25. July 2012–
We write all the time about German copycats of non-German companies (read: Rocket Internet), not so much copying happening the other way. So, is it a serious problem?
Here are a few insights from Berlin startups who've discovered their own forms of flattery online. Nearly all are in Russia (we think that's part coincidence, part rapidly growing internet economy, part young guys with too much time on their hands).
Tricider.com vs. Tricider.ru (now Fortox)
We first wrote about Tricider's clone back in April. Co-founders Stephen Eyl and Nicolas von Kanitz discovered a mirror image clone with a Russian domain name, right down to the company name and music used in the product video.
After the news broke (and some strange interactions on ICQ chat), the copycat switched its name to Fortox and changed up the colour scheme (Fortox now has 14,800 fans on VKontakte, the "Russian Facebook"). Eyl and von Kanitz explored legal action but decided it wasn't worth taking it further.
"We don't see him as a competitor that much," von Kanitz told me recently. "But still, we'll have an eye on him..." Tricider, meanwhile, is apparently growing nicely and the team this week launched a new product - Facebook analytics tool Fanpage Karma.
Mister Spex versus Pro Optika
Team Europe-backed Mister Spex, which brought in €17 million in revenue in 2011, is a leading online eyewear retailer in Germany, and has expanded into France, Sweden, Spain and the UK. Co-founder and CEO Dirk Graber told us they have a collection of imitators. One copycat even copied source code and accidentally integrated Mister Spex' hotline number in its website, he says. "That was quite confusing for our service team."
The Russian site above is one of the closest matches in design. "To intervene internationally did not promise to be successful," Graber says. "For that reason, we decided to concentrate on more important things and to ignore the 'cloning'. At the moment we’re not planning to enter the Russian market."
Good design doesn't make a successful e-commerce business, he points out. "Our success is not only based on the design of our website, but on our assortment, the good prices we offer and our high service level. We have built this up for years."
Pro Optika didn't respond to an emailed request for comment, so we're not sure how well they're doing - the site at least seems to be fully functional.
AndroidPIT versus AndroidTime
Berlin-based AndroidPIT, the world's largest independent platform for Android news and apps, actually has a bureau to serve the Russian market. This isn't stopping rivals setting up shop - one currently active is AndroidTime, actually a pretty slick looking imitation. If you click through to AndroidPIT's app centre landing page, you'll see the design is even more similar than in the screenshots above.
"We're not really scared of copycats," AndroidPIT CEO Philipp Dommermuth says. "Our product is not a proper e-commerce model, which you can just scale endlessly. It's more like we're a website - we do have a lot of organic traffic, that's something you have to build up over time. It's not something you can do in a week or two weeks."
He and co-founder Tobias Apel acknowledge how difficult it is to legally protect business ideas and design. "You'll never be able to avoid it," Apel says. "But the thing is - everyone that copies you is always going to be behind in terms of timing."
There is, of course, the risk that AndroidTime will eventually grow enough to become a serious competitor - or that users will confuse the two sites to AndroidPIT's disadvantage.
More worrying: a short-lived exact clone that, according to Dommermuth and Apel, pulled content directly from AndroidPIT and ran it on DieBestenHandys.com (the page is now offline but we were passed a screenshot - see right, click to enlarge).
That was easy to stop, by blocking the site's IP. Dommermuth and Apel suspect it might have been a ploy to drop malware on hapless browsers.
And if it happens to you?
If you're cloned, it's going to be expensive and difficult to take legal action (if you catch the copy with the same name or images, it'll be easier). You might consider harnessing the power of the blogosphere to force a redesign (as Tricider did), add new features to keep your edge, or take the Wrapp approach and scale up enough to take the clone on.
The good news is, unless it's a company builder like Rocket Internet or Fast Lane Ventures doing the cloning, chances are it won't pose much of a threat to your business. As the cliche goes, "execution is everything".
Featured image credit: Flickr user CGP Grey