The Problem with Copying

Horace Dediu at asymco.com recently posted a great interview/article titled "What next, Samsung?" In the article Horace notes that "[t]he fast follower strategy belies its own limitations: it implies a transience or impermanence in strategy," and that "[i]n a fast following strategy it's only a matter of time before late followers eat into the business [of the fast follower], similar to the way that the fast follower ate into the innovator." When I read these kinds of brilliant insights, usually coming from Horace at asymco.com or Ben Thompson at stratechery.com or Benedict Evans at ben-evans.com, I honestly feel a rush. Anyway, it made me think of a couple more points, so here goes.

Horace's insight made me wonder whether the original product innovator sometimes has an advantage over the fast following copier. I think the answer is yes, as long as the original product innovator creates something through a unique set of activities with great fit and/or trade-offs (a la Apple, Southwest, and IKEA). See post titled "Acquisitions, Rivalry, and Strategic Trade-Offs." The original innovator may lose market share to the fast following copier, but an innovator with a unique strategy can survive competition from a fast follower much better than a fast follower without a unique strategy can survive competition from late followers.

A unique strategy also buys the original innovator time -- it allows the innovator to milk mature products for all they're worth, until technology advances permit the innovator to again push the technological envelope and create a new product that satisfies or solves an unmet job-to-be-done (often unmet because it was previously technologically impossible to solve). In this way a unique set of activities and a unique strategy allow original innovators to be in control of their own destiny.

Fast followers are focusing their internal resources, processes, and priorities on quickly matching another company's innovations, which buys them temporary but not long term success. Wouldn't it be better for companies to focus on unique activities and unique strategies, and on the development of internal resources, processes, and priorities that permit them to create, on a repeat basis, unique, trade-off based solutions to unmet jobs-to-be-done? See Concepts page and discussion of Clayton Christensen.

The author owns stock shares of Apple.