September 13, 2011
When the Hong Kong startup TalkBox was preparing to launch their Android app, they posted a countdown online. But they were shocked to see a copycat company in China post the same countdown – right down to the design and the source code.
“It’s a challenge startups face,” says Jacqueline Chong, director of marketing at TalkBox. “There’s nothing you can do.”
TalkBox’s free iPhone and Android apps are messengers, but for voice rather than text. Users simply click a button, record a short message, and release to send. This simple concept has attracted 5 million users since January, in the United States, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and – to their surprise – China.
TalkBox has since created a Chinese version of the app, but they still face competition from about 20 copycats in China, says Chong. Some copy the design and user interface; another markets itself as “the Chinese version of TalkBox.” TalkBox has applied for a patent, but that may have little effect.
“It’s unreasonable to copyright everything. It’s not enforceable anyway,” Chong tells me, as we sit on pillows on the floor of a lime-green conference room. “It’s quite heartbreaking.” She says Chinese users originally praised TalkBox for an international-looking UI, but now some are criticizing them for not being localized enough.
The TalkBox team will push forward, with plans to expand to other platforms. They are also debating whether to add text – although that would make them more similar to competitors like WhatsApp. Whatever the case, they’ll be fighting off copycats along the way – a reminder that the Chinese market can be a blessing and a curse.
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