The underrated art of copying

A friend of mine once told me that the most undervalued part of good business was market research. That friend is now running one of the fastest growing tech companies in the UK (according to Deloitte). He’s 28.

This guy is talented. Very. But at the heart of all his strategies has been one very simple theme – find other businesses making lots of money, replicate their model, and finally (if required) improve upon it.

Entrepreneurs and marketers like to pretend their success is all down to creativity; their ability to spot an opportunity that nobody else could and conjure something magical out of thin air. But as Steve Jobs famously said “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”



The Samwer Brothers (aka The Clone Kings)

You may have heard of of the Samwer brothers and their company, Rocket Internet. If not, then prepare to be a little bit mind blown.

Their first major venture came when they started a complete replica of eBay (even using the same logo but in German) and sold it back to eBay less than 100 days later for $38 million. Next was CityDeals, a clone of Groupon who they sold it back to 5 months after launch for $170 million.

Since that time they have launched hundreds of different companies, all using the same model; pick a business to copy, hire a young CEO from a banking or consultancy background (competitive and good with numbers!), have them produce a replica business and then provide weekly key performance indicators. Oliver Samwer, the middle brother and CEO, is not interested in waffle or excuses. As one of their CEO’s explained “I’d talk with him every week. He was pretty rude. If we spoke and I didn’t know all the numbers off the top of my head he’d say, ”You must know your numbers! You can’t not know. This conversation is useless. I spend one minute with you and I feel like I know more than you about your numbers.”

Since taking off in 2007, Rocket Internet have launched hundreds of businesses based on existing successful startups, such as AirBnB and Pinterest, and now employ over 36,000 people across their network.


Needless to say the Samwers are not popular in Silicon Valley. In amassing their billions they have been accused of destroying innovation and criticised for their ruthless approach to hiring and firing. However, there is no question that the core principles of their approach to business are something that every entrepreneur and marketer should learn from. And besides, when you look at most traditional businesses, you realise that nothing is ever really new. Nobody accuses a new cinema of copying the first cinema or a new gym copying the first gym. Everything is derivative.

I think that what gets people so upset about the Samwer approach is the German precision and speed with which they do it. They’re just very good at building companies. But rather than getting upset we’d all benefit a lot more from simply taking a leaf out of their book.

So where do you begin with the Samwer approach to business cloning? Well it starts with answering some very simple questions:
– Do you know which competitors in your market are making the most money?
– Do you know what these competitors are spending their advertising money on? (because you can be pretty sure it’s working well for them)
– Do you know where your competitors generate their website traffic from?
– Do you know how they deal with sales enquiries? How quickly do they answer the phone and what is their pricing structure?

As long as you have a laptop and a telephone then the answers to these questions are all easily found. You don’t have to take it to the Samwer degree and copy right down to the very last pixel, but it pays to understand how the companies you want to beat tomorrow are achieving their success today.


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