Drop the egos, copy ideas, then innovate

Drop the egos, copy ideas, then innovate

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Singapore, China

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.

Topics: Singapore, China


Eileen Yu began covering the IT industry when Asynchronous Transfer Mode was still hip and e-commerce was the new buzzword. Currently a freelance blogger and content specialist based in Singapore, she has over 16 years of industry experience with various publications including ZDNet, IDG, and Singapore Press Holdings.

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  • Here's the thing Eileen,
    While commercially lucrative, "innovating" based on someone else's idea is really only "keeping up".

    To be really "game changing" it is imperative that entreprenuers imagine a whole new paradigm, and pursue that with a single-minded, obsessive, all-consuiming passion.

    It sometimes invloves creating a new technology, sometimes it is about combining existing technology in different ways, and always, it is about a vision of of end-user scenarios. It is never about the technology and "because I can".

    No benefits, no sale. That's all there is to it.
  • Good article Ms. Yu, thank you, and now for some lively debate.

    Why am I feeling uncomfortable with this suggestion that's it's just swell to copy/improve upon someone else's idea and call it a day? "Job well done lad!"

    To be fair, there are times when it does make sense. First came Friendster, but then MySpace iterated on platform that to take a fresh lead, which in turn it lost to Facebook - a new competitor that improved on the ideas of the forerunners. That worked.

    But is that enough? Is that a roadmap for all endeavors?

    If Singapore, or any other nation in Asia wants to be known for breaking new ground, it will have to do just that, break some new ground - not copy someone else's idea and put it in a new wrapper. Inventing (I use the word loosely here) the next Instagram or Groupon just won't put it on the map for true innovation.


    Perhaps that emotion has something to do with the motivation for doing new and brave things, but I would not discount passion as a primary force that propels entrepreneurs to buck the trend and give us something new.

    Entrepreneurs have to deal with a long and arduous journey fraught with risks, and I don't really think ego is fuel enough to get to the end-point, but passion is. That will get you there even after falling.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that counter-culture has a lot to do with breaking new ground and doing "different". Think: Jobs, ashrams, Fool on the Hill, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and all.

    So when the hippies, hell-breakers and hipsters take over Singapore (yeah right, some time soon?) then we might see the knock-out innovation we know is coming, but just don't' know when. Shall we call it Singapore 3.0?

    Enjoy your weekend.
  • Good article, Eileen. The point is that most of these so-called "original ideas", among them the ones to which your refer, weren't that original at all, but rather ideas that had been in the public domain for quite some time. (Naturally, truly original ideas do exist, one example of which is Einstein's special relativity - but there are few such in computing and even relativity had its predecessors.) If Newton could admit that he stood on the shoulders of giants, the rest of us ought to be able to do so as well - but on the other hand, while often involved in priority disputes which he unfortunately conducted with less than Olympian fairness, Newton didn't have to make absurd patent/copyright claims. Innovation w
  • I was puzzling before this whether to replicate the success formula we executed for a financial institute, and come out with a standard solution for everyone? Will the industry will called us copycat? Or worst, unethical?
    After reading this posting, i believe if we can innovate from the replicated formula and improved it, and provide a must needed solution to the industry, why not? Copycat or not, a good way of doing business should be shared, for the benefit of everybody.

    Wayne Koong
    **CRM is a Human Science that acknowledges Anthropology and Psychology**