Despite fears that the money sloshing through Silicon Valley startups has led to silly -- and unsustainable -- valuations, the dirty word at a recent gathering of tech entrepreneurs wasn’t “bubble,” but “clone.”
At a Founders Forum event on Thursday that brought together members of the digerati, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and AOL co-founder Steve Case, the topic of conversation repeatedly returned to the proliferation of copycat companies that entrepreneurs say have become the scourge of the startup scene.
New web companies are being cloned earlier in their lifecycle and more quickly than ever before, founders and investors complained. They noted that startups often duplicate a site’s design, terms of service, text and code to produce a replica that is virtually indistinguishable from the original. Such practices are “unconscionable” and “unethical,” Hoffman said at the forum.
“What is worrying from an innovation and entrepreneurship point of view is cloners seem to be going after younger and younger companies and also have been able to attract a huge amount of capital,” Hjalmar Winbladh, founder and CEO of Wrapp, a social gift card service, told The Huffington Post. “They have more resources and can steal the technology, text, everything from a small startup and deploy that on a massive scale before the small innovator has the muscles to fight back.”
Imitators include Pinspire, a Pinterest twin; Bamarang, a “rip-off" of shopping site Fab.com; and Plinga, a social gaming company based on Zynga. All three were launched by Berlin-based incubator Rocket Internet, a notorious “clone factory” run by brothers Oliver, Marc and Alexander Samwer.
Given the ease and speed at which digital properties can be created, new ventures can be cloned overnight -- literally.
One media executive recounted learning about the launch of photo-sharing app Color just before boarding a flight to Shanghai, where he was to meet with Chinese entrepreneurs. The following morning, the second entrepreneur who pitched him presented a complete Color clone.
The people behind these simulacra startups frequently hope to gain share in a local market, then sell their company to the firm whose concept they cribbed. This strategy has paid off in the past: Groupon purchased its German clone Citydeal, a brainchild of the Samwer brothers, in 2010.
Copycats may also resort to “blackmail” tactics, noted Winbladh, who said that the individuals who cloned his company offered to shut down their site in exchange for equity in his startup. Winbladh refused their offer.
Neil Blumnethal, co-founder of Warby Parker, an e-commerce site for eyewear, called on Founders Forum attendees to unite in stonewalling creators of rip-off websites and withholding funding from companies that replicate other founders’ creations.
"We have also been the victim of copycats so we're ready to support an initiative [to limit clones] and would encourage people to not support these people as part of our community,” Blumenthal said. “There are investors in the room here that support clones of us and it's disturbing they were able to get in this audience."
Another attendee took a more optimistic stance, expressing hope that the Samwer brothers’ ventures, albeit problematic, might help foster a startup community in Europe by training entrepreneurs who might eventually leave to pursue original ideas. The Samwer exodus already seems to have started: As Wired's Matt Cowan reported in March, more than two dozen employees have left Rocket Internet to launch their own incubator.
Lady Gaga has been called a "<a href="http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-09/lady-gaga-to-tour/3820000?section=entertainment" target="_hplink">social media queen</a>," and it's not very surprising that she's backed her very own <a href="http://mashable.com/2012/02/07/lady-gaga-social-network-little-monsters-launch/#47287LittleMonsterscom" target="_hplink">social-networking site</a> called <a href="http://littlemonsters.com/" target="_hplink">LittleMonsters</a>. The newcomer site, <a href="http://mashable.com/2012/02/07/lady-gaga-social-network-little-monsters-launch/#47273Take-a-Tour-With-Us" target="_hplink">which Mashable dubbed a Reddit-Pinterest hybrid</a>, hasn't officially launched yet (you must request an invite to join), but it will eventually let you post your favorite Mother Monster-related images and connect with other Gaga-lovers.
What would the Internet be without a porn-inspired version of Pinterest? With features that allow you to "snatch" your favorite X-rated pictures and videos from around the web, to follow users with boards that interest you, and to create private boards, <a href="http://www.snatchly.com/" target="_hplink">Snatchly</a> is a free service perfect for the sociable porn-lover. And it's most likely the dirtiest Pinterest alternative of them all. (Though we've blocked out all the pictures in the screenshot above, believe us when we say that this site is NSFW.)
At first glance, <a href="http://www.thefancy.com/" target="_hplink">Fancy</a> doesn't look much like Pinterest, but explore the site more deeply, and you'll find it's an interesting mix of Pinterest, Tumblr and a traditional magazine catalog, letting you admire pretty images and find where to purchase them, too. The images you "Fancy" will show up on your "Catalog," or profile, and you can arrange the items you've "Fancied" into "lists," much like Pinterest's "boards." You can follow and view other users' posts, which will appear on your homepage in the same way that posts show up on a Tumblr dashboard. And, lastly, clicking on an image will send you to a page with options like: "Buy it," "More info," "I want to sell it," "Show someone" and more.
