Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.
I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?
I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.
What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.
Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?
I came across something this past week that I knew immediately would have to be our Foodie Friday topic because in a flash my reaction went from “duh” to “brilliant” to “life-changing.” It is a coffee filter. That’s right: the thing into which you put the coffee as you prepare your morning cup. It actually can remind us a lot about business.
I was visiting my sister and went to make the morning coffee. As I opened up a filter to place it into the conical thing that holds the ground coffee, I saw something on the white paper of the filter that I’d never seen before: lines. That’s right – pre-measured markings to delineate the levels of ground coffee, much as you probably have on the coffee pot itself for water. I literally giggled with glee. No measuring spoon to wash nor losing track of how many scoops I’d counted out. Just hit the same line each day with the water in the pot and the coffee in the filter and get the same brew, no matter how sleepy I was as I made the pot.
What does this have to do with business? A few things. First, coffee filters are commodity items. Not much distinguishes one filter from another and anything which can do so will remove price as the only variable. In this case, I don’t see evidence that these filters even cost any more than those without lines.
Second, this is clearly a change made with the consumer in mind. After all, it must cost a little something extra to print the lines on the filters as well as to implement a step in manufacturing that wasn’t there before. Based on the filters without measure lines, I don’t think anything had ever been printed on them, so this might even have involved purchasing new equipment to provide a customer benefit. It would have been very easy to say let’s charge more to maintain our margins or to forget the “new” product altogether but some smart manager didn’t.
Finally, it shows us that even something as simple as a coffee filter – literally a folded piece of paper – can provide room for innovation and a better product. All that’s required is to keep the focus on customer benefit and to think outside of the box (or inside the filter!). Those are things any of can and should do.
Let’s start today with something written by someone significantly smarter about business than yours truly:
In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and new ways of doing things that we are witnessing today, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. A simple look around us will, I think, quickly show that imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.
Right? That wasn’t written recently, however. It’s from a piece written in 1966 for The Harvard Business Review by Theodore Levitt. If you’re a businessperson and you don’t know who he is you might want to do a little research. His classic piece Marketing Myopia has been one of the foundations upon which I base my business thinking. It argues that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Amen.
That’s not our topic today, however. What caught my eye was a piece about how What’sApp was imitating Snapchat‘s disappearing content feature that lets users share photos, videos, and GIFs that disappear after 24 hours. You might be aware that Instagram – also owned by Facebook – did the same copying last summer with Stories. Facebook itself is doing the same thing. In Snapchat it seems as if we have a company who innovates beautifully but does so in a way that simply blazes a trail that others follow shortly thereafter. Facebook, in this case, is the imitator. Apple is a classic imitator. They will let others innovate and learn from the success or failure of those innovations, refining them and making them better. One could argue that for a while, the entire Japanese manufacturing economy was based on that principle – innovative imitation.
As Professor Levitt wrote, there is nothing wrong with that. While every company needs to do some innovating, “no single company can afford even to try to be first in everything in its field. The costs are too great; and imagination, energy, and management know-how are too evenly distributed within industries.” The question for any of us is when do we need to dig deep and innovate vs. when should we be looking to what others are doing nicely and make it better? You might surprise yourself if you can put your business ego aside and focus on solving customers’ problems better than anyone else can, even if it’s just by doing innovating on top of imitating someone else. Clear?