Don’t be a clone! At least, if you want to get any attention from customers or investors.
I frequently run into companies which (deliberately or not) are essentially a clone of another, existing startup out there in the world. It’s often not intentional, but I find frequently I get pitches from companies who are talking about doing something which someone has already done, or is well ahead of them in executing upon. Now, being first doesn’t mean you’ll be the most successful, but it’s usually way too late after someone has already staked out a credible presence in the market. (I’m just waiting for the rash of the “We’re the next Facebook” startups to emerge in the next few months, after their IPO filing this week).
Why shouldn’t you start up a company that is a nearly direct clone of a service already out there? There’s a million reasons, but among them are: 1. They’re out there already with their service, and you’re not. 2. If there’s an established competitor, unless you add something significantly (and I emphasize, significantly) better, people are unlikely to switch 3. If you intend to get financing, investors are very, very reluctant to fund something which is a direct clone of a market leader.
How to avoid becoming a clone?
1. Do your research. Look around at technology news websites. Do some searching on the Internet. Conduct market research. Understand what the competitive environment is, and who is doing things similar to what you are doing, what success they are having (or not!), whether what you are bringing to the table is adding value in some way. A cursory search of sites such as ours for keywords related to your business may turn up dozens of startups doing similar things.
2. Lend your own unique twist to the market. Develop your own unique twist to the market, figuring out a better, faster, cheaper way to accomplish something. Think like your end users/customers, and develop a solution to solve their problems. Don’t just add a feature because some other website has that feature; don’t make your site behave just like another one to follow their lead. Understand why you’d want to do something some way, and add value to your business.
3. Talk to your customers. Talk to customers, and understand your market by interacting with the people you are serving. Understand and response to their needs, rather than just following the leader in the market. You might find that the so-called “leader” in the market doens’t understand what users truly want and need. You might find a unique niche that the companies you had thought about cloning are ignoring.
4. Ask would-be investors for feedback. Talk to investors (both angels and venture investors) — not to ask them for money, but for advice. Ask them if they’ve seen folks working on something similar. Usually, investors will tip you off if they’ve seen a dozen people trying to do what you are doing–they might not tell you who, but they might say “that idea is not original” or “you’re too simliar to what others are doing”. Entrepreneurs often are devastated by the idea that other people might have the same ideas they have, but if you’ve been in this business long enough you find there are always 2 or 3 companies thinking the same kinds of things. They key is–that’s fine, if you are ahead of the curve, know how to execute, and bring a unique twist to the market. But, if you’re behind in execution, aren’t offering anything new, and are just a “new and improved XYZ”, you’re going to need to rethink your plans.
5. Be original. The best way to avoid becoming a clone, is don’t define your startup as being the next-best-evolution-of-something-big. Very infrequently are the evolutionary advances of a competitor going to make a company successful. Most successful companies I talk with have something different and unique, fill a gap in the market that isn’t being filled, provide a service people need and can’t find anywhere else. Really, if you just want to clone a business, you should be opening a franchise, not a technology startup!
Being a clone (at least in the startup-company sense) is really a dead end, and rarely do clones get funding or traction. So, don’t be a clone!