Have you jumped on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon? If you have, this <a href="http://j-linterest.com/" target="_hplink">"linsane" Jeremy Lin-themed Pinterest look-alike site</a> is the one for you. J-Linterest doesn't have much to look at yet. With just one page of content, it's nowhere near as massive as Pinterest is, but it's a fun twist on the popular membership-based image-sharing service.
While all the sites in this slideshow share more than a passing resemblance to one another, only <a href="http://www.pinspire.com/" target="_hplink">Pinspire</a> has been called <a href="http://mashable.com/2012/01/31/10-blatant-social-media-design-ripoffs/" target="_hplink">a complete rip-off</a>. Created by <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/technology/the-simple-secret-to-beating-clones-and-copycats-01272012.html" target="_hplink">none other than Rocket Internet's Samwer brothers</a> (the minds behind the clones of eBay, Groupon, and Zappos) Pinspire looks almost exactly like Pinterest, from its layout down to its color scheme. It's still too early to tell if Pinterest will buy out Pinspire (<a href="http://gigaom.com/2012/01/25/now-samwer-bros-clone-fab-and-target-european-rollout/" target="_hplink">like eBay did its Samwer-made clone, Alando</a>) or take some other action against it. For right now, at least, it seems this Pinterest clone is off the hook.
We Heart It
<a href="http://weheartit.com/" target="_hplink">We Heart It</a> isn't as well-known as Pinterest, but it's been hovering under the radar since 2008 and happens to share many similar features with Pinterest. You can "heart" (rather than "pin") your favorite images from other sites, follow other We Heart It users, and create "sets" similar to Pinterest's "boards" that showcase similar images for your followers to view. With all the little pink hearts dotting its pages, We Heart It may be a bit girly, but that hasn't stopped it from gaining a solid following (it has over 400,000 likes on its <a href="https://www.facebook.com/weheartitdotcom?sk=info" target="_hplink">Facebook page</a>).
On the other side of the image-sharing spectrum is <a href="http://gentlemint.com/" target="_hplink">Gentlemint</a>, a site whose target visitor is definitively male. <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/02/21/gentlemint-is-pinterest-for-manly-things/" target="_hplink">Co-founder Brian McKinney recently told Forbes</a>, "We see ourselves as more of a complement to Pinterest." Indeed, Gentlemint's pictures of <a href="http://gentlemint.com/tack/7169/" target="_hplink">scary knives</a>, <a href="http://gentlemint.com/tack/7253/" target="_hplink">high-tech yachts</a>, and <a href="http://gentlemint.com/tack/7239/" target="_hplink">inflatable T-Rexes</a> replace the frilly dresses, cupcake recipes, and intricate up-dos you might find on <a href="http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2012/02/22/147222619/so-pinterest-is-a-womans-world-does-that-matter" target="_hplink">female-dominated sites like Pinterest</a> or We Heart It.
<a href="http://www.juxtapost.com/" target="_hplink">Juxtapost</a> has quite a few one-ups on Pinterest, in addition to its ready-to-use, no-invitation-required registration. The service also serves up private postboards, a "More Like This" button that shows posts similar to the one you're looking at, an auto-description feature, a way to export your postboard to an Excel spreadsheet, <a href="http://www.juxtapost.com/site/permlink/0/about/" target="_hplink">and more</a>. With all these helpful offerings, Juxtapost may be <a href="http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2012/02/07/prweb9169330.DTL" target="_hplink">one of Pinterest's fiercest competitor</a>.
Founded in 2006, <a href="http://designrelated.com/main/about" target="_hplink">design:related</a> is pretty unique in the image-sharing service world. It not only offers visual ideas by way of designers and creatives, but it also presents design-related jobs and media content in the form of news and feature stories (hence the name). Once a prospective user receives an invite, he or she can create a portfolio of design work, share inspiration, post news, or browse through others' content.
VisualizeUs makes it a point to let everyone know <a href="http://vi.sualize.us/" target="_hplink">right on its homepage</a> that no invite is required to join, taking a pretty clear stab at the invite-only Pinterest. In addition to this little bonus, the site's tagging feature let you more easily find images you've posted or quickly search through other users' visual posts. It even shows "popular tags to watch" and the "most used tags" so you can see what other VisualizeUs users are interested in posting.
While <a href="http://imgspark.com/about/" target="_hplink">Image Spark</a> is similar to Pinterest in both the way it looks and the way it works, one unique feature it offers is its "moodboard," which works a bit differently than Pinterest's "board." Instead of displaying inspirational images in a geometric fashion, Image Spark's "moodboard" allows users to position images as they see fit, so some may end up looking more like creative collages than tidy columns. New users are offered 1GB of storage and two "moodboards" to get started.
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