Monkey Says, Monkey Do: The Era of Copycat Businesses


Have we invented too many things to have any true innovation today?

The way of the (copy) cat

At its worst, the term copycat elicits thoughts of bottom-feeders who lack imagination, drive, work ethic and resourcefulness, stealing what is clearly not theirs. The term is anything but pleasant. At its most pejorative, it describes a uniquely disposable creature of contempt. But what's the origin of the word?

Shakespeare famously used cat in a negative sense in “All's Well That Ends Well." Count Bertram informs his right-hand man that Captain Dumain is increasingly sleazy: “A pox upon him for me, he's more and more a cat." The feline metaphor run amok, is perhaps at best, a misnomer; cats are not imitative creatures. Perhaps monkey says-monkey do and copy parrot are more apt descriptions. However, as former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once said: “The business of America is business." Copycat businesses often improve the original concepts of their targeted business models-at best, or just mushroom into creativity-lacking clones, at worst.

Five Relentlessly Copycatted Business Models

One cannot help but to wonder if true innovation, in business, is still possible. Is there any creativity left in business creation? What follows are five different types of business models that have been copycatted over and over and over again.

1.Online Food Ordering

Way back in 1994, "PizzaNet" – Pizza Hut's digital ordering hub, launched, and accepted the first-ever online order, a large pepperoni, mushroom and extra cheese pizza. Papa John's didn't get in on the act until 2001, but in 2008, Papa John's International announced that its online sales were growing on average more than 50 percent each year and neared $400 million in 2007 alone.

The years 1996 thru 2001 birthed the rise of the internet, the Dotcom boom and the subsequent crash. Dotcom startups like Webvan, HomeGrocer and Kozmo started online grocery delivery, but closed in 2001 after the dotcom crash. SeamlessWeb, founded in December 1999, another web-based system for ordering food from restaurants and caterers, was made available to individual users (in 2005), and they currently partner with over 12,000 restaurants, serve over 4,000 companies, and have over 2,000,000 members in the United States and the UK. Then on August 9, 2013, Seamless and GrubHub completed their merger and now operate under the name GrubHub, Inc. Then there's Yelp, Eat24 and the list goes on and on.

2.Ride-sharing Platforms

Hailing a taxi seems to have become so yesteryear, and the myriad number of ride-sharing companies offer ample evidence to support that. Uber and Lyft are household names in many cities throughout the United States. But lesser-known Didi Chuxing (Chinese company) completed more than 1.4 billion rides just in 2015. It is the most dominant ride-sharing company in the world. Consider this, it took Uber six years (since its founding in 2009) to reach 1 billion rides. Didi Chuxing, just this summer, purchased Uber (China).

Didi, Lyft and Uber are not the only car-sharing options. Here are several more: Sidecar, Carma, Relay Rides (a peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace where car owners rent out their own vehicles and set their own prices), Car2Go (a fleet of eco-friendly Smart cars that are accessed with a card), JustShareIt (rent vehicles in your neighborhood when you're going to work or wherever you're traveling-hourly rental service), and Getaround, (one of the more popular peer-to-peer car sharing and rental services with insurance included in the cost). There are others, but you get the idea.

3.Subscription Boxes

Unless you've spent the past 15 years stranded on an island-alone, you've heard of Birchbox. Samples of high end beauty products-for men and women-are sent monthly, which vary from body care to haircare to perfumes. Just like nearly every other subscription box in existence, Bircbox requires that you sign up for a subscription-hence the name subscription boxes. You create a profile, so that only the products that meet your wants and desires are shipped to you.

Unless you've spent the past 15 years stranded on an island-alone, you've heard of Birchbox. Samples of high end beauty products-for men and women-are sent monthly, which vary from body care to haircare to perfumes. Just like nearly every other subscription box in existence, Bircbox requires that you sign up for a subscription-hence the name subscription boxes. You create a profile, so that only the products that meet your wants and desires are shipped to you.

If wine is your passion, there's winc, a personalized wine subscription service. Create your palate profile by answering six questions to help determine a sense of your likes and dislikes, view recommendations based on your input and enjoy your personally selected Malbec or Chardonnay. Still another is Taste Trunk, ideal for foodies, subscribers will receive gourmet food each month. Just choose from four categories-gourmet, sweet, health and BBQ-and you can change themes each month.

