THE BLOG
12/31/2013 12:25 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2014

Innovation Without the Edge - Death to the Me-Too Startup

America was built by pioneers, people who believed they could improve their lives, invent new technology and make the world a better place. Innovators who took an idea that seemed impossible to most and made it reality.

Today, many innovators, entrepreneurs and investors seem to be cut from a different cloth. More and more companies keep cropping up that look and sound the same, at the expense of break-through disruptive innovation. This is what I call the epidemic of the me-too start-up.

What is a me-too start-up?

A me-too start-up is built with the goal of emulating a successful model or product in one's category. Often driven by trends and hype, these startups spend most of their time creating their flavor to an existing product or service. An entire ecosystem of investors, incubators, coaches and writers has emerged supporting this me-too approach to building a company.

A perfect example of me-too start-up mentality: When asked what their business is about, founders answer, "We're like the [insert Facebook, Instragram, Pinterest, etc.] of [insert new category, such as video, social, cloud, etc.]." How can the 30 second pitch that is meant to define the very essence of a business be founded in a me-too description? As an entrepreneur, I have found myself in this situation too many times to count. In fact, when deciding against this kind of formulaic pitch, I was strongly encouraged, and at times told, to change my pitch accordingly. How can we claim to want bold innovation only to expect entrepreneurs to build a company that is, at its very core, emulating another?

Why are there so many me-too startups?

People are afraid of risk. The irony is that starting a business and building a new product comes with undeniable risks. In my opinion, some investors and entrepreneurs attempt to mitigate these risks by creating cookie cutter business models that manufacture startups from the same mould. The inherent issue with this model is that startups aren't manufactured, they are created. Although this model may work for some, I'm doubtful that this is the right path for most. How can creativity, innovation, ambition and uniqueness thrive in this environment?

With so many promoting a me-too dogma, many new entrepreneurs see it as their only way to start a business, especially if they require funding. This is exactly what Jerzy Gangi describes in his article "Why Silicon Valley Funds Instagrams, not Hyperloops."Gangi is quoted saying, "The entire culture of Silicon Valley, and entrepreneurship around the globe, has taken on a groupthink that prevents truly novel inventions, like the Hyperloop, from reaching the market." Powerful words.

Where do you fit in?

Most of us became entrepreneurs because we wanted to make a difference, build something new and innovate. Following others just isn't in our DNA. It's important to understand your drivers as an entrepreneur and make sure they align with the investors and mentors that support true innovation. These people do exist; the key is being willing to look for them. In our case, we've worked hard (and have been fortunate) to find investors, mentors and advisors that share the same vision and push us to be better.

The cookie cutter approach proudly claims that 1 in 10 startups will succeed. Am I missing something? If this statistic is true, it's far from the sure bet many proponents like to portray it as.

Entrepreneurs who want to build global startups founded in innovative thinking and creativity must ask themselves if the me-too approach not only minimizes risk but also diminishes their edge.