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This Is Why Copying is Everywhere in Asia

Anh-Minh Do
Anh-Minh Do
10:31 pm on Mar 5, 2013

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.


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Have Your Say
  • https://www.facebook.com/michaeltrafaco Michael Tran

    You mentioned the golden reason: 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.

    and I agree with that 100% but I like to add two more points:

    1. Vietnamese start-ups are afraid being uniqueness. They don’t want to be the first or the only one because of failures.

    2. Vietnamese start-ups do not have much of innovative ideas but have much of improvement ideas.

  • LOL

    “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. ”

    WORST advice, ever. This can only come from clueless individuals who don’t know a thing about business and non-tech VCs who are obsessed about patents and preventing copycats.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Anh-Minh Do

    First of all, the whole idea comes from the Poppendiecks, who pioneered Lean Software development. They’re as tech as you can get.

    Second, this is about innovation and creating value. Patents result from innovation, certainly, but they’re not the main point of this article. It’s not about preventing copycats, it’s about adding value to the market. People who don’t understand this principle, still don’t understand why Groupon is not a good business model.

    Third, It’s all about working hard. I don’t see how this could ever be bad advice. Creating value and developing a long standing company comes out of a lot of hard work. If you look at all the companies that are over a decade old, many have their own success stories and elements, but hard work is always a key element.

  • VSA

    Let’s dispel the stereotype that copying is an Asia only problem. Do your homework and you will find countless clones disguised as start-ups in the U.S. and Europe too.

    Let’s also dispel the theory that creating something complex and “hard to copy” equates to value-add or innovation.

    Google was not the 1st search engine, Facebook was not the 1st social network, Amazon was not the 1st online retailer… they were, in a sense, all copies but they were much more. Figuring out how to do something better, faster, cheaper and with more features that a user wants is really the essence of value creation. Timing and luck are also important. Or being 1st in a region is not such a bad strategy.

    Lean start-up principles are very much aligned with KISS (keep it simple stupid), not keep it hard to copy.

    I applaud all entrepreneurs for trying to build a successful business whether exact clones or not. Sure, we all want to be the next Apple but being Samsung can be just as rewarding.

  • http://www.refer.me David Beatty

    Look no further than Apple / Jobs. His classic re-quote: Good artists copy, great artists steal.

  • Kurt

    First of all, congratulations on a great article. This website regularly frustrates me in the way it celebrates copying/stealing in Asia.

    @VSA – You are correct, but you exclude one major point. While direct copying is criminal, it is made worse in Asia through government involvement in blocking entry by original innovators into that market.

    Clones in the USA die. Google, Facebook, and Amazon worked hard to innovate, and thus they were fundamentally different from the “originals”. However, the originals were never blocked from offering to the market themselves.

    If you do not allow rewards for innovators (based on the risks they take of failure) then you will kill innovation.

  • http://www.techinasia.com Willis Wee

    Hi Kurt. Maybe you can be more precise about how we celebrated copying/stealing in Asia? Click on this to read more of our articles with keywords “copy” before you reply. http://www.techinasia.com/search-results/?q=copy

    And your comment on “it is made worse in Asia through government involvement in blocking entry by original innovators into that market”

    That’s inaccurate because it is mainly China who blocks major sites like Facebook, Google etc. To categorize what you read about China as Asia is severely inaccurate.

  • VSA

    @kurt no way would I condone copying that equates to stealing. Taking the opportunity to copy a business model that works in one market and applying it to another market is what this discussion is about. Don’t misconstrue it as a discussion about stealing intellectual property.

    There’s no argument that FB, GOOG, and AMZN innovated and worked hard to succeed. The point is, even though they could be considered copies of the originals, they did it better and as a result succeeded.

    Anyhow, the whole premise of your response is in support of an argument that no one, not even the author, is expressing any opinions about. As such, your congratulatory praise for the article is suspect.