How to Build a Business By Copying and Improving Other Businesses


The world is full of imitators. Give me an original idea and soon a dozen imitations are available – just look at the popularity of the latest Paris fashions. Soon the world is full of imitations left, right and centre. Before there was Coke and then there was Pepsi, there is Pizza Hut and there is Dominos, and there is Adidas and there is Nike. The fact is most new businesses are somehow or rather imitations of other businesses. Do you see the similarity between Southwest Airlines and Virgin?

Imitating others saves a lot of thinking power. An idea is there in front of you lock, stock and barrel. All you have to do is tailor and modify it to suit where and how you want to do it. Don’t worry, it’s not as unethical as you might believe. Just go down to the supermarket and see how many 2 in 1 shampoos there are available. We are imitators by nature, it is part of the way we think. In fact imitation is the key to success of the big brands like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, Subway, and 7-Eleven. They got the idea right once, and just duplicated it around the world (with some mods of course). Imitation works or else you would not be able to have your favorite junk food when and where you wanted it.

The simplest form of imitation is just straight copying an idea and doing it in another place. The street stall food vender and laundry are good examples of this. Success and profits come from producing a good product and building up a group of regular customers by servicing them when they need it. However, no matter how hard you work there is a limit to how big you can grow in the one place. You are also restricted, product differentiation through a new recipe is not always appreciated and people are price sensitive. Imitation has limitations.

Grabbing an idea from another country and replicating gives you more latitude to grow. For example, Sir Richard Branson modeled Virgin very much on Southwest Airlines. Many businesses have been conceived from ideas one saw while on holiday. Anita Roddick was said to have “created” the idea for the Body Shop in San Francisco while on a holiday to America. She purportedly copied the name, layout, products, and even the price lists.

Once you see something, it’s hard to get it out of your mind. All ideas and thoughts we have are actually based on something we have seen, learned, or experienced in the past. Just watch the parade of tablets that are coming out from different companies. The market actually works through one firm emulating and (I’m going to say it) copying another. This is where the majority of our ideas come from.

So, the lesson here is about learning how to improve or re-create a better version of something, not just cut and paste what you have seen to create a new idea. When you see an interesting idea somewhere, try to cut out the important facets of what you see and paste it (mentally) in another place and imagine you running it. Think about what you are going to offer, what potential customers want, and who they are, what new angles may work, how does it suit the timing and who is your target customer and locality. If you can do that then you are capable of generating new ideas that may become very viable business opportunities.

Next week I will show you another way to develop new ideas.