Building Blocks and Stumbling Blocks

Silicon Valley investors take as an article of faith that a pure innovation mentality is the foundation on which companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are built.

It was an irrepressible impulse to “think different” that drove people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos to create these companies that would change the world. In that school of thought, China’s knockoff clockmakers were headed down a dead-end road. A copycat mentality is a core stumbling block on the path to true innovation. By blindly imitating others—or so the theory goes—you stunt your own imagination and kill the chances of creating an original and innovative product.

But I saw early copycats like Wang Xing’s Twitter knockoff not as stumbling blocks but as building blocks. That first act of copying didn’t turn into an anti-innovation mentality that its creator could never shake. It was a necessary steppingstone on the way to more original and locally tailored technology products.

The engineering knowhow and design sensibility needed to create a world-class technology product don’t just appear out of nowhere. In the United States, universities, companies, and engineers have been cultivating and passing down these skillsets for generations. Each generation has its breakout companies or products, but these innovations rest on a foundation of education, mentorship, internships, and inspiration.

China had no such luxury. When Bill Gates founded Microsoft in 1975, China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, a time of massive social upheaval and anti-intellectual fever. When Sergei Brin and Larry Page founded Google in 1998, just 0.2 percent of the Chinese population was connected to the internet, compared with 30 percent in the United States. Early Chinese tech entrepreneurs looking for mentors or model companies within their own country simply couldn’t find them. So instead they looked abroad and copied them as best they could.

It was a crude process to be sure, and sometimes an embarrassing one. But it taught these copycats the basics of user interface design, website architecture, and back-end software development. As their clone-like products went live, these market-driven entrepreneurs were forced to grapple with user satisfaction and iterative product development. If they wanted to win the market, they had to beat not just their Silicon Valley inspiration but also droves of similar copycats. They learned what worked and what didn’t with Chinese users. They began to iterate, improve, and localize the product to better serve their customers.

And those customers had unique habits and preferences, ways of using software that didn’t map neatly onto Silicon Valley’s global one-size-fits-all product model. Companies like Google and Facebook are often loath to allow local changes to their core products or business models. They tend to believe in building one thing and building it well. It’s an approach that helped them rapidly sweep the globe in the early days of the internet, when most countries lagged so far behind in technology that they couldn’t offer any localized alternatives. But as technical know- how has diffused around the globe, it is becoming harder to force people of all countries and cultures into a cookie-cutter mold that was often built in America for Americans.

As a result, when Chinese copycats went head to head with their Silicon Valley forefathers, they took that American unwillingness to adapt and weaponized it. Every divergence between Chinese user preferences and a global product became an opening that local competitors could attack. They began tailoring their products and business models to local needs, and driving a wedge between Chinese internet users and Silicon Valley.

In my next post, I look at how Alibaba founder Jack Ma used copycatting to create something original. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you. Where do you feel the U.S. has been in terms of copying something and adapting it to make it better or even original? Thank you for comments.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Sep 11, 2018 in All Posts In the Media