embed their games into Facebook. Each of these startups dove headlong into gaps that quickly closed behind them. (Good on them. When your success depends on entering a wormhole in infinite space, timing and position are everything.)

This reactive patching of vulnerabilities in value chains isn’t unique to Facebook, or even to social media. And it doesn’t even require that the attacked be a singular entity. As the popularity of using invitations to aid consumer virality has increased, the general public has developed antibodies en masse. How many onboarding flows have you abandoned lately that asked you to import all of your contacts to spam all your friends?

The Tollbooths of Troy

With these moats widening, attempts at disruptive infiltration only preserve, or even strengthen, the existing order. Lacking novel inroads, startups are forced into paying the guards for entry, pouring money into the very giants (GOOG, FB) that control the most territory, as Andrew Chen mused:

One answer:

As even these channels have diminishing returns, a growth-at-all-costs mindset has evolved [1], sometimes with fatal consequences, as headlines about Uber, Zenefits, and Theranos have attested.

So what’s the telltale sign of novel distribution? One thing that the great hacks have had in common: they were inexpensive. Hotmail’s “Sent via Hotmail” in footers, Zuck scraping dorm photos, Instagram freely posting to Facebook’s feed, AirBnB scraping Craigslist: if you diagram these, there were no financial transactions, i.e. none of the hackers paid the hacked to reach the market.

In other words, the best distribution hacks are those that find a way to siphon an existing value stream without payment. Why? Not because the hackers were cheap, though they were scrappy. Rather, because cash registers are the deployed code of incumbents, and innovation is the business of robbing from the existing order.

Great artists don’t copy. And neither do they pay.

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[1] “Growth at all costs” is now devolving.

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Matt Wensing
The Startup

Founder, Summit. Believer in sustainable software businesses.