November 5

Copy-paste ideas: How 5 entrepreneurs copied successful foreign businesses and conquered Asian markets

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You don’t need to come up with a novel idea to become a successful business owner.

In ‘Zero to One’ Peter Thiel argues that we need more creativity and new novel business ideas to drive the world forward. Instead of replicating and adjusting other businesses that are already out there, he suggests entrepreneurs should strive to solve problems in superior ways.

But when reading that book, some entrepreneurs take the idea of new businesses too literally, and get struck building elaborate products that don’t fix any problems, nor offer value to anyone. Not all successful businesses start as unique ones. In fact, quite a lot of the world’s most successful businesses today, started with a copy paste idea and overtime made it better than the competition. 

Have you ever heard the phrase good business ideas are everywhere, what most people lack is execution. Well in the hyper connected world of today, this couldn’t be more true. Someone in China could take an idea from the States, replicate it for the Chinese market and have created a successful business. Wait, business owners in China have already done that - think Baidu, Youku, Open Rice. Then there is WeChat, which essentially copied the best parts of a variety of other apps to make one super app! 

While China is famous for copying, a lot of the Asian brands we use today have been copied and adjusted for their local market. Since they know the region better than the original brand, they end up beating off foreign competition. Here are 5 Asian companies that have become very successful by copying a foreign business:

AirAsia

For anyone who has visited Europe, AirAsia closely resembles the orange planes of EasyJet that shook up the aviation industry with low cost flights in the late 90s. But the founder of the Asian airline group, Tony Fernandes, was copying the idea of an affordable airline from a different company.

Fernandes had been copying his idol, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, ever since he went to boarding school in the UK. After completing university in London, he went straight to work for Virgin Atlantic as an auditor, then moved to Virgin Communications for 2 years, both positions allowing him to get an inside glance of how Virgin was structured. 

10 years later, Fernandes got the chance to buy a failing airline operation in his native Malaysia and create the Asian version of Virgin Atlantic. Within 1 year of new ownership AirAsia had managed to clear $11 million of debt, it’s been named the world's best low-cost carrier for 11 years in a row, and in 2010 Fernandes was named Forbes Asia businessman of the year. Some say it’s even white and red as a homage to Virgin.

Xiaomi

Regardless of how you feel about Xiaomi’s copying (afterall, there is a very fine line between copying a successful business model and actual intellectual property), it’s hard not to admire their ability to match Apple's technology. When Xiaomi first launched their feature phone, the Mi4, the resemblance to the iPhone was impressive. A blatant knockoff product for half the price, the company quickly became the fastest-growing smartphone producer in the world.  

Despite the bad press from western media, Xiaomi has managed to continue producing phones, also branching out to tablets, laptops and even smartwatches. Today their technology is just as good as Apple’s, with the founder and CEO Lei Jun saying, “We wanted the hardware to come close to, or even surpass Apple’s iPad.” While Xiaomi may have started with a copy and paste formula, and was able to charge a lower price to gain market share, today they have found a niche that makes them a successful company in their own right - creating an iPhone that runs on android.

Xiaomi is not the only company to do this, with copy paste businesses a particular favourite of Chinese entrepreneurs. But they go to show that absolutely anything can be copied if there is enough of a market for the product and support When they went public in an IPO, Xiaomi was initially being valued even higher than Apple itself, although their share price hasn’t increased much in value since 2018. What is more interesting, is if Xiaomi will be able to out-innovate Apple in the long run. 

Grab

Of course Grab has to be mentioned in this list, as their victory over Uber is the perfect example of copying an idea. While Uber had the first mover advantage when it came to the ride-sharing idea, they struggled over the years to become profitable in Asia. This is in part because of their competition, but also because of local governments creating additional hurdles for foreign companies and offering subsidies to local businesses.

Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling launched MyTeksi in 2012, after seeing Uber in action in the US. Both Tan and Ling are Harvard Business School graduates who decided to take the ride-sharing app idea back home with them and won over the region before Uber managed to expand there. A year later when Uber launched in Singapore, Grab not only had a head start, but they also had local knowledge and local partnerships. 

After an intense fight for the streets of Asia, Uber bowed out in 2018, selling their presence in southeast Asia to Grab. Uber however did not walk away empty handed. In the merge, Uber gained 409 million shares (around a 25% stake in the company) with a contract that they can redeem them in 2023 if Grab doesn’t hold an IPO before. These shares are worth over USD $2 billion, which is a great return on the $700 million Uber spent trying to win over southeast Asia.

Agoda

One of the web's most popular hotel booking websites, Agoda.com, was founded in Phuket in 2003, and grew into one of Asia’s first unicorns. While Agoda was born after two other travel booking websites merged (PlanetHoliday.com and PrecisionReservations.com), it took less than 2 years before Booking Holdings, today the world's largest travel company, acquired them. 

The idea behind Agoda wasn’t radically new, Booking.com and Expedia had been around for 7 years already, and Hotels.com had moved online after starting life in 1991 as a hotel network with telephone bookings. But bringing Asian hotels online, adding rewards for repeat bookings and being ready to move with one of the first apps for hotel booking allowed Agoda to become a presence in the online travel industry. Add that to their strategic location in Phuket, and they became more attractive to invest in or buy out than if Booking.com had to set up their own connections within the region.

The first four examples of copy paste ideas are all now heavy weights in the Asian business world, but at the same time, they are attempting to conquer large markets and have fierce competition. However, not all copy paste ideas need to be so large. There are thousands of successful businesses in any major city in the world, and many of these can be replicated in other cities. One of the perfect examples is the hipster coffee shop. 

Ristr8to

In northern Chiang Mai, Thailand, there is a coffee shop that is a must visit for any traveller. With a focus on pouring the best possible espresso in Asia, the cafe gained a cult following after the founder, Arnon Thitiprasert won 1st place in the World’s Latte Art Championship in 2017. Today, Ristr8to has 4 locations in Chiang Mai and 1 in Singapore, and also imports and roasts beans for the region. But how does a young Thai, who until 21 had never tasted coffee become a world championship? Through travel.

Thitiprasert moved to Australia in 2007 to work and happened to meet the World Latte Art Champion of that year in a cafe. He fell in love with the job and dedicated his time in Australia to learning everything he could about coffee, with the added benefit of seeing Sydney and Melbournes incredible coffee cultures. He then went back to Thailand to set up his own cafe, initially basing it on the successful cafes he saw, before growing into a success in its own right. 


If you stop to look around there are countless ideas that could be replicated in different locations, or even copied and made better. For budding entrepreneurs, you don’t need to look to big names such as Apple or Virgin to find success, sometimes local restaurants, foreign apps or something novel you saw on holiday might be currently missing in your region. Copy and paste ideas shouldn’t be looked down upon, rather they should be seen as springboards to potentially greater companies in the future.


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