Mention innovation in China and some would scoff and point to the "innovative" imitations the Chinese have become so apt at producing. The increasing popularity of Pinterest, for instance, already has spawned numerous clones in China.
But is that really a bad thing?
Over lunch with an industry contact recently, we talked about the tech startup scene in Singapore and why it has yet to produce a local IT company that is recognized worldwide.
While Creative Technology is often cited as the local goldenboy that put Singapore IT on the global map, its heydays are long gone and the company once known for its Sound Blaster audio processing card is no longer the cashcow it once was.
Singapore desperately needs a new goldenboy that can put the country back on the global IT map in the 21st century. With the government's big push to build a bustling startup ecosystem in Singapore, it's puzzling why the country has yet to produce one.
We threw up several reasons but one stuck out. He recalled how aspiring entrepreneurs would tell him they wanted to come up with that one big idea that was going to shake the industry like Mark Zuckerberg did with Facebook, or Bill Gates did with Windows decades ago. They wanted an idea they could call their own and claim it as an original.
So they would hibernate in an incubator somewhere, and spend months--sometimes years--brewing up that one big idea with the hope that it will make a big splash in the global marketplace. But the reality is, that one big idea they spent years perfecting is unlikely to make any big ripples in their local market, much less globally.
Getting that killer app often isn't just about innovation and that one big idea. It's also about other elements like market timeliness, execution and financial backing. It's also about tenacity, how aspiring entrepreneurs face failure and their ability to pick themselves up and try again.
But it's not just about the unwillingness to fail. Entrepreneurs sometimes need to let go of their egos and the need to put their names only on an original idea, because there really is no shame in copying an idea that's already proven its popularity in the market and improving on it.
That's what a Singapore startup did. Beeconomic was quick to spot the growing demand for group-buying sites in the U.S., took that concept and started up in the local market. A year later, it got acquired by the very same U.S. company it modeled its business on, Groupon.
Germany-based Rocket Internet established its reputation from cloning other business models and replicating them in various markets worldwide. They've built and sold business ventures based on this philosophy to bigwigs like Groupon and eBay.
We all want to find that one big idea that we can call our own, but it takes some people decades--if not a lifetime--to find one that can make a global impact. Until then, the stop-gap measure may well be to adopt an idea that's already proven to be popular, improve on it and launch it locally to a market that has already seen its success elsewhere and now wants access to it. The startup that does this can then build a base, sell it to a bigger company that wants to acquire its local user base and then use the buyout money to fund an original idea.
And maybe then will Singapore find its next IT goldenboy. But for that to happen, aspiring startups here will first need to drop their egos and redefine their definition of innovation.