Matthew Andrews
Product Manager ・ Software Engineer ・ Executive MBA Graduate ・ Tokyo Resident

In defence of copying

I was recommended to read Zero to One by Peter Thiel, which starts with an evocative question: what important truth do very few people agree with you on? Thiel then proceeds to describe the difference between “truly new innovation” (going from 0 to 1) against iterative improvements (going from 1 to n) and citing the example of Chinese copying products and business models from elsewhere as not innovation. I don’t believe this to be true and I believe the author is downplaying the value of copying.

In the infancy of each of China’s industries, they did indeed imitate and copy the leading incumbents. Much like the Japanese electronic and car industries when they started. Later, Japanese car makers led the world. Likewise, China leads the world in retail technology, low-carbon transportation, Drone technology and more.

Whenever learning anything new we start with imitation. The most innovative creators of entertainment draw inspiration from the leaders that came before them. Even more creative innovations come from copying the practises from one industry and applying them to another.

And yet in the world of product development, copying is anathema.

Copying, especially when entering an unfamiliar problem-space, is a low-risk way to gain expertise on the customer problems and avoid some of the mistakes others have already learned from.

The author argues that imitation is a kind of crutch that holds back innovation. When used excessively, that’s certainly true. The imitator can never exceed the imitated. But writing off copying as a universal bad practise is just as bad as using it excessively.

Copying is a tool. Like all tools there are times when it’s appropriate and other times when it is not. A smart innovator knows when to copy and when to create.

So, my universal truth very few people agree with me on:
Copying is an essential tool for the creation of innovative products.