Cloning or copycatting ideas, companies, and products is nothing new in China. Westerners, especially Americans, loathe cloning; it hurts their pride and is an insult to their creativity and hard work. The Chinese, however, love it. It comes as second nature and presents a grand opportunity to seize a massive market potential.
People outside of China often wonder why the Chinese love to copy things. The answer is that it’s the way they’re taught to learn. Follow the teacher, recite books, and don’t challenge authority. This mentality sticks with people as they mature. Moreover, I’m sure many startups think, “Why shouldn’t I copy?” if the business model has been proven overseas and they know how to adapt it for China. Not copying would almost represent a missed opportunity.
When I interviewed the co-founder of Match.com, Peng Ong (now a Partner at GSR Ventures) he said “Copying is a form of innovation. The best companies never just copy; they copy and then localize. It’s like jazz, you have a basic rhythm and structure and you move around that. Is jazz copying? I don’t think there is any original idea. Google is a copy.”
I’ve realized that the word “innovation” can be interpreted in many ways. In China, I feel it means to adapt and improve. To some degree, everyone learns by copying. But where it becomes a touchy subject is when Chinese knockoffs don’t just copy the business model, they copy everything except the logo!
Since the Chinese are expert copiers of everything from Nike shoes and Italian-made furniture to tech startups, this skill ought to be commended.
We’ve compiled a list of the best tech clones of companies that were hot in China over the last year. We picked the winners based their market leader position in the market perception. Of course, all the original startups ideas that made it big originate from America, particularly in Silicon Valley.
Here we go, drum roll please!
1. Groupon – First and largest group buying site in the world
Winner: Meituan, finished 2011 as number one group buying site by revenue.
Honorable mention: Lashou, put up a good fight against Meituan.
2. Airbnb – First and largest vacation and private room rental site in the world
Winner: Airizu, the earliest Airbnb clone in China.
Honorable mention: Mayi, operated by one of China’s largest classified sites, Ganji.
3. Tumblr – Largest light-blogging platform in the world
Winner: DianDian, incubated by Innovation Works and raised US$10M.
Honorable mention: Lofter, spawned from Internet giant, NetEase.
4. Pinterest – The hottest social bookmarking site right now, with fast growth and salivating VCs
Winner: Huaban, from the makers from the best Flickr clone.
Honorable mention: J.RenRen, from the makers of China’s Facebook, RenRen.
5. Gilt – Exclusive discount luxury goods site
Winner: Xiu, satisfying China’s insatiable demand for luxury and brand names.
Honorable mention: VIPstore, recently raised a new round of funding from Intel Capital.
6. Flipboard – First and most popular iPad magazine app
Winner: Zaker, the earliest Flipboard clone emerged when Flipboard was blocked in China.
Honorable mention: Xianguo, from the makers of a popular RSS reader.
7. Kik – Popular mobile messaging apps
Winner: Weixin, a mobile app that is rolling Kik, Talkbox, Foursquare, Bump into one
Honorable mention: Miliao, from Lei Jun, regarded as China’s Steve Jobs
One trend we noticed is that the best clones are often created by very large Chinese tech companies with existing resources and money. It shows how tough the environment is for grassroots startups trying to compete against the big guys. It is also telling of the health of China’s startup eco-system — big companies can and will simply crush anything they see as a threat. This dynamic explains why the mergers and acquisitions market is not as active here as it is in America.
Now that we are already flying through 2012, we’re looking for the next hot clones to emerge out of China.