May 27, 2017
If you can’t beat 'em … copy 'em? Admittedly, it's not the most creative innovation strategy. But for today's tech heavyweights, it seems to prevail. After Snapchat snubbed Facebook's $3 billion acquisition offer in 2013, rather than up its bid, Facebook debuted copycat features such as Facebook Stories and disappearing posts.
Since then, Facebook has mimicked Snapchat features at least three more times. Instagram's Stories feature, introduced by Facebook in 2016, is now officially more popular than Snapchat and attracts more daily active users.
According to Instagram’s VP of Product Kevin Weil, “This is the way the tech industry works.”
Think Snapchat is the only victim? Take a look at Facebook right now. Messenger and its chatbots are strikingly similar to WeChat. And, though Facebook Live looks like just another Periscope, it has actually dominated Twitter's live video-streaming app. What's more, Facebook’s nostalgic “On this day…” flashbacks mirror Timehop’s functionality.
Despite Facebook's sticky fingers, social startups are fighting back. These modern-day Davids are, in some cases, even outmaneuvering Zuckerberg's Goliath. Their secrets? Speed, savvy selling, and innovation strategy.
Fending Off Facebook
With Facebook hijacking innovations left and right, what's a social media startup to do? Follow these tips and you'll at least be in the discussion.
Pick Up the Pace
There's no avoiding it: If you succeed, Facebook will follow. But in certain situations, you should take that as a compliment.
“One of our investors put it really nicely,” former Timehop CEO Jonathan Wegener told TechCrunch. “If Facebook isn't playing in your space, you're probably not doing something worth doing.”
If that sounds familiar, the key is to reach critical mass before Facebook can squash you with your own ideas. Snapchat barely pulled it off, but its fast growth allowed it to outpace Facebook's adoption of its features and achieve a cool $28 billion valuation earlier this year.
In practice, fast growth means empowering your people to make quick decisions by eliminating bureaucracy. Enterprise companies can't escape their own controls and processes; as long as you trust your team, you can. Facebook still struggles with this — after acquiring Msqrd and its tech to compete with Snapchat's Lenses, it took the platform a full year to add face filters to Instagram Stories.
Sell While You Still Can
Smart gamblers quit while they're ahead, and the same is true for startups. Eventually, every social media success will either be sold or stolen. If Instagram hadn't sold for $1 billion, it likely would've found itself among the ranks of the many rising startups Facebook has outmuscled.
Ever heard of Chase Jarvis? He created an app called Best Camera and enjoyed a successful run — that is, until Facebook’s purchase of Instagram made his and similar startups irrelevant. For every Snapchat, there are hundreds of Timehops. Don’t let visions of grandeur cloud your better judgment.
Building a massive company is tough, and no single innovation can create enduring success. Today, the only way to win is to innovate so frequently that bigger, less agile companies can't keep up.
This, of course, is easier said than done. You have to recreate that engaging experience that won over your first users — and do it again and again. Yet it's not impossible: Snapchat has used this strategy to dodge Facebook's boot. By coming up with novel products like Spectacles, its version of smartglasses, Snapchat has managed to stay ahead of the game. As long as it continues to innovate in this way, its clones won't catch up.
In the social media space, legitimacy may no longer matter, but agility and constant innovation still do. That's what Facebook lacks, and if you've got it, that's how your company can stay ahead.
Read more about social media trends here on Tech.Co
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