Emulation Is Not a Product Strategy
If something worked for one company, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for yours
The only proven way to get out of the “copycat trap”, and it applies in any industry is through research and development spend. With R&D comes innovation (if you are lucky and good), and it is only with innovation that one can truly separate from competition. Investing in R&D is hard, and it is scary because investing in the future is always hard and scary. If we knew the outcome or had all the answers we would not have to do the work. If you want to use emulation as a strategy, rather than copycating a competitor’s product, find one with a world class and thriving R&D group, and emulate that instead.
Now you might tell me that R&D is “too expensive” or that it “takes too long.” I would be a wealthy man if I had a nickel for every time I heard that from some corporate suit (no offense to my corporate suited friends. I actually really enjoy working with you or I would no longer be a practicing industry R&D scientist. It is a job role I have held for my entire post graduate career). Early in my career it raised alarm bells as it suggested that perhaps my role was not as critical to the overall success of the business as I liked to think. After all they were basically correct, R&D does cost money, the return can be hard to quantify, and it definitely takes time. Moreover* whenever I saw or read stories about corporate cutbacks it was always R&D which was one of the first on the chopping block. Over time however, I came to recognize and understand that the very same people who were saying R&D is too expensive and takes too long, were also the first to look to R&D for help when revenue was down or growth was slowing. Is it hypocritical? You bet, but such is business in a capitalist system. A hypocrite with the good sense to recognize the value of R&D is much preferred to a man of his word who does not.
*My use of the transition term ‘moreover’ in this piece is dedicated to my biggest fan Scott Edward St. Onge. Henceforth I shall refer to any use of that word in my writing as “saying a prayer to St. Onge” in his honor.