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Copy the Fit, not the Features

Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Intercom

Des Traynor

@destraynor

The world of start-ups is obsessed with outliers. Companies who have achieved remarkable success through a combination of their activities.

Such stories are great for inspiration as they encourage you to think big. For some people that means a billion users and global relevancy (like Facebook), for other folks it might mean millions and a great company culture (like 37Signals). Taking too much inspiration from these success stories leads you to confuse cause with effect.
There’s a difference between inspiration and imitation. Imitation rarely achieves results. Copying one aspect of a business ignores the context and the fit; both are essential for the feature to thrive.

Understanding Ecosystems

iPhone Ecosystem

Above is a loose graph of the iPhone ecosystem. No doubt there is more to be considered, but it goes some way to explaining why competitors who simply placed a touchscreen on a phone failed. Companies like Samsung who clone the entire hardware do better, but to really take on Apple you need the full picture. You need a passionate developer community, amazing marketing, a legal team capable of breaking down barriers, the pairing of hardware and software, and more. You also need to address the fact that Apple are the incumbent
whereas pre-iPhone the opportunity to dazzle the world was greater. At best a full copy leaves you delivering Yesterdays Technology Tomorrowâ„¢.

Image showing failure of attempting to copy one feature

Copying Silicon Valley

This same thought occurs to me whenever I hear governments speak about some city becoming “The Next Silicon Valley”. Throwing a few million at some big name VCs does not make a start-up hub. It forms through a series of interlinked activities and traits, not all of which can be controlled. Money is just piece of the puzzle; other equally valid pieces are the right climate, the right demographics, the right network, access to talent, and a strong education system. And again, you can’t just ignore the fact that Silicon Valley is already established.

Remote Working has Requirements too

Much has been said recently about why companies should now hire remote employees. The advantages are numerous: wider pool of talent, less distracting environment, less office costs, no commute time, etc. The merits of each of these can be debated separately, but what’s clear to me that remote working itself requires supporting behaviours. It needs certain activities, and requires certain traits. Having no managers, breaking up work into isolated chunks, running a blog with 100K+ subscribers, having prior experience with remote working and contract working, all of this really helps you find the best people around the world, and work successfully with them. Such activites aren’t in the DNA of every company, and for many it would be foolish to try copy them. Your mileage will vary.

The Fit is What Matters

The fit matters, not the features.

Companies are better defined by how all their activities support each other, rather than any single thing. As Porter wrote “Overall advantage or disadvantage results from all a company’s activities, not only a few“. Copying something, whether it’s a style of work, a company practice, a feature, or even a UI element, without understanding the fit is doomed to failure.

See also: Sustainable Advantages for Start-ups.