If You Just Copy, You Will Always Be Behind

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Although most organizations don’t like to admit it, the way most business models are hatched is by copying the “success” of another organization.  By definition, copying means you’ll never really be innovating, just following.  And by the time you finally do successfully copy the features of another company’s business model, they’ll be onto something else.

A study recently published in the Harvard Business Review found that it takes an astonishing average of 15 years for a competitor to fully duplicate an innovative business model.  Why not invest that time creating something new and different – a business model that puts you ahead instead of behind?

If you want to be different, make different decisions

Of course a truly unique business model means you’ll be making decisions in a very different way from the other companies that are in copy-cat mode.  The software firm 37signals built its business this way, making counterintuitive and counter-cultural decisions at every turn of the company’s development. One of their most interesting tenets: Let your customers outgrow you.  “You can’t be everything to everyone,” observe 37signals execs Jason Fried and David Hansson in their provocative book Rework.  “Companies need to be true to a type of customer more than a specific individual customer with changing needs.”

Some other keys to a differentiated business strategy preached by 37 Signals and others:

  • Stop worrying about what your competitors are doing
  • Say no instead of always saying yes
  • Offer less than your competitors
  • Instead of always adding products and services, subtract.
  • Curate your product offering (which means deciding what not to do)
  • Do fewer things better
  • Embrace constraints (having defining boundaries is what it means to have a strategy)
  • Grow slowly to deliver faster work

Doing a few things well

In an interview with Advertising Age, Freid asserted another unconventional point of view – that agencies listen to their clients too much instead of not enough.  “When you listen to your client you starting wanting to do too much. That’s when you start doing things you don’t believe in.”  Companies end up hiring people to do these things they don’t know how to do, they get really big and then they slow down. That’s how you get big and slow and expensive. What’s wrong with doing just a few things really well?”

37signals started out as an agency with a digital focus and ultimately evolved into a software firm. “We were going to ‘underdo’ everybody else,” says Fried.  By doing a few things well, they have developed what is arguably the best project management platform (Basecamp) in the business.   A “less is more” approach can work in just the same way for all types of marketing communications firms.