imitation winning formulae in small business

We do it in our personal life, imitate and follow trends that give us the wow factor.

As a women of certain age you only need to think about those appalling perms, platform shoes and fashion trends like hot pants, mini skirts and all in one leisure suits – all of which we thought were great at the time!

I could go on, but I won’t as this is not an online therapy session for the woes of my stylistic past.  Men are not immune from this tendency to imitate and replicate but I’ll spare you the examples I’ve seen over the years.

We usually follow our ‘stars’ or ‘idols’ or have been influenced by mainstream media and advertising. There are few who are immune to the imitation bug.

So we are all guilty of imitation to some extent in our private life and have with varying success benefited from it! So why not adopt this approach in business?

Could imitation help small business compete?

There is talk in the aged care sector of increasing numbers of mergers and acquisitions leaving fewer and fewer smaller organisations to survive in what is an ever-changing landscape.

Bigger organisations have a wealth of expertise and deeper pockets than the small and independent organisations and it is hard to see how to compete when you don’t enjoy the same benefits.

It is hard in this scenario for the small organisations to excel and stand out as they compete for customers, staff and volunteers.

Perhaps one strategy to consider is imitation.

Cherry pick those elements of what you see these organisations doing and begin to implement this into your approach.

Of course you won’t have access to all the ‘inside’ knowledge, advice or research that is guiding their approach but you will get a feel for their advice and thinking by studying their marketing, communication and approach in their product or service design.

Imitation is a well recognised strategy for small business and has variously been termed “external knowledge acquisition” and “strategy of technology transfer”.

Where it used to take 23.1 years to achieve widespread imitation in 1877  it took 12 – 18 months in 1930 – who can guess how long it takes in 2015

Why imitate rather than innovate?

Think about it there can only really be only one pioneer or trend setter – once they’ve entered the market, launched a product and taken the lead – we are left to modify or improve their work, or imitate it  and put our own stamp on it.

While the pioneer will capture the hearts and minds of the customer that doesn’t mean they’ve blasted the competition out of the water. Others can still compete by excelling and meeting the customers expectations.

You only need to look at how innovators have disappeared after others have come along behind them and delivered an improved service or product offering exceeding that of the initial innovator.

  • Diners Card was the first credit card to enter the market – it now overshadowed by other larger and bigger credit card providers.
  • Nokia was the number 1 mobile phone producer but has all but disappeared as a mobile phone producer.
  • Blockbuster videos provided a wealth of video entertainment options but has been replaced by in store vending machines and downloadable content.
  • Borders which gained success for its  social approach to selling books (lounges, browsing and coffee machines) has largely been replaced as a bricks and mortar business by competitors like Amazon.

I am sure you can think of many more such innovators who have disappeared from the landscape. All have been killed off or mortally injured by imitators exceeding on either the configuration, offering or experience of the original pioneer’s innovation.

A 1948-2001 study found that innovators captured only 2.2 percent of the present value of their innovations

Other considerations which might impact on your decision to imitate rather than innovate include

  • minimize your risk exposure,
  • the level of your internal capacity and motivation to innovate,
  • cost, or available finance, to undertake the necessary research and development,
  • the increasing complexity, expectation and technology required for an innovative product or service offering, and finally
  • the cost of creation and market entry for new products or offerings.

There is perhaps no stronger case that imitation is a viable option.

Starting your imitation journey

If you are sold on the idea – then where to start? First choose your imitator style or approach?

Three approaches to imitation have been identified and might prove useful to understand as you choose your pathway to success.

  • parasite (doesn’t sound very desirable) – this approach follows that of the innovator but is really just replicating the dominant features of the original design. Here the differentiation is in the bundling or aspects such as pricing.
  • incompatible or redundant imitation  – here the imitator counters with an alternative to the innovator that meets similar needs but in a different way – think Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox. The aim in this game is achieving the greatest market share.
  • induced imitation – this is where the innovator welcomes imitators as it sees it as building the overall market and shift in consumer uptake. Here examples might be VHS and Betamax

Yet other suggest the following types of imitators

  • optimisers – build on the success of a winning formulae,
  • milkers – make one adaption of the innovation and replicate it in different settings,
  • copycats – just as it is described, and finally the
  • flexibles – these are those who use a variety of approaches.

What makes imitators exceptional?

What makes the difference and ensures the imitator becomes the victor in the chase for a better product or offering?

It has been argued that “successful entrepreneurs have built great businesses by doing what someone else has done, only better.”

Small businesses often adopt a practical approach to delivering value to their clients – they are looking for tangible benefits and don’t believe in reinventing the wheel.

It would seem they look at the original innovation differently to its founder – they consider how it can be improved or how it can meet the needs of the consumer better. They problem solve and have a deep understanding of what the customers problems are and can generate ways of solving them.

Your advantage may be your better understanding of the marketplace and your customer needs.

Imitators don’t need to blindly follow, in fact it is better if they use their business and customer insights to creatively adapt or modify the original innovation or practice. Show you flair and make any offering your own. Shenkar calls businesses who take this approach to imitation – “imovators.”

Small business that have a culture of competitive aggressiveness and who are risk averse are more likely, it has been argued, to take an imitation approach

 Being the best imitator

Deloitte have identified three features that distinguish a good imitator or as they put it …

How exceptional companies think

  • better before cheaper – build non price value rather than create a low-cost solution,
  • revenue before cost – increase revenue rather than reduce costs,
  • there are no other rules – change anything and everything in order to abide by the first two rules

They argue that imitators or follower should focus on innovating or adapting the original innovation in any of the Ten Types of Innovation model developed by Doblin (c).


Image: Doblin’s  The Ten Types of Innovation (R)

The Doblin model and Deloitte’s review suggests using a combination of new thinking across 3 or 4 of the sub-domains across the categories of 1) configuration, 2) offering and 3) experience.

Are there any downsides of imitation

It has been suggested that imitating  those who are seen as leaders (characterised as social-based or skills-based imitation ) does have some downsides.

Key among these downsides could be summed up as ‘following like lemmings’ that is there is no guarantee that the approach you are imitating will succeed. As Bloodgood points out, in his paper,  you don’t have any commercial, business or competitive analysis to enable you to understand the innovators  approach. Without this information you cannot guarantee that what you are implementing represents best practice.

It is also possible that simply following an imitation strategy could result in your failing to develop the dynamism and competitive drive that is needed for your business.

A word of caution also that your imitative efforts might also spur your competitors to further develop their innovation to outperform you and could be counterproductive to the development of your own internal culture of innovation.

Summing up

So if you are stretched for resources, feel you know and understand your customer or marketplace well then improving on innovation through imitation might be the strategy for your small business. Imitation does not mean you cannot work creatively to improve the original – rather the opposite it invites creativity in re framing the original innovation for your customers, situation and marketplace.

So go forth and imitate with a vengeance.

Where to from here

I would love to hear your thoughts on the imitation as a business strategy  and where you might have seen it work or fail.

About the author – Helen Attrill, MBA

Hi, Just a bit about myself to help you understand what my driving mission is. I am committed to helping aged care and not for profit organisations ‘accept the challenge of industry change’™.

I have over 26 years as an industry and organisation leader in the aged care and not for profit sector and have led the successful implementation of significant sector, profession and organisational change. Armed with this background I can guide and assist you with your change management challenge.

To find out more about my background visit the Meet Helen page.

If you are still struggling with change and need some support or assistance please feel free to contact me by emailing me at

Related or Referenced reading