Copying in Asia? It’s everywhere. Asia is clone central. Although some have stated that the Asian copying era is coming to a close, I think we’re still waiting on that. In Vietnam, where I am, in 2011, there were 97 Groupon clones. This is repeated throughout Asia. China is globally notorious for cloning stuff, and Southeast Asia is running wild with it.
This brings me to an epiphany I had yesterday at the Lean Mindset workshop with Mary and Tom Poppendieck. Mary said:
Lack of complexity invites other people to copy you. Things that aren’t copied are complex.
No wonder we see so much copying in Asia. Technically, design-wise, and in terms of management of teams, many Asian countries are still catching up to Silicon Valley where much experimentation and failure has lead to a collective base of experience, knowledge, and community.
And this makes sense, right? How long did it take Android to copy iPhone? Apple was arguably the stand-alone market leader from 2007 to 2010 when Android was still not fully marketable. Apple created a completely new market around a touchscreen phone in a way that no one else could do yet. It took years to copy. And in those years, Apple accumulated a treasure trove of wealth.
This principle also applies to things that your startup is copying. If you can copy it, that means it’s not very complex. That means someone else is going to copy it too. That means you’re not adding much value to the market.
Mary gave a great example: a company that built a gambling system across many countries built it so that it understands all relevant gambling laws across all those countries. That’s something terribly hard to replicate. It’s a lot of value. It has multi-million or -billion dollar potential.
In Vietnam, the reason why we see this copying so often, as I’m sure this is probably true across Asia, is because technically we’re not able to produce very complex marketable ideas. Most of the developers here code PHP and some can do mobile apps. It took 400 people to build Coc Coc, a Vietnamese search engine, and 80 people to build Zalo, a messaging app, so they’re stand-out examples of a local web company doing something that’s difficult. But then, on the flip side, why are there so many e-commerce clones? Because they’re super easy to copy. Anybody can do it. That’s why everybody is doing it.
If you look at the messaging app battle ground, there are already eleven major players across Asia. And more keep coming. This only underlines how simple a chat app is to make. They’re ridiculously easy to copy. When you see something everybody is copying, you immediately know that it’s not complex.
So startups, don’t build something simple and easy to copy. Research deep, work hard on building something that is very complex, and thus very hard to copy. Look at your field, look at the core competencies, understand the deepest principles of your field, and innovate from there. That’s the way to win.