Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
A bunch of folks have been asking for my reaction to 37signal’s recent product launch of Basecamp Breeze, a tool for creating a group email address like groupname[at]breeze123.com. A few years ago I created a tool very similar in spirit called Tgethr. You can easily create a groupname[at]tgethr.com.
I’ve even gotten condolences about 37signals copying my idea. :)
So I thought this would be a good opportunity to write a few thoughts on competition and copying ideas, especially since this is a real common area where people get stuck.
First of all, I highly doubt I was even in 37signal’s peripheral vision as they were planning Breeze. Even if they did get inspired by Tgethr, I’d be flattered.
If my idea isn’t worth copying then it’s not a very good idea. If my product or business can’t handle a new competitor, then it’s not a very good product.
A successful entrepreneur has to be comfortable being surrounded by competition. Not just surrounded. Swimming in it. Drowning in it.
Inkling, my first company of any success, got started because of all sorts of borrowing of ideas.
A bunch of years ago, a friend of mine asked if I’d heard of prediction markets. He mentioned some innovative companies using virtual stock exchange like things for ideas. Sounded kind of cool.
A couple years later I was walking through an airport bookstore and happened upon a best seller rack promoting Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I tore through that book and was sold on this concept of crowd wisdom. I really wanted to try out prediction markets for myself.
I went to Newsfutures.com, the prediction markets company heavily mentioned in the book, to see if I could play with their product. No. I’d have to work with a salesperson. I found a second company. Another salesperson.
I decided I wanted to craft my own prediction market software. So I got some folks to build a company with me.
Of course, we have what feels like insane competition. If you Googled prediction markets then, you’d get Newsfutures followed by all sorts of other companies and projects. Even free open source stuff.
You’d go to the Newsfutures site and see dozens of client logos and testimonials. There’s Surowiecki’s New York Times best selling book bringing all the attention to Newsfutures.
Did I mention yet Newsfutures had a 5 year head start on us?
What do we have?
We convinced Y Combinator, a new seed investment partnership, to take a chance on us in the second batch of the program. We got $18,000 from them which was gone in a snap supporting 3 people paying rent in Silicon Valley (and mortgages in Chicago).
No clients or relationships to turn into clients.
Zero competitive advantage.
Not to mention, as soon as we launched the first version of our product, which we’d been working on for a couple months, another competitor launches.
They’ve got a neat name, CrowdIQ. Their stuff looked super polished. They’d been working on it for a year. They even seemed to understand prediction markets much more than any of us did. I didn’t have a clue what a “market scoring rule” was or how to interpret these crazy ass academic papers from the Godfather of prediction markets, Robin Hanson.
Most people would have stopped at our first problem. Come up with an idea, Google it, and realize there’s already a dozen companies working to solve XYZ. Moan a bit about not having any luck and go back to watching TV.
But we did have something going for us.
We’re probably what Paul Graham would refer to as cockroaches. We just wouldn’t die.
For better or worse, I hate giving up.
In grade school, I broke my wrist playing basketball. After a bit of fetal position on the ground, my father, the coach, put me back in the game. I just dribbled with the other hand. They finally forced me out of the game, when someone elbowed me in the face and my nose wouldn’t stop bleeding.
A few years ago, someone fell on top of me in a martial arts class. His elbow went into my ribs. We both heard a noise. I was pretty sure I broke something. Painfully told myself (and my wife) I was fine, and went to a wrestling practice two days later. After that second practice, I was pretty convinced I had broken a rib when I couldn’t physically take off my shirt in the locker room and was having trouble breathing. Finally the Emergency Room doctor gave me the same diagnosis after x-rays.
I like challenges too much and don’t like quitting. Often things are painful for just a moment and go away.
So we kept at this prediction markets game. For years. Trying shit loads of angles and ideas.
Soon CrowdIQ disappeared. Later Newsfutures became irrelevant.
You’ll now find Inkling at the top of the results for prediction markets in Google.
Of course we picked up new competition. So the cycle goes.
Then there’s Tgethr. Even it was borrowed.
A few years ago, I realized coincidentally enough, I wanted something simpler than 37signals' own product, Basecamp, to organize communication within Inkling as well as a few groups of family and friends. Immediately I thought of Google Groups, but it was a shithole.
I stumbled on FamSpam, a new company from Chris Wanstrath and PJ Hyett that was fairly useful for the job. But they started shutting it down (to create the super successful Github, so they made out ok). I still wanted that simple collaboration tool. So I borrowed the idea and created my own: Tgethr.
I don’t have any secrets here about defeating your competition. There’s some great advice from folks like Clayton Christensen and Youngme Moon.
What I do know is that competition isn’t a show stopper. It can’t be. You’ll face oodles of it. Forever.
And Tgethr remains an incredibly useful tool for me and others. It’s better than a group email address. It’s got a secure web archive that merges group conversations together. It can send encrypted messages. It auto formats things like image links and blocks of code for developers. It has hooks to other services like Pivotal Tracker and Dropbox. All in a very simple package.
So I know Tgethr will keep going. I’ll keep going. I’ll keep borrowing good ideas and making them my own. And most of all, I’ll keep persisting.
You’ll have to drag me out of this game bloody and broken.
P.S. You might dig following me on Twitter.