Guest Post: Can we stop talking about European clone startups now?

This is a part II in a series of guest posts by Erik Bovee, a founder and partner in SpeedInvest, an early stage venture fund focusing on Central Europe. He’s previously written about why “Things happen fast“.

My fiancee, who is a violinist, and takes no interest in my work with startups, except to express the opinion that people who work in business (and particularly finance and hi-tech) are overpaid, and probably dishonest, came up with a second observation recently:

Fiancee: ‘I hear most European tech startups are just copycats of successful US companies.’

Me: ‘What?! Wait! Where did you hear this?’

Fiancee: ‘Mike Butcher wrote about it in TechCrunch.’

Me: ‘How do you know Mike Butcher? Why are you reading TechCrunch?’

Fiancee: ‘It’s great! It keeps me from thinking about Mozart all day, and has tons of good gossip. Did you know that Mike made Oliver Samwer cry?

Me: ‘No. And you’re not allowed to read TechCrunch anymore!’

There followed a long argument, but I’ll summarize my winning position: ‘Who cares? Can we stop talking about this now?’

The fact that Europe has copycat or clone startups should be irrelevant. The real issue fueling this whole conversation is that people don’t like being made fun of. A natural reaction is to turn the ‘copycat’ accusation into a term of pride that you are not one (see, ‘The Pirate Summit’), to deny the accusation, or, in rare cases, to walk out of an interview in tears (or perhaps there was just a misunderstanding. These are all emotional reactions that don’t address the substance of the accusation.

Let me put it to you this way: who today complains about Japan’s copycat auto industry? No one. That is because Japan learned from the models of others, as everyone must do, and became an economic powerhouse in its own right. And anyone who dares repeat the old canard that the Japanese, as a whole, make good copycats, but are unable to innovate (…because of their stifling education system, their cultural homogeneity, their bland diet, blah, blah, blah…) needs to take a hard look at the recent 30-years’ history of consumer electronics, or Japanese world-leading innovation in robotics today. Any remaining doubters can spend some time investigating the glorious Kajimoto Lab!

Bill Gates himself spent his early teen years pulling printed source code out of rubbish bins so that he could copy other people and become a better programmer himself. A period of ‘copycatting’ characterizes almost any individual or collective route to success.

The recent Euro troubles pose a far greater, long-term threat to the EU tech ecosystem than any reliance on copycatting. The fundamentals remain strong for creating a European nexus of innovation, and a technical and economic engine to rival Silicon Valley: Things happen fast. Ten years from now, this entire little flurry of name-calling will be forgotten, Europe will likely have a couple of mega-successes under its belt, and the tears will have long since dried on Oliver Samwer’s cold, German cheeks.