May 3, 2018
Copy and Steal: the Silicon Valley Way
by Vivek Wadhwa
As Steve Jobs said, “Picasso had a saying, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’" Innovators need to be like Picasso.
In a videoconference hosted by Indian start-up website Inc42, I gave Indian entrepreneurs some advice that startled them. I said that instead of trying to invent things, they should copy and steal all the ideas they can from China, Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. A billion Indians coming online through inexpensive smartphones offer Indian entrepreneurs an opportunity to build a digital infrastructure that will transform the country. The best way of getting started on that is not to reinvent the wheel but to learn from the successes and failures of others.
Before Japan, Korea and China began to innovate, they were called copycat nations; their electronics and consumer products were knockoffs from the West. Silicon Valley succeeds because it excels in sharing ideas and building on the work of others. As Steve Jobs said in 1994, “Picasso had a saying, ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal,’ and we have you know always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” Almost every Apple product has features that were first developed by others; rarely do its technologies wholly originate within the company.
Mark Zuckerberg also built Facebook by taking pages from MySpace and Friendster, and he continues to copy products. Facebook Places is a replica of Foursquare; Messenger video imitates Skype; Facebook Stories is a clone of Snapchat; and Facebook Live combines the best features of Meerkat and Periscope. This is another one of Silicon Valley’s other secrets: If stealing doesn’t work, then buy the company.
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By the way, they don’t call this copying or stealing; it is “knowledge sharing.” Silicon Valley has very high rates of job-hopping, and top engineers rarely work at any one company for more than three years; they routinely join their competitors or start their own companies. As long as engineers don’t steal computer code or designs, they can build on the work they did before. Valley firms understand that collaborating and competing at the same time leads to success. This is even reflected in California’s unusual laws, which bar noncompetition agreements.
In most places, entrepreneurs hesitate to tell others what they are doing. Yet in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs know that when they share an idea, they get important feedback. Both sides learn by exchanging ideas and developing new ones. So when you walk into a coffee shop in Palo Alto, those you ask will not hesitate to tell you their product-development plans.
Neither companies nor countries can succeed, however, merely by copying. They must move very fast and keep improving themselves and adapting to changing markets and technologies.
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Apple became the most valuable company in the world because it didn’t hesitate to cannibalize its own technologies. Steve Jobs didn’t worry that the iPad would hurt the sales of its laptops or that the music player in the iPhone would eliminate the need to buy an iPod. The company moved forward quickly as competitors copied its designs.
Technology is now moving faster than ever and becoming affordable to all. Advances in artificial intelligence, computing, networks and sensors are making it possible to build new trillion-dollar industries and destroy old ones. The new technologies that once only the West had access to are now available everywhere. As the world’s entrepreneurs learn from one another, they will find opportunities to solve the problems of not only their own countries but the world. And we will all benefit in a big way from this.