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Over the weekend I came across a pretty awful post called “Russia’s Top 5 Web Startups Of 2011 Mostly Rip Off U.S.’s” on Read Write Web (#11 tech blog according to Technorati as of today). This post does not even deserve your click (but if you must: here is a link). The blogger Alicia Elers managed to call Cut the Rope a clone of (a supposedly American) Angry Birds, while naming Vkontakte a startup. On her own website, Elers describes herself as a “writer with strong ability to identify niche viral content”.
By attempting to attack clones in such an unprofessional manner the post encouraged me to speak out to defend clones once again and bash the very lousy blogs who waste my time and clicks.
The business of a commercially-run blog is that of selling advertisement or premium content (or both). Whilst premium services can only expect their readers to pay for content that is of a high quality, free services have to drive clicks and ad revenue by any means. These means have lately become the tools of yellow press 2.0, and here are just some examples of how to drive the clicks:
How else can one can justify appalling pieces such as “INFILTRATING PRICELINE: There’s A $24 Billion Internet Sensation In New York’s Backyard That NOBODY Talks About” that appeared in Business Insider earlier this month (proudly marked as a “burning post” on the website). Again, this does not deserve your click, but you must have already checked out this catchy link, driving traffic to the blog. The reporter of Business Insider “infiltrates” Priceline by snapping photos of the exteriors of the Priceline’s office building. It is not April’s fool day, but we are taken for a ride here.
Despite the obvious lack of quality content, such online publications continue to proliferate. Not only because readers do not always question their sources, but also because of the way we read. Add our need to feed recommended articles into Facebook and LinkedIn as part of our social media strategy to a speed-reading technique where everything between the first and the last paragraph is skipped, and we have a pretty decent explanation why RWW and Business Insider are popular blogs. The post on Russian Startups was shared with me by a VC, who has admitted to have only skip-read it initially.
These very blogs like to ridicule clones for copying innovative businesses, as if it was something to be ashamed of. This always makes me feel uneasy. Clones are first and foremost businesses, which have paying customers. This means their products and services are valuable and in demand. Yes, Russians too want to buy shoes and plan their holidays online and if its US-based pioneer of the idea has not got around to entering Russian market, someone else will fill the niche. This is why Sapato and Oktogo were created in Russia.
Besides what is, in fact, “more shameful”: implementing a useful business model in another geographical market, OR running an online media outlet, whose business is to trick its readers into clicking and sharing rubbish content, and advertisers into paying for those clicks?
Ironically, the model of selling poor quality news or outright lies to masses is not novel one, so cloning is in place here as well. Rupert Murdoch has done well building his media empire based on the yellow press business model. A few months back The New Yorker has published a big story about Murdoch and the economics of the yellow press. One example discusses Murdoch’s decision to publish Hitler’s diaries in The Sunday Times in 1983 even though he had indications that they were counterfeit. The result: the number of the regular readers increased by 20 000. This, I must add, was the respectable Times, not the News of the World or The Daily Mail. How strange it is that the some of the blogs chose to clone a business model based on deceit when perfectly decent ones (for example selling shoes and packaged tours online) were on the table.
The Internet economy in the US is more advanced than elsewhere: online payment mechanisms, shipment industry, legislation are in place to make it work. So why is it surprising that new stuff is being tried out there, whilst the rest of the world is still busy building local “Amazons” in cash-based economies with a limited distribution infrastructure? By the time the world catches up, its attempts are labeled as cloning.
Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström founded Skype which is arguably the most innovative company in the telephony space at present. Yet they have begun their entrepreneurial success by (gasp!) cloning Napster with Kazaa back in early 2000. Zennström is now the founder and CEO of Atomico, which backed Rovio, 6Wunderkinder, Jolicloud and RDIO amongst others.
The subject of cloning should in my humble opinion, be taken off the table. In the end it is just the business, where the risks of being second or third are different, but do still exist. The founders of the copycat companies are likely to accumulate experience, network, business knowledge and a tidy pile of cash and maybe will consider something more innovative as their next business. In comparison, a lousy blogger will have probably moved on to be lousy at something else.
So before labeling Russian Internet companies as copycats, let’s wait until infrastructure required for a seamless functioning of Russia’s Internet economy catches up with that of the US Internet: when most payment are made online (at present, 80 percent of the payment on Russian Ozon are cash on delivery), when online businesses will not have to build their own distribution network as Ozon had to do, and when people learn through experience that the upon returning the items they will get their money back. Then we will see what Russians come up with.
And if I must: Russian Speaktoit, the “Siri for Android” was on the market before the mighty Siri.
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vita at goaleurope dot com