Now more than ever, the proliferation of copycat businesses has eviscerated the mere thought of basic creativity, not to mention decreased physical, spiritual and mental fitness. The simple act of walking in to a wine-tasting event or local merchant and engaging in conversation is fast becoming an act of rebellion.

4.Marketing Automation Software Companies

HubSpot, Marketo, Eloqua (Oracle), Pardot (owned by SalesForce), Act-On are but a few marketing automation companies fighting for your business. HubSpot, founded in June 2006, by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, is a developer and marketer of software products for inbound marketing and sales. They have been described as the one-stop-marketing-shop.

HubSpot is affordable with a basic monthly plan starting at $200 per month, whereas Marketo is a great mid-range (expect to spend approximately $800 per month) marketing automation tool for those requiring something that's robust for a 100+ person organization, but who don't want to shell out $2,000/month+ for a tool like Eloqua.

But it's all about niche: HubSpot is great for small (50 or fewer employees), Marketo (more than 50 employees to less than 1,000) and Eloqua focuses on larger businesses (more than 1,000 employees). Again, it's practically splitting hairs on differentiation but another example if of successful businesses getting cloned.

5.Groupon, LivingSocial and ScoutMob

Groupon, an American worldwide e-commerce marketplace, connects subscribers with local merchants by offering activities, travel, goods and services in more than 28 countries. Based in Chicago, it was launched in November 2008. According to an article by Quartz Media Groupon, the fastest company to reach a unicorn billion dollar valuation, in just 16 months. The name Groupon is a blend of “group" and “coupon." The idea that would eventually become Groupon was born out of founder Andrew Mason's frustration trying to cancel a cell phone contract in 2006. He thought that there must be some way to leverage large number of people's collective bargaining power. In 2007 Mason launched The Point, a web platform based on the "tipping point" principle that would utilize social media to get people together to accomplish a goal.

In short, consumers just sign up for their daily deal, sometimes higher than 90% off. The Groupon worked as an assurance contract using ThePoint's platform: as long as a certain number of people signed up for the offer, the “deal of the day" became available to all. If the predetermined minimum was not met, no one got the deal that day.

LivingSocial (Groupon's only true competitor) is a lot like Groupon, in that you decide to purchase a deal and then receive a link to your voucher by next business day. Afterwards, however, you'll also get an assigned link to share with your social network: if three people buy through your link, then your deal is free. Whereas with Scoutmob you're getting a discount that will allow you to spend money at a restaurant of your choice, sometimes up to 50% off. There are hundreds of businesses that have mimicked Groupon, no need to list them all.

Shameless copycats or global business developers?

The Samwer brothers, founders of Rocket Internet, are often denounced as little more than ruthless copycats of Silicon Valley startups. Alexander, Marc, and Oliver Samwer are the three German brothers behind the infamous incubator Rocket Internet. They first found success by investing in startups like StudiVZ, also known as the German Facebook. They are also the minds behind German auction site Alando, sold to eBay in 1999 for $54 million, and mobile content platform Jamba!, which sold to Verisign in 2004 for $273 million. Simply put, they see a new startup doing well, recruit a team to quickly replicate the business model for a currently non-existing market, and then sell it for millions. Copycats cling to the idea that very little of the internet is original.

But on the other hand, the consumer market benefits from more choices and availability, even if it comes from copycats. Not that this realization does anything to soothe the pain for the violated parties: after doing all of the grunt work, a copycat like the Samwer brothers, replicates their innovative ideas more efficiently. However, the Samwer brothers are outstanding at scaling. Companies like Rocket Internet and Fast Lane Ventures build fast and pivot well. For the most part, they are driven toward being acquired and lining their investors' pockets, which spurs the market, encouraging venture capitalism. Think big picture: new market entry, jobs creation, growth of venture capitalism (global), renewed interest in accelerator programs, are but a few of the benefits. Anyone with a conscience decries copycatting, partly because so many people see startups more as creative entities and less like businesses. As frustrating as copycatting may be it's the nature of the beast.

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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.