Hey, That’s Mine! Give It Back! The Fallacy Of The International Clone

Editor’s note: Lee Jacobs is founder of Colingo– An English learning service focused on Brazil.  Sometimes his alter ego Mr. Lee gives English lessons on Youtube, check out a recent one on “drinking words” here.

I have spent a lot of time in Brazil, working on my startup Colingo, about a month ago I was in Sao Paulo for Dave McClure’s Geeks on A Plane. Brazil is a hot market with many firms like Accel and  the famed Sequoia capital  searching for opportunities. Many of these investors are looking to fund   “copycat,” business that emulate successful American startups. Businesses like Peixe Urbano (Groupon), Elo7 ( Etsy), Kekanto (Yelp), and Shoes4You  (Shoedazzle).

Whenever I come back to the Valley, I often hear whining that clones are the work of unimaginative thieves — not real innovators. Genuine innovation requires brand new ideas, and is typically the work of a Stanford dropout (or at least Harvard).

This is bullshit.

As I alluded to in a previous post, this is just another example of how American entrepreneurs are grossly misinformed about what’s happening outside of U.S tech scene.

While the idea that innovation stems from the epiphany of a brilliant entrepreneur certainly is romantic, it rarely happens that way. Great ideas and companies have always evolved from what came before them. Even the archetype of a “true innovator,” Steve Jobs,  was famously  ‘inspired’ (some think copied) ideas for the mouse after his trip to Xerox PARC early in his career. Facebook, started as a  ‘clone’ of HotorNot, Google was inspired by search engines before it. Having grown from their initial roots, These two businesses no longer closely resemble their original inspirations. It is reasonable to assume many international clones will evolve on their own trajectory. In fact, to be successful they must.

Brazilian clones have had to do more than what Eric Acher of Brazilian VC firm Monashees calls “geographic innovation,” these companies have had to adapt to the local realities of doing business in Brazil. While the fast growing Baby.com.br is inspired by the American Diapers.com, Baby had to reinvent how shipping and order fulliment was done in Brazil to make up for lack of quality fulliment options. Helpsaude.com  is a Zocdoc for Brazil, unlike its American counterpart has gone with a free listing model. Founder Gustavo Guida Reis, tells me he needed to adapt the model to account for Brazilian doctors hesitancy to pay up front.

A common argument in the anti-clone camp is that cloning reduces the incentive for companies to innovate. “If my idea is just going to be copied, what’s the point?” For one thing, entrepreneurs should be building companies because they firmly believe in changing the status quo, and that in itself should be incentive enough. Furthermore, whining about competition reminds of me of the Winkelbrows complaining Zuck stole Facebook from them- as if scaling to a billion users is an afterthought. Building real companies is the hard part.

Overall, it feels like the anti-clone attitude in the Valley, is borne out of a fear that a clone will out-compete them. Entrepreneurs should fear not, for business models, designs, and features can be copied. Teams cannot. True innovators should be confident in their own unique vision for how to push an industry forward and confident in their team’s ability to execute on it.  In the end, building a business comes down to the individual vision of the people running it and their unique ability to execute. As Fred Wilson recently pointed out, innovations  will inevitably be copied and it is up to innovative companies to push the envelope and continue to build new things. As we saw from the recent shut down of the Samwers brothers’s  Fab clone (the Samwer brothers’ dubious ethics seem to be an example of when cloning crosses the line- but that is for another post), staying focused and execute your vision is what matters.