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Saturday, Dec 07, 2019

Copy and steal — the Silicon Valley way

The good news is that as the world’s entrepreneurs learn from each other, they will find opportunities to solve the problems not only of their own countries, but of the world

opinion Updated: May 01, 2018 15:33 IST
Vivek Wadhwa
Vivek Wadhwa
Tourists at Facebook’s headquarters, Menlo Park, California. Mark Zuckerberg also built Facebook by imitating MySpace and Friendster, and he continues to copy products
Tourists at Facebook’s headquarters, Menlo Park, California. Mark Zuckerberg also built Facebook by imitating MySpace and Friendster, and he continues to copy products(NYT)
         

In a videoconference hosted by startup website, Inc42.com, I gave entrepreneurs some advice that startled them. I said that instead of trying to invent new things, they should copy and steal all the ideas they can from China, Silicon Valley, and the rest of the world. A billion Indians coming on line through inexpensive smartphones offer entrepreneurs an opportunity to build a digital infrastructure that will transform the country. The best way of getting started on that is not to reinvent the wheel but to learn from the successes and failures of others.

Before Japan, Korea, and China began to innovate, they were called copycat nations; their electronics and consumer products were knockoffs from the West. Silicon Valley succeeds because it excels in sharing ideas and building on the work of others. As Steve Jobs said in 1994, “Picasso had a saying, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’, and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas”. Almost every Apple product has features that were first developed by others; rarely do its technologies wholly originate within the company.

Mark Zuckerberg also built Facebook by imitating MySpace and Friendster, and he continues to copy products. Facebook Places is a replica of Foursquare; Messenger video duplicates Skype; Facebook Stories is a clone of Snapchat; and Facebook Live combines the best features of Meerkat and Periscope. Facebook also tried duplicating WhatsApp but could not gain market share, so it bought the company. This is another one of Silicon Valley’s secrets: if stealing doesn’t work, buy the company.

By the way, they don’t call this copying or stealing; it is “knowledge sharing”. Silicon Valley has very high rates of job-hopping, and top engineers rarely work at any one company for more than three years; they routinely join their competitors or start their own companies. As long as engineers don’t steal computer code or designs, they can build on the work they did before. Valley firms understand that collaborating and competing at the same time leads to success. This is even reflected in California’s unusual laws, which bar non-competition agreements.

In most places, entrepreneurs hesitate to tell others what they are doing. Yet in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs know that when they share an idea, they get important feedback. Both sides learn by exchanging ideas and develop new ones. So when you walk into a coffee shop in Palo Alto, those you ask will not hesitate to tell you their product-development plans. Try asking Indian entrepreneurs this, and they will clam up, thinking you are trying to steal their ideas.

There is little doubt that India’s hottest technology companies, Ola, Flipkart, and Paytm, are also knockoffs of companies in Silicon Valley and China. Copying ideas works very well and provides a good start.

Neither companies nor countries can succeed, however, merely by copying. They must move very fast and keep improving themselves and adapting to changing markets and technologies.

Apple became the most valuable company in the world because it didn’t hesitate to cannibalise its own technologies. Steve Jobs didn’t worry that the iPad would hurt the sales of its laptops, or that its laptops would cause its desktop products to become obsolete, or that the music player in the iPhone would eliminate the need to buy an iPod. The company moved forward quickly as competitors copied its designs.

This is an important lesson for executives of traditional businesses in this era of exponentially advancing technologies: innovate and be fearless in disrupting yourself or be a casualty of innovation. Startups are going to come out of nowhere and wipe out your industry. Innovation from one nation will disrupt the businesses of another because ideas and business models can be easily copied. The only protection you have is to move fast and innovate faster than anyone. And feel free to copy the startups.

The fact is that technology is now moving faster than ever and becoming affordable to all. Advances in artificial intelligence, computing, networks, and sensors are making it possible to build new trillion-dollar industries and destroy old ones. The new technologies that once only the West had access to are now available everywhere. The good news is that as the world’s entrepreneurs learn from each other, they will find opportunities to solve the problems not only of their own countries, but of the world. We will all benefit from this.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley. His forthcoming book, Your Happiness Was Hacked, explains how you how you can live a more balanced technology life

The views expressed are personal