Strategies & Tips

Imitation With Innovation Reduces Risk in Startups

McDonalds Toronto

Forbes | Martin Zwilling

If you are an entrepreneur starting a business for the first time, I recommend that you find a product concept that is already accepted and improve on it, rather than tackling that ultimate disruptive technology. Notice that I’m not suggesting that you steal someone else’s idea, but simply limit your risk by adding innovation to a proven entity.

Evidence of success using this approach is all around us. Look how the Japanese entered the auto industry, or how McDonalds imitated White Castle, or how Wal-Mart “perfected” the low-price high-volume approach. Once you have experience in running a successful startup this way, you may decide that the disruptive technology of your dreams was a bad idea in the first place.

It seems to me that in the startup world, imitation gets a bad rap. People tend to look down on “me too” entrants as inferior, or forced to copy because they have nothing original to offer. I can see many advantages to the imitation with innovation approach, beyond just limiting the risk to changing just one variable rather than many:

  • Avoid initial major R&D cost. Statistically, the costs to the first inventor of a new technology are at least a third higher than to follow-on innovators in the same technology. Of course, the first one gets the patent. But patent disclosure requirements often make imitation easier, and smart technologists can work around most patents anyway.
  • Learn from competitors and early adopters. Market research is more meaningful if there is already a market and real customers. Don’t just copy successful formats and strategies, but learn from what has worked and not worked for your competitors. Hopefully, you can skip some of the costly pivots made by them.

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