Justin Bieber, Copycats, and Creating a Successful Business

When it comes to creating a successful business, innovation is very desirable. But not everyone is an innovator. Luckily, there’s another way to go. 

It was a strange and tragic news item that caught my attention earlier today: Tobias Strebel was found dead in a motel room in a suburb of Los Angeles.

Strebel, 35, who went by the stage name “Toby Sheldon,” was an aspiring pop singer who is reported to have spent more than $100,000 on cosmetic surgeries in an attempt to look like Justin Bieber. His quest was documented on the TV programs “Botched” and “My Strange Addiction.”

Even if Strebel had been closer in age to Bieber and had demonstrated even a bit of his charisma, the reality is that this kind of imitation doesn’t work out in pop music.

But in business, it’s quite the opposite.

White Castle was the first fast-food chain in the U.S., opening in 1921. The company is also credited with popularizing the hamburger at a time when Americans were reluctant to eat ground beef, due to the negative publicity about unsanitary practices in the meat-packing industry.

Their assembly-line food preparation approach and spotless restaurants were innovative and very successful in the American Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. And they were imitated like crazy, first by “Little Kastle” and then a long list of restaurants with names that switched out either the “White” (Blue Castle, Magic Castle, etc.) or the “Castle” (White Fortress, White Tower, etc.)

And why not? White Castle developed a market for fast food. Others recognized there was a market and they made their various attempts to get a piece of it. That’s competition. That’s America.

But it’s not only in America…

The Start-Up Duplicator

Rocket Internet is a Berlin-based Internet incubator—a firm that “identifies and builds proven Internet business models and transfers them to new, under-served or untapped markets” (according to their website). Others might describe them as a start-up “knock-off shop.” (For those not familiar with the term, a “knock-off” is an imitation of a brand-name product, usually sold for less.)

Rocket creates imitations of already-successful start-ups. And rather than compete with those companies in their own markets, Rocket targets them in different geographic markets. In some cases, they end up selling the imitation to the original company.

Rocket’s mission is to become “the world’s largest Internet platform outside of the United States and China.”They are ridiculously successful at it, too—a billion-dollar knock-off shop.

Heard of Zalando.com? That’s Rocket’s clone of shoe and fashion website Zappos. Lazada and Mizado? Those are Rocket’s Amazon copies in Jakarta and Istanbul, respectively. In 2010, they sold their Groupon knock-off, CityDeal, which had only been in operation six months, to Groupon for $126 million in cash and stock (worth a heck of a lot more after Groupon went public).

And the imitation doesn’t stop there. Heard of Team Europe, Springstar, or Found Fair? These are among numerous companies that have copied Rocket Internet’s business model.

That’s the Ticket

Not everyone has a new, innovative business idea but lack of such an idea is not a roadblock to success.

The more important thing is to identify a workable business model.

Granted, the concept and expression “business model” has been used, overused, sloppily used and misused, and thus gained a bad reputation with some people. But the simplicity is that a business that is turning profit, has a large customer base, is “hot,” etc., is a business that is employing a workable business model (even if its owners aren’t fully aware of what it is).

This is what Rodney Davenport saw in White Castle—a chain he visited numerous times, to study what made their operation so successful. Davenport copied White Castle’s steamed onions and their fastidious cleanliness. He took White Castle’s model (fast food hamburgers) and duplicated it in a different geographic region, opening the first Krystal restaurant in 1932 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s the oldest hamburger chain in the southern U.S., with operations approximately as large as White Castle’s.

In some cases, you won’t be able to find a new geographic area to duplicate an already-successful model. In that case, you’ve got to do something to differentiate yourself from the originator—how can you do it better, cheaper, faster or otherwise more desirable for the customer? That’s a matter of strategy more so than model, but I think you get the idea.

Final Thought

I hope this viewpoint has been helpful to anyone who is anxious about the need to come up with something totally new and innovative.

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