Imitate First, Innovate Later
When I was running IndiaWorld, I did my best to copy the good ideas out there. It gets things going faster. I was sitting in India. I had a small team. I did not have the luxury to experiment. So, when I wanted to launch a search engine for India, I started by looking at what Yahoo was then (a directory of websites) and replicated that for India. I then added keyword search in crawled pages similar to what Excite and Altavista offered. That became Khoj. During those days, I would always look for good features and sites that I could replicate for India.
For a startup, it is difficult to do A/B testing and run multiple experiments. The Internet is itself the laboratory. So, pick up good ideas that are working elsewhere and get started. Over time, to thrive, one has to innovate. But innovation itself is not a precondition to get started. This applies to product features also. Too often, a lot of time is spent coming up with ‘innovative’ ideas – at the cost of time. In the early stages, speed trumps everything else. The innovation journey has a high cost – in time and money.
The problem is that we are all taught from early days that copying is a bad idea. That is the right approach in education. But in the real-world, that means starting from scratch rather than building on the body of work that already exists. That simply takes too long and is very risky. Some will innovate – good for them. But that path has more failures than success stories. Let others run the evolutionary race for ideas and features. As a proficorn entrepreneur, you should simply choose from the best out there.
Imitation will not help you win the race – it is merely a ticket to play the game. After that, innovation needs to kick in – either in the product, pricing or business model. The sequencing is important. Starting off with innovation needs time and a large R&D budget which is not practical at the early stages of a venture. A good way to start therefore is to clone first to become competitive, and then work on the incremental innovations.
Tomorrow: My Proficorn Way (Part 29)