Business, Expression, Muse
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Should you innovate, or should you copy?

Happy November! 🙂

My bodyclock went haywire–I normally wake up at 2pm, but recently I’d been waking up at 6am, and couldn’t fall back asleep again. This explains why I have been writing so regularly at unearthly hours.

Today’s post will be on the topic of Innovation Vs Copying. I will write first from the perspective of a human being, and then from the perspective of a company. The difference of course is that one involves money, the other doesn’t. Follow the money in all analysis, right?

As an individual: Should you innovate, or should you copy?

Let me start with the context.

People who have known me 7 years ago would probably know that I used to not give a damn about how I look–I just wear whatever I like. It sort of got worse after I started learning coding, because engineers did not generally care about fashion or dressing well. We were hard-core geeks, and proudly so! 😀 Also I was in Japan for a year, and I was really into the HIME-GYARU style, which is definitely non-mainstream.

Here is the milder version of the style:


(Source: Lizlisa)

I like pink, frills, glitter, floral, high boots, curls, long-hair, lace. You get my drift.

When I started work, I started paying attention to how differently I dressed, and it took me a while to realize “OH, HIME-GYARU is not professional.” It didn’t really bother me because I was still doing well at work, but of course sometimes people bitch about your dressing.

One day, I made a good friend, and her name is Wendy. Basically Wendy is a very creative lady, she taught me how to dress well and my fashion sense improved. However, because Wendy is so creative and smart with fashion stuffs, she has stalkers, and she gets copied quite a bit.

So today, I want to talk about one of Wendy’s more hard-core stalkers, whom I shall call here as “Ms Stalker”.

Ms Stalker is a pretty lady. Wendy and her used to be close friends. Yet, when one day, Wendy told her “I am starting a blog!”, Miss Stalker started dissuading Wendy. Miss Stalker told Wendy that she would never be successful, blogging is bad because it invades her privacy, and that taking on sponsorship is really superficial. After hearing this from Ms. Stalker, Wendy hesitated for a while, but decided to take the plunge and go ahead to do the blog anyway because Wendy loves fashion, writing and expressing herself.

So Wendy became very successful in her blogs–through blogging, she now has extensive links with media and fashion companies in Singapore. Wendy’s Instagram following has also increased. However, after a while, Wendy realized that her style is being copied by Miss Stalker on Instagram. Oh and by the way, Miss Stalker now has become a full-fledged Instagram “influencer” who does a lot of mainstream sponsorship.

What I mean by “copied” is this:

  • When Wendy posts a picture of herself in a bikini in a certain pose, within 5 days Miss Stalker would post a picture of herself in a bikini in the same pose too;
  • When Wendy posts a picture of herself at a beach, with a certain composition of accessories, within 5 days Miss Stalker would post a picture of herself on a beach with the same composition too; and
  • When Wendy posts a picture of herself in Monochrome and filter, within 5 days Miss Stalker would post a picture of herself in Monochrome with the same filter as well.

Eventually, the pattern becomes really predictable, even till today.

Of course it’s terribly irritating to be copied as closely as within a short period of five days. Whatever sense of uniqueness you get from that original post dissipates. We knew as well that it was no coincidence because who on earth copies right down to composition, poses and location, and repeatedly so?

Furthermore, because Wendy does not actively seek followers (her attitude is like, “If you want to follow, follow. If not, don’t follow), her Instagram following is close to 6-8 times less than Miss Stalker’s. Inevitably, it IS irritating to realize that 8000+ people actually do think that Miss Stalker thought of the original, innovative ideas herself.

So here is my question to you:

“If you were Miss Stalker, should you innovate, or should you copy?”

To be honest, I wonder if this is the right question to ask. Maybe another question could be:

“Why doesn’t Miss Stalker innovate, since she has a higher following?”

I thought about it for a while, and here are some reasons I could think of:

  • Innovation takes time, because you need to think properly about how to do it–especially how the new is different from the existing art. Copying, however, is instant.
  • Innovation implies originality, because it is an expression of who YOU are. So when someone copies wholesale, it means that they have no originality, and to some extent don’t really know who they are.
  • Innovation is expensive! What if you experiment and the photograph turns out ugly? So maybe out of 10 photographs, only 1 is nice. However, when you copy, it’s cheap because you copy just that one photo.
  • Copying is learning. You learn best simply by copying. Good copying is when you copy and thereafter innovate, on your own terms. Bad copying is when you copy wholesale, because that implies that you are not using your brain.

