If you look with early Uber or Lyft, they were notorious for copying each other on offers, features, and more. A recent look at Instagram reveals how they’ve added new features to their product over the past few years to fend off competitors like Snapchat (Stories) and TikTok (Reels).
There’s a lesson here: if you don’t imitate what growth marketing industry leaders are already doing in your industry as a startup, you’re adding months and possibly years of unnecessary testing to your timeline. To be clear, I’m not advocating that you should copy your competitors’ website designs and print word for word. There’s a clear line between copying exactly what a competitor does and using frameworks outside of it while adding your own flavor – make sure you do the latter.
But when even the big players strategically use imitation tactics, it is even more important to imitate as a startup. Instagram is a billion dollar business these days and they are still reaping the rewards of imitation! However, it’s even more important for startups to imitate than established players because the pockets just aren’t that deep.
While trying to gain traction in the early years, most of your time and attention should be spent imitating successful marketing tactics.
I’ll use the Triple I model to help you understand the impersonation startup curve, and include a few examples from my days working on the growth team at Postmates.
Triple I model
The Triple I Model consists of three pillars: imitate, repeat and innovate. As a startup, you have the ability to do all of these things, but how you emphasize each one will be critical in the early stages.
While trying to gain traction in the early years, most of your time and attention should be spent imitating successful marketing tactics. This means drawing inspiration from competitors on their advertising, emails, website and other consumer touchpoints.
Iteration can happen simultaneously as you gain wins with successful imitations, and it should be a constant process of improving stats. If you feel like you have a groundbreaking idea you’d like to test, go ahead. I’m not saying you shouldn’t innovate. I’ve done this when advising small start-ups.
What I’m saying is that instead of spending so many resources on the uncertainty of innovation, there’s so much more for your startup to benefit from imitation in the beginning. There is no need to keep reinventing the wheel. Save your resources to innovate for high-probability tests you’ll be eager to try at different stages of your startup’s life.
However, it must be said that these “home run swings” should be reserved for those times when there are sufficient resources to experiment.
Imitation on paid acquisition
At Postmates, I’ve spent most of my time scaling our acquisition efforts. We increased our spend from $50,000/month to $5 million/month. Having raised $300 million in Series E, we had ample funding to scale as we unlocked new paid channels. However, we still lacked enough resources on the design side. Our team had to get handy repurposing or imitating designs launched by DoorDash and other competitors. Personally, I monitored the competitors and their ad libraries on a weekly basis to make sure we kept abreast of all trends.