Is business copying bad?

By Seth Lui

“Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso.

A few weeks ago I was reading an online rant about a fellow university mate’s plight, where another friend reportedly copied his professional website and style.

Copying a successful business model has been a commonplace occurrence throughout history, but is it really as worrying as people think it is? Especially in the tech industry now, copying is widespread because it is so easy to engage a programmer and re-engineer a platform, or even just purchase existing platforms for less than a nose job.

Just look at the numerous group buying platforms in the Singapore market now: Groupon, Deal Singapore, VoucherWow, Insing SuperDeals and the list goes on and on like the number of Gangnam style parodies.

Let’s step back and look at it from the creator’s view, the copycat’s view and the overall effect it brings to the community.

For the ‘originator’, the key issue has always been about credit and recognition. When you first see another concept that looks strikingly like yours, you feel that pinch of pain. Like someone has secretly stolen your kidney while you were drunk one night. It’s that loss of pride that really gets to you, and it makes you feel like drawing a gigantic penis on the face of the asshole that stole your concept.

Unfortunately, this is a selfish, narcissistic view. No doubt you should feel proud about your work but more so, you should be grateful that your business has become something big enough to be worth copying.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, no? Would someone copy a mediocre piece of art, or attempt to recreate the Mona Lisa. Be thankful your business idea has spread so far and wide, now the mass majority tries to follow you, the fore-runner.

In fact, I believe the true starter will be the one remembered. If customers go to you and say, “Hey, there’s this other fried chicken fast food restaurant that looks strangely like yours,” you don’t have much to worry about. Your work has been duly noticed.

The view of originality is perhaps, flawed in the first place. Everything new that we seemingly create has been recreated elsewhere already, Mother Nature being the first fire-starter, not man.

The circles, colours, strokes and curves that you see in new products, in its most modular basic form already existed in our natural world, in the trees, mountains and seas, way before you crawled out of the mud in Pangaea. Everything you’ve learned is a form of imitation from somewhere, whether you consciously know it or not.

Can you imagine a new colour that doesn’t exist in the light spectrum? We just pieced all these elements together in a different way. Sometimes we even copy unknowingly, drawing inspiration from all the perspectives we’ve seen, but our mental tanks are just incapable of remembering all the sources.

Thus, the illusion of originality. For all you know, that new delivery idea you had came from a cheesy pizza boy porno you watched years ago. Not that you would admit it.

Bad Copying Versus Good Copying

Even though I’m ambivalent about copying, I think certain blatant copying companies need to wear a cone of shame and stand at the reflection corner. We’ve all seen those ‘me-too!’s around, with the exact same formatting, colors, functions - a complete port of its predecessor without any evolution.

If you want to copy, at least do it well and make it your own. Let’s explore some cool local startups that may not exactly be the first to invent the wheel, but have done splendidly in differentiating themselves either through a totally unique personality or a combination of various styles.

Socialwalk (

Socialwalk is a local business matching platform primarily offered to exhibition organizers, allowing trade show participants to easily match what is offered at these exhibitions, with what buyers are looking for. Their services have been engaged for trade events like the Medical Fair Asia, Food Ingredient Asia, Clean Energy Expo and many others.

Comparing it to Globalsignin, another similar business matching platform which also has major exhibitions under its belt, Socialwalk has managed to add a more fun and personal vibe revolving around their founders, like how Apple = Steve Jobs, as well as many other features like a leads generation service for suppliers.

In contrast, Globalsignin’s platform looks like it was designed by Darth Vader, with a very textbook performance website; you could take any technology brand and plonk it on Globalsignin’s website without anyone knowing the difference. Socialwalk on the other hand, has differentiated their look and feel in a style that is tailored only to them. Similar concepts, but a totally different feel. 10 points to Socialwalk!

Paywhere (

Paywhere conceptualized and developed the social commerce platform tackthis! (another of their products) which provides a quick online commerce solution on websites, social networks and blogs with sales conversion tools for business owners. Customers can purchase seamlessly and further engage a social commerce tool that changes online shopping experience with easy payment, like letting you drag and drop encoded item graphics online to your shopping car.

In short, Paywhere has simplified social selling and marketing tools for online business owners.

Now, online payment facilities are definitely not anything new, the foremost product coming to mind being PayPal. Paywhere has however, managed to combine not only online payment capabilities, but also value added many social marketing features exclusively for their clients; you no longer have to go through the whole customer-merchant bank transfer dance, especially for blog shops.

Online shopping has been made fun, interactive and oh so easy to spend your money. Daddy will not be pleased.

With this combination of existing payment ideas, Paywhere has managed to create their own unique multi-dimensional system, proudly marketed as a Singapore creation.

Burpple (

Burpple has been making much momentum in the iPhone app shop, marketed as a Social Food Journal. Taking advantage of our Asian obsession to take a photo of every Hokkien Mee we order, Burpple allows its users to capture these precious food porn moments and share it with other foodie afficionados using the app.

Label what you eat, where you ate it and what time you ate it, all in the name of sharing our glorious Singaporean food culture trail.

As you can probably guess, Instagram first popularized the whole picture taking trend, which was probably built upon the Twitter idea of sharing and following user moments. Burpple has angled their photo app into a more niche market that is food, which is pretty brilliant given the natural compulsion for us to want to know what our friends had for breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. So instead of seeing random clouds, cute kitten photos or black and white pictures of furniture, with Burpple you get to focus on what truly matters in life: Food.

As they say, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Burpple has found the new way, using existing trends and technology.

We Bake Bigger Pies

Especially for startups in the early adoption stage, the market is definitely big enough for more competitors. Sometimes the industry develops precisely because of more competitors, expanding the size of the pie, not necessarily cutting it. How fast can a single company market a completely new trade? Not every company has millions to spend on marketing dollar per capita.

The classic case example would be Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Because of PepsiCo’s entrance into the market, there was not only increased awareness for the cola beverage segment, but also gave cola drinkers a chance to pick an identity. You are now either a Pepsi guzzler, or a Coke fan (the stuff you drink, not snort).

Having variety in competition benefits consumers and encourages adoption.

As we wrap things up, I’d reckon copying helps the entrepreneurial industry overall, but have some sense of pride when you do it. It’s the human mind’s ingenuity to combine different styles, to borrow across disciplines and create something new that blurs the line of imitation.

This is my interpretation of what Pablo Picasso meant by stealing and not copying, when you borrow sufficiently from various sources to create something that becomes yours - the product of creation can no longer be rigidly associated to the original, yet still shows minor traits of it. That takes true genius.

In my humble opinion, it’s about spreading the idea and 1 man shouting from the mountain is not sufficient. Spreading ideas takes an entire community sharing, imitating and copying one another till finally the idea sinks into society permanently.

Even ‘me-too!’s help to increase the size of the pie, not slice it. Copying is here to stay, like your mother-in-law visiting, and we might as well get her to bake apple pie while we pretend to listen to her complaints about getting a ‘decent’ job.

On a completely unassociated, unbiased, coincidental note, my company MakeShake has a new competitor coming up called Shake-a-Treat at the recently opened Star Vista Mall.

Colorful rainbow scheme, customizable milkshakes, ‘New concept’ text plastered around their shop. Hmmm. I’ll leave it to you guys to check it out sometime. Genuinely interested in increasing the milkshake market size, or cone of shame? 

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