Imitation: How You Can Learn From Other Successful Businesses

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Imitation goes on in business all the time. Unless something is patented or trademarked, it’s up for grabs. If you see that there are lines out the door at the cafe down the street because they’re offering a new birthday-cake-flavored latte, get one on your menu board. Why reinvent the wheel?

Imitation Versus Innovation

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but imitation of a person's novel is plagiarism. Where’s the middle ground? It’s in innovation.

Copying exactly what another business is doing isn’t likely to result in a sudden boom for you unless there's a big, untapped market. Customers are already getting what they want at your competitor’s store. However, if you use imitation as a starting point and add innovation, now you’re talking. Make your copycat item less expensive or make it better and charge more.

Take that birthday-cake-flavored latte and add some whipped cream and colorful sprinkles. Top it off with a birthday-themed stirrer. Now, you not only have birthday cake lattes but yours are cooler than the place down the street, and you can probably get a higher price for them.

Examples of Imitation – FedEx

Before FedEx came along, UPS, the U.S. Postal Service and small local operators were our choices for sending and receiving shipments. FedEx's goal was to do the same thing, only faster.

A couple of teenagers started UPS in 1907 with borrowed cash and an office in the basement of a bar.

FedEx started as a 1965 term paper assignment written by an undergraduate Yale student, Fred Smith. His idea was to pick up and deliver packages (imitating UPS) but to do it much faster (the innovation). Fred didn’t get an A on his term paper, but he did start FedEx in 1971. He focused on getting time-sensitive supplies such as computer parts and medical products and equipment to their destinations quickly.

Examples of Imitation — Alando

We all know eBay but Alando not so much. It's no wonder, as the company only had a four-month life span. Alando was the German version of eBay. It was founded by three brothers and some of their friends in 1999.

It immediately became Germany’s leading online auction platform. It grew so fast that eBay bought them out for $43 million just four months after they opened their virtual door.

Alando was pretty much a carbon copy of eBay (the imitation) but in German (the innovation). The three brothers went on to research Silicon Valley firms and came up with other technology-based products like Jamba!, which they later sold to Verisign for a cool $273 million.

Learning From Other Successful Businesses

As you can see, imitation goes on at every level of business and can even be used as a business strategy. However, it’s best to use imitation learning as a starting point and not an end point. Doing exactly what the other guy is doing is unlikely to bring that line of latte drinkers to your door unless you’re offering it at a lower price.

Observe what works and what doesn’t work for other similar businesses. How have they branded themselves? How do they advertise? Browse in their stores, eat at their restaurants and study their websites.

Another small business owner who is a competitor is unlikely to want to mentor you, but you can still learn from her by observing how her business operates. Then, apply it to your business but step it up a notch.

Creativity in Imitation

Creatively imitating your competitors can be a great way to steer some of their market share your way. This isn’t to say that imitating what someone else is doing is bad. It’s just that offering something that’s been improved upon or that has added value is better. It’s also more exciting.

One situation in which an exact copycat product or service can work is if the business that first offered it hasn’t fully capitalized on it. You might be able to grab some untapped market share by providing exactly the same thing at exactly the same price.

What it comes down to is that there’s a lot to be learned from observing your successful rivals. You may see opportunities for creative innovation that can grow your business and increase your revenue. When you’re successful enough that other business owners start copying you, you’ll know you’ve made it.