Should A Product Manager Be A Copycat?

by drjim on December 6, 2010

Sometimes The Copy IS Better Than The Original

Sometimes The Copy IS Better Than The Original

Every product manager dreams of his / her product turning into the next iPhone, or Google search engine, or some other runaway successlike that. However, as we all too well know, the odds of that ever happening are actually pretty slim. However, maybe there’s another way to become successful and famous. Maybe the key to Product Management stardom is not in being an innovator, but rather in being a really, really good copycat?

You Mean I’m Allowed To Copy Off Of Others?

Would you like to know an ugly little secret? Dr. Oded Shenkar has been studying this area and he’s discovered that roughly 97.8% of the ultimate value that an innovation createswill end up going to the imitator firms, not the inventor firm.

Dr. Shenkar also points out that the world of copycats is moving even faster these days. In the old days it took a long time to copy someone else’s product, now not so long. A case in point is the mini-van that was invented by Chrysler back in the 1980’s. It was another 10 years before another car company came out with an imitation. On the other hand, CD players were imitated after only 3 years.

Just Making A Copy Isn’t Enough

Before you run off to go buy a copy of whatever your competition is making so that you can start to stamp out clones of it, you might want to wait for just a minute. Making exact copies of someone else’s product is going to get you in trouble with the patent office andit’s not going to help you to be successful.

What a copycat product manager needs to realize is that it’s not enough to copy another product,you actually need to improve on it. This is where things get difficult.

In order to find the right products to copy, a product manager needs to beconstantly searchingfor the next candidate to copy. Where this product is going to be found is never clear – you may have to search far and wide in multiple industries to find what you are looking for.

Once you find a product that would be a good fit for your company to copy, your work as a product manager is just beginning. What needs to be done now is to understand whatthe core essenceof the product to be copied is: why do people like it / use it / want it? What you are going to need to do is to create a way to make it cheaper, better, or faster than the original firm.

Why Aren’t More Product Managers Copycats?

Given that all of the evidence points to the simple fact that product managers who are good at copying what others have done end upbeing more successfulleads to a simple question: why don’t more of us do this?

It turns out that the answer to this question is pretty simple: we’ve been conditionedto think of being a copycat as being “wrong”. Most firms like to think of themselves as being innovators, not as being imitators.

Too often we view the process of creating a copy of an existing product as being in some way undignified. What we’re missing is that if you are taking an original idea and thenimproving on it, you are well on your way to product success.

What All Of This Means For You

Apple is a great company that comes up with really innovative products such as the iPad. However, time will show that most of the value of the iPad won’t go to Apple – instead it will go to firms thatcreate and deploy copycat productsthat do a better job than the iPad does.

Although most firms don’t like to think of themselves as being imitators instead of innovators,this is where the real value is. The secret is to make sure that you don’t just create a copy of a product, but rather that you improve on the original in a way that will make it even more attractive to potential customers.

The key to being a successful imitator product manager is to learn tokeep your eyes open. Where the next product that you can improve on will be found is always a mystery. To win the race to deliver a successful product, you don’t have to be first, you just have to be the best.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How close to the original product do you think you can come before your product will get into legal trouble?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Every product manager dreams of his / her product turning into the next iPhone, or Google search engine, or some otherrunaway successlike that. However, as we all too well know, the odds of that ever happening are actually pretty slim. However, maybe there’s another way to become successful and famous…

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