High Forms of Flattery

Clone Wars: Rise of the Fast Follower Startups

This startup looks like that startup.

lego star wars clone army Clone Wars: Rise of the Fast Follower Startups

A FEW MONTHS AGO, AN ENTREPRENEUR in the tri-state area was soliciting web development help via Craigslist. “I’m looking for a Meetup.com clone script,” the listing said. “It must have all the social community features that Meetup.com has, including the capability to add new groups, users events, polls, connect to other social communities, shopping cart, sponsors and sub sites.” Meetup, which was founded in 2002 and has about 80 employees, is reportedly valued at more than $50 million. The asking price for a replica was $300 to $600.

Last week, two ads appeared from the other side of the fence: a programmer-for-hire looking for something to build who claimed to have built a Facebook clone in four days, a Flickr clone in three days and a Google clone in two weeks. He noted that he’d also created a Craigslist clone, adding, “but no one visits it so we are posting this ad to Craigslist.”*

When it comes to internet startups, much is made of the entrepreneurs who first bring an idea to market—innovators or “first movers,” in the parlance of market researchers. But vastly more common are “fast followers,” the ones who jump on a hot idea and dash off a carbon copy. After all, the first mover doesn’t always win the race: just look at the Mac, launched in 1984, versus the Windows PC, launched in 1985, or at Facebook, which came after Friendster, Myspace and the Winklevoss social network HarvardConnection.

Turntable.fm, a music streaming service that went viral immediately after its April launch, was built in about six months by three entrepreneurs based in Union Square. About two months later, a local trio of former Googlers launched a music streaming game called Rolling.fm.

The similarity was more than striking. Both sites are designed to look like a cartoon night club where users can join a rotating line-up of D.J.s and play songs for a crowd of tiny avatars. Turntable listeners rate songs as “lame” or “awesome,” while users on Rolling rate them “weak” or “hot.” On Turntable, users appear as ambiguous elf-animals that get bigger as they accrue more D.J. points; on Rolling, the characters look like Homie dolls that get more bling as they level up. “I think it’s obvious that the initial version of Rolling is inspired by Turntable,” Rolling co-founder Tim Zhou said carefully in an email. “To say otherwise is not accurate.”

Fast followers have been around since the days of the first dot-com boom. Even Kozmo.com, the website that offered free one-hour delivery of almost any product and is considered one of the classic flame-outs of the 90’s tech bubble, had, despite its dubious business model, an imitator.

According to Silicon Alley Reporter publisher Jason Calacanis, one venture capitalist Kozmo pitched—Ross Stevens of Integrity Capital Management—liked the idea so much he launched a competitor. “They started something called Urbanfetch, which was a direct knockoff,” Mr. Calacanis said. This led to a legal settlement as well as retaliatory mischief; at one point, Kozmo had five employees order packs of M&Ms delivered to the office every hour, “just to see if Urbanfetch would do it,” Mr. Calacanis said.

Me-too startups seem to be popping up with increasing intensity amid the current wave of social media–centric web-based businesses, in which easy programming languages, the availability of ready-made tools, open source code and a reinvigorated supply of capital has everyone aspiring to internet entrepreneurship. “It’s this whole cargo cult thing, where people imitate the things you see on the surface,” web developer and serial entrepreneur Kyle Bragger told Betabeat. “Foursquare does badges and they did them really well. And then all of a sudden everyone was like, ‘I want to add badges to my startup!’”

There are more than 200 variations of the “daily deal” group discount site Groupon (commonly referred to as the “Groupon clones”) in the U.S. alone. In China, more than 1,000 have been launched and several hundred more are offering deals around the world, according to the New York-based deal aggregator and market researcher Yipit. These carbon copies range from bit-for-bit replicas to fairly creative takes on the concept of temporary group discounts.

Groupon’s wild success inspired Google to launch its own take on the daily deal site, Google Offers; at the other end of the knockoff spectrum, some intrepid entrepreneurs started offering a quick-and-dirty $350 software kit called Wroupon, which imitates Groupon’s daily deal conceit as well as the layout and language to generate “the perfect Groupon clone.”

Check Out A Side By Side Comparison of Fast Followers, From Wroupon to FreundeFeed

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com


  1. Tom Limonceli says:

    The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.

    Isn’t that the Microsoft way?

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