Being unique is overrated.
Look into the histories of world-famous websites like Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, and PayPal, and you’ll find they ripped off smaller, less well-funded competitors for their ideas, marketing strategies, and even business models. It’s not subtle, either. They took someone else’s idea and ran with it, making it worth millions or even billions in the process.
Sure, they improved the product. Sure, they had better marketing. Sure, they just plain got it done, when no one else could.
Without a doubt, they deserve credit for everything they’ve done, but they don’t get to claim they were first. Let’s take a look into their histories, and I’ll show you what I mean.
You’ve probably heard the rumors of how Mark Zuckerburg stole the idea for Facebook from his Harvard classmates and founders of ConnectU. This story has been told in the news, made into a movie, and debated in the courtroom.
But you might not have heard about Friendster.
A social networking site from 2002, Friendster sprang up before MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn. Arguably, they were the first website with the idea of connecting a network of friends and letting them share content, events and media online, staking their claim with some of the most lucrative patents in social networking, including things like “uploading content to a social network” and “sharing relationship information in a social network”.
So what do you do when your company’s social growth is hemmed in by another company’s intellectual property?
You buy all their patents, of course – which is exactly what Facebook did.
The original concept of Twitter was to a system that would dispatch messages to mobile phones to keep specific groups up to date on specific things. Smartphones were fairly rare when Twitter (or twttr as it was known) was conceived, but the idea spread like wildfire.
But it wasn’t original. Another company, called TechRadium, did it first.
TechRadium works with mass notification systems where a message author can send a note out to subscribers via text, email or voicemail. Not exactly, the same, no, but it was similar enough to give Twitter some legal trouble.
Fortunately for them though, they were expecting it. As a 2009 strategy meeting already revealed, they said, “we will be sued for patent infringement, repeatedly and often” with the suggestion that they hire a “great patent attorney.”
Are they innocent? Maybe.
But they certainly weren’t first.
Hulu provides users a way to watch episodes of their favorite shows online without breaking the law or having to download it first. If you’re willing to be inconvenienced by a few commercials, you can stream it in high-quality, free of charge.
Sounds like a great idea, right?
Yep, Joost thought so too, and they gave it a shot well before Hulu.
Joost had everything going its way: it was founded by the guys who created Skype, got millions of dollars in cash infusions from big corporations, and signed on Viacom and CBS as partners. But there was a big problem: downloading.
Joost required users to download software in order to watch shows. After downloading the software, you then had to download the shows before you could watch them, and it took a while.
Seeing the problem, Hulu burst onto the scene, allowing you to watch your shows instantly, and that was pretty much the end of Joost. They shut down their video client and became yet another white-label video provider.
It’s 1998, and you’ve just launched an online person-to-person money transfer service online. Your business model is so enticing, that you’re quickly scooped up by top auction site eBay, Inc. and integrated into their auction payments system.
Surprise – it isn’t PayPal I’m talking about – it’s Billpoint.
Before PayPal existed, Billpoint was a fast and easy way to pay for auctions. When PayPal started becoming a popular alternative, eBay simply ramped up its endorsement of Billpoint, with mixed results among bidders and sellers. Eventually, eBay bought PayPal and phased out acceptance of Billpoint.
The first company to market lost again.
“Good Websites Borrow. Great Websites Steal”
You’ve probably heard the famous quote from T.S. Eliot, "Good writers borrow. Great writers steal."
It’s just as true for marketing as writing.
Some brilliant ideas are simply too ahead of their time. Others fall behind while eager young competitors improve on the basic concept and create something that spreads like wildfire. And, while there’s no definitive formula that predicts success for one idea over another, the Internet really is ripe for creative entrepreneurs looking to build a better mousetrap.
You don’t have to be first. Really, you don’t even have to be second. If you’ve abandoned one of your ideas because you were crushed someone else did it first, dust it off and take another look. You might find a way to improve the idea, or you might just be able to execute it better.
You’ll never know until you try it.
So why not give it a shot?
About the Author: Sherice Jacob helps businesses improve web design, performance and conversions at iElectrify.com.