Almost every product that ranks #1 on ProductHunt eventually gets copied. Someone sees an interesting product getting traction and decides to build the same thing. They check out the product’s landing page, copy that verbatim, and sign up for a free account. If it’s a SaaS, they go through every product interface, take a screenshot, and then continue to build the exact same thing.
Or do they?
It’s just that what a copycat builds is never the same thing as the original. Not on the same level. Not even close.
But still, that doesn’t make this moment any less frightening for the founders who created the original product. They quickly envision their hard-earned MRR dropping down to zero because of new competitors. They see years of painful work and sacrifice being becoming wasted time. They fear that the copycat will take away every single customer they fought for so hard.
Here’s the silver lining: most copycat stories start scary but have a happy ending.
Why are copycats not the end of the world? Let’s look into several factors that have been proven to be true repeatedly, one failed copycat at a time.
- Copycats copy the outside, the interface, the product, but never the business. They make a shallow copy, a lossy copy. It’s a form of cargo-culting, really: they imitate a product without understanding what customer needs went into the creation of the product. Copycats rarely have any meaningful insight into the market their copied product will serve.
- You can’t copy personality and relationships. They might get a few of your customers, but any competitor might have grabbed those. You didn’t have a strong relationship with those customers, to begin with.
- You can’t copy knowledge and entrepreneurial instinct. The decision-making process that led to your product features is something that has to be understood to be appreciated. Your copycat won’t know WHY you did things; they just see WHAT you did. That lack of foundational knowledge will leave them unable to make meaningful progress without failing a lot.
- Copycats don’t like failure. If they were serious about entrepreneurship, they’d solve a novel problem or would at least try to solve it differently. They prefer the easy way. They sense an easy opportunity. The moment running the cloned business stops being easy, copycats will look for something else. Endurance is on the side of the founder who takes their business seriously.
- Copycats don’t care about personal relationships with the founders they copy from. They don’t understand that their founder brand is essential to their long-term success. Burning bridges is a war tactic, not a community-empowering activity. Copycats have a scarcity mindset, and they will fail in a world of abundance-mindset-oriented communities.
So, with all of that in mind, why do founders still feel real fear in the face of a potential new competitor?
It’s all in our self-talk. It’s in how we think about ourselves, the risk in our business, and the threat of competition.
As founders, we are incredibly biased. We live and breathe our business, and everything gets amplified, the good and the bad. When we succeed, we feel high as a kite, but when problems rear their ugly head, we often feel them much more strongly than we should.
That sensitivity causes us to feel fearful when we see someone coming for a piece of our pie. Our life’s work feels threatened. It is incredibly hard not to feel like we’re under attack, even when we know that copycats are easily discouraged.
This is a misguided projection: we consider our copycats to have the same drive and ambition that we do. And maybe, on some level, the will to clone an existing business needs a certain level of motivation, but it resides in a completely different part of the brain. Copying a product is a result of the will to exploit. Building a business — in earnest — is a result of the will to serve.
The wonderful thing about this is that the will to serve forges much deeper and stronger relationships with our customers than the will to exploit ever will. An honest approach to business will cause your customers to defend you and your business when it comes under attack, even long after they stopped being your customers. People’s trust in you becomes stronger over time, and it endures beyond the business relationship.
Where your copycat erodes the long-term trust of the founder community — if you choose to call them out — you strengthen the bonds with your entrepreneurial peers.
Noticing a clone of your business appearing in the market is a scary moment, no doubt. But it can be positive and affirming even for you as a founder if you choose to frame it as such. Call it out, speak to the copycat and ask them to change their product. Talk to your peers about it.
Trust that your long-term vision will stand strong against the many clones that may pop up. Your endurance as a founder is what matters. You understand your market, customers, and you’re able to communicate your journey clearly to your audience.
You build a business on trust and knowledge, while your copycat builds on exploitation and deception.
In the end, you’ll be the one who’s still around, while they will have a graveyard of unsuccessfully cloned business to their name.