I’m now at the Hong Kong International Airport, undoubtedly the world’s most efficient, however, also a reminder of how anonymous and remorselessly efficient modern life is. There is nothing uplifting here at all, except the slick convenience of having every single luxury brand conveniently ranged before me should I decide that I suddenly “need” a new handbag. The airport is the best and worst of the flat world – efficient to the extreme with people travelators perfectly calibrated to ebb and flow with the cresting and receding waves of tourists washing through the facility every day. The buildings are wallpapered inside and out with the endless loop of global high street imagery feeding our subconscious consumer minds with “desire” and “aspiration”. Like Hong Kong itself, the airport is miraculously polyglot but utterly devoid of culture, art or humanity. There is not a single experimental, daring, artistic or anomalous THING in the airport, just lots of kinetic energy whizzing by in the form of humans, planes and conveying devices.
My observation — or rather, despair — at what I see at the airport is actually a perfect preface to what I wanted to write about today: that the only way to succeed BIG these days is to totally stick your neck out and INVEST IN THE EXTREME. (Here, I’m talking about entrepreneurship, not just internet startups. Honestly, I have neither the experience nor scars to show that I know what I’m talking about in this area – yet.) This oxymoronically titled post (How sheep-like behavior breeds innovation in Silicon Valley) by Andrew Chen makes the point well. So does this awesome post by Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, in which he describes “impossible” startups. Those are startups for which the need and audience are huge and obvious but which inspire fear in would-be founders because those businesses are already dominated by 800 pound gorillas. Examples described by Graham include a better search engine, a replacement for email which functions more as a to-do list, rather than a messaging medium. The upshot of both posts is that, if you don’t set your sights on huge ideas, your also-ran startup which merely copies or transposes the idea of someone else is very likely to fail. Since most startups fail ALREADY, why try to catch up or mimic the greatness of someone else? If you’re already piggybacking on the brilliant mind of someone else, who had the insight well before you, what makes YOU think you have a chance of a snowball in hell, to foresee the cresting wave of the zeitgeist? There are a couple of points worth elucidating more carefully here:
One is about the state of mind which leads to original thought. This is a question of character and belief. The other is about the more simple difficulty of outmaneuvering the competition who has a leg up on you. The former can definitely compensate for the latter IF you possess the will to reinvent and improve the original concept you’re copying. But if you’re dead set on following in the footsteps of a strong first mover, you’ll be screwed because, obviously, you’ll be coming late to the party every time some major feature, functional benefit or innovation is introduced. (To wit, Samsung will always lose out to Apple in the tablet computing market.) By definition, you’ll be scrambling to copy something that has already been introduced and, if worth copying, has already gained traction among consumers. In this case, you’re not just chronologically challenged but imaginatively challenged. By that, I mean, you’re not intellectually capable of generating ingenious ideas by yourself but entirely reliant on a third party to serve as the engine of your business’ ideas. Some of you may be scratching your head and asking yourself, why is she making this strawman argument: it’s OBVIOUS that those who copy are never going to be leaders. So, why the HELL do so many entrepreneurs and companies in Asia take ideas introduced elsewhere and seek to transpose them here? First, not everyone is a global domination type emulating Mark Zuckerberg or Andrew Mason. Second, copying, in the short term, seems like very juicy low-hanging fruit especially when you’re the first mover in your own market. Third, Asian investors reward these kinds of “safe” startups. When it’s obvious that bringing the equivalent of Groupon to China will have massive upside potential, why take a flyer and invest in something totally unprecedented and speculative in a fledgling internet market? Copying IS extraordinarily tempting.
HOWEVER, some drawbacks of copying include:
Fierce competition by everyone and their mother;
Very low signal to noise ratio, because of the reason above AND the fact that the media probably won’t care about what you’re doing. After all, you’re not creating anything new or innovative – nothing worth “writing home about”. That means your marketing expenses are going to be BIG if you want to stand out from the crowd.
The need to constantly look over your shoulder because the hordes are coming while NOT possessing the capacity to invent and innovate by yourself makes for total, abject paranoia – something you deserve (because copiers never have the moral high ground), unless you’re capable of pivoting, strategizing and seeing ahead for yourself. If you possess the mettle for the latter, then, in fact, you’re not actually COPYING. You’re just borrowing a great idea and locomoting it forward through the addition of your own entrepreneurial brio and creativity.
No one is going to be impressed by you except, maybe, your relatives. You’ll always be known as “the guy who copied X idea and brought it to Asia”.
To my mind, the main danger is the second to last one. Any time you look to your side or, worse, behind you, you’re always playing catch-up, losing frontward momentum and hemming in your mind. There’s no doubt: your catch-up is going to be half-assed compared to the original. Only the founders of the original idea can ever own the creative and intellectual insights which led to the birth of the idea. Moreover, only they can possess a deep understanding of WHY the product and idea deserved to exist and be born in the first place. (Again, if you genuinely seek to do more than just copy, see my remarks above: you don’t fall into this difficult scenario.) Your own knowledge of how to execute will, in comparison, be second order and superficial. For example, I have a friend who’s created the equivalent of shoedazzle.com for Asia. (Shoedazzle.com is basically a shoe-of-the-month club where women sign up with their credit cards to receive a pair of shoes every month, tailored to some very general style preferences, e.g., flats over stilettos. The shoes are very well priced at $39 a pair.) Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my friend and he’s a huge supporter of my business. BUT, his site and its shoes can’t compare to the original Shoedazzle.com because his ambition was fueled by the desire to copy Shoedazzle rather than sell incredibly stylish shoes at rock-bottom prices to the mainstream, price-conscious female consumer. Such superficial motivations and understanding of successful business models invented elsewhere is rife in Asia.
As Paul Graham points out, you must never tout yourself as the Second Coming of Google – or, in my case, The Reinvention of Consumer Retail. Rather, you have to characterize your ambitions and goals in bite-size, modest, comprehensible chunks. Therefore, right now, I content myself with saying that Plukka sells beautiful fine jewelry online at unbelievable prices. But what I REALLY have in mind is much much MUCH bigger than that.
This is the way I look at it — if I can carry the ball the first fifty yards, we have a fighting chance of making it all the way to touchdown.