Since copying >> innovation from these three reasons, why is Wendy even innovating then? Here are some reasons I could think of:

  • It is easy for Wendy to innovate, because she knows who she is. Because Wendy has a strong sense of who she is and herself, and she is comfortable with her identity, innovation becomes an expression of who she is. The brilliance is close to effortless.
  • Innovation implies thought leadership. Whenever Miss Stalker copies, she is implicitly acknowledging inside of herself that Wendy is better than her, ironically on her own terms. Is this good for Miss Stalker’s ego and self-esteem? I don’t think so. No matter how many followers Miss Stalker has on instagram, she probably will not ever be convinced that she is good enough as a thought leader, like Wendy is.
  • Copying implies competition. Whenever someone copies you as closely as a gap of 5 days, she is proclaiming competition. Both ladies now feel a sense of irritation and urgency, and it is easy to get sucked into this competitive, vicious cycle, and lose even more of your original creativity and innovation. Wendy foresaw this and consciously decides to ignore Miss Stalker, because she does not want to bother with this competition.

I’m really glad Wendy is simply ignoring Miss Stalker, in spite of the latter being so annoying.

Having said that though, this is just the analysis of the pros and cons of Innovation Vs Copying to an individual. How about businesses then?

It appears to me, from the above framework of analysis, that innovation is indeed overrated from a business perspective. Nigel once told me about the poor innovative Nikola Tesla, who basically got the whole world moving with electricity but led a really sad life and died impoverished. Due to Tesla’s lack of ability to protect his innovation, he had to give up whatever brilliance and patents he had to two very shrewd business partners.

So perhaps, we should give up the assumption that innovation = financial profits. This makes me inclined to think that innovation is pretty overrated in the business world. Copying business models and ideas, for instance, is cheap and fast and translates to large amounts of profits after all!

Is the world doomed then, to a vicious, endless circle of competition, spurred on by copying and no innovation eventually? My personal answer is a resounding No. This is because I believe there can be no end to innovation and progress.

Peter Thiel, author of Zero to One, proposed in his book that it is the First World that innovates, and the Third World that copies. This might make innovation sound futile.

Yet Thiel argues that there is no upper limit to the amount of innovation that can be done by the First World–especially with the tools of technology and globalization. Innovation by thought leaders necessarily results in huge amounts of monopoly profits. The trick he says, is to find out the “secrets” to life, defined as the midpoint between a “mystery” and “facts” of life. And once you find that “secret”, be sure to protect the idea well–not only the idea, but its execution and also to take into consideration the speed and cost of copying by your competitors.

The key evidently is to find ways to protect innovation. To me, this does not only mean patenting your idea, because it is easy to patent but difficult to sue, in the event of perceived patent infringement.

Some ways to protect your business ideas can include delaying your launch and not blabbing your business plans, in the event of low barrier to entry. If the business however entails a high barrier to entry, such as requires a certain amount of coding/technological commitment, then maybe the idea in itself needs not be so protected, but the execution needs to be valued.

Therefore, as a conclusion:

  • If you are an individual, take time to look inside of yourself to find out what makes you YOU. If you don’t know who “you” are, slow down your life to think of what you like, what you are good at, what makes you happy. Surround yourself with people who love you. Creativity and innovation will naturally flow once you are secure with yourself. Copying is OK, but don’t copy down to details, because it really marks a lack of originality.
  • If you are a company, remember that innovation might be overrated. If you can copy, go ahead to copy because it saves time and money. This copying however, should not be wholesale but copied + localized/modified to suit your customer’s preferences.
  • If you are a company ahead of the curve, go ahead to innovate! But remember to protect your ideas because once you launch the product, there is bound to be tons of copycats since you are a thought leader.

OK! I’m going to try to catch a bit more sleep. Have a great day ahead! 🙂


  1. Markku Ikonen says

    Innovation in photography ? please explain if you are wishing to innovate in photography you need to invent something that has never been done before like using bar of soap to take a picture, but if you are talking about taking different kind of pictures using modern photographic tools. Well that is not innovating at all in my view all you are doing is using the technology invented by others before you to achieve desired effect. Photography is at its best when kept simple and nothing beats the black and white film.

    • Haha, I think innovation here is relative.
      For instance, Miss Stalker is copying blindly, and that is irritating.

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