Pioneers get arrows in their backs while copycats steal the lion’s share of the market

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I am trying to dispel the myth that brand-new, original products are the only thing for the start-up or small business owner. I risk being shot down by the innovation priests who turn up their noses at copycats but pirating ideas is the backbone of small business.

I probably shouldn’t even bring this up but a lot of small businesses use imitation as their main business strategy. Take a look around your local business community and see how pervasive copying really is.

Some examples: holiday accommodation, computer stores, antique shops, coffee shops, hair salons and even fish and chip shops. All part of imitation clusters.

In the Cape Town holiday self-catering accommodation market anyone and everyone with a spare cottage, back room or Wendy house suddenly has a self-catering accommodation business. “If my neighbour can do it, so can I” is the prevailing thinking.

I was shown a dwelling at the back of someone’s home in Kommetjie that was so makeshift that it was no more than a shack. A tin roof was slapped against some large rocks in the back of the garden. The gaps between the corrugated iron and the walls were so big that the elements could come in at will. A tiny shower cubicle with cold water from the garden hose and a cement floor with a toilet crammed in made up the “bathroom”.

Despite all the superlatives how this self-catering unit was “cosy” and “quaint”, it was still a makeshift shack. The cheek of it all was that it was going at R1,000 ($100) a day and to top it the owners said, “Sorry, but we are fully booked in December and January”.

A computer shop opens in a town and all the computer professionals dream about easy street by opening a store of their own. Next time you look the town has three computer shops serving a market that can only really accommodate one.

In small coastal and inland towns across the country antique shops have sprung up almost side-by-side. One town I visited recently now has rows and rows of antique shops for the weekenders who are prepared to drive one hour outside Johannesburg to hunt for bargains. Don’t ask me about some of the “junk” on offer.

Forget coffee shops. The big thing now is fish and chip shops. One franchise with blue and yellow signage colours started it. Now these colours have been copied and have become standard for copycat competitors. Fishy business practices.

Research shows the costs of imitation are 60% to 75% the costs of innovation. But that’s for new products. Copying business ideas is free it seems. Pioneers end up with 7% of the markets they create: copycats grab 93%.

I’m not extolling the virtues of imitation but just saying that copying is a reality in community markets. It provides personal breakthroughs and opportunities to create a business and make a living.

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