If you’re gonna copy, make it right

An interesting blog post by Jason Cohen at OnStartups.com  discussed why you shouldn’t copy other companies just because they were successful at what they do. He uses examples like 37Signals, Copyblogger, FogCreek Software, Zappos, and make a good case for trying to think for yourself instead of just following what others are saying.

His controversial post caused quite a stir whith some people taking it personal, others agreeing with him and even others that were lost completely as to what the message he was trying to say was. Why do I care? Well, for one I’m interested in controversy and believe that dissident voices can often give us great insight into what we thought was a certainty. How often have you presented an idea to your team or to the company’s senior management only to get asked questions you never yourself considered before? My second reason for liking that post is that I agree with what Jason said.

Let me explain. Although I admire Joel Spolsky and think he’s right on the mark 99% of times, I wouldn’t simply copy his business model or his ideas and try to use them in my own company. The simple fact that it worked for him doesn’t prove that it will work for everyone. Another person I admire is Jack Welsh (former CEO of GE) but I also wouldn’t be as ruthless as he was during his tenure simply because that is not my style. Can you be as successful as someone else without using the same methods? The myriad of companies out there that are successful and yet operate completely different (Southwest and JetBlue, Yahoo and Google, GM and Toyota, etc.) are the proof.

Did Jason take some stuff out of context? Maybe. But the overall idea was interesting and valid, especially for us mere mortals that look in awe at others that have been more successful (however you define the term) and have to be brought back down to earth and go back to work.

The lesson here translated into the marketing realm is that you should always keep an eye out for the competition, for your partners, for other similar companies, for what is said to be working and why. What is the best ad campaign you’ve seen recently? Which is the best website? Who in your industry is the king of PPC and SEO? This is all good food for thought but beware of simply copying what others are doing. You competitor may have a very good reason why he decided to create a blog on his website and why he spent thousands on that slick direct mail piece but it doesn’t mean you should follow suit. Watch, learn, absorb all the good and bad then translate it into your own context. 

Effectiveness doesn’t come from copying, it comes from making it right for your organization. Do what works for you, not what have worked for others.

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One Response to If you’re gonna copy, make it right

  1. Jason Cohen says:

    Thanks for the great write-up! I particularly like your point about watching your competitor do something (e.g. direct mail piece) but that doesn’t mean you should copy it.

    In fact, perhaps it means exactly the opposite! If your competitor is investing in something like print, maybe the most cost-effective way to proceed is not to fight his game but win on a different front. In your example, you could own tradeshows or social media while your competitor thrashes with print.

    I enjoyed reading your perspective.

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