Are so-called ‘clone startups’ (those hoping to be acquired by the mothership after creating a successful ‘local language lookalike’) too easily dismissed as ‘non-innovators’?

If they are essential to kick-starting their local innovation ecosystem, doesn’t this make them ‘innovation facilitators’ which are just as important as ‘genuinely innovative startups’?

We ‘innovation investment journalists’ often succumb to a powerful tendency to get swept away with our own innovation-fixated rhetoric, which results in a sentiment like this:

“There just doesn’t seem to be anything important enough to write about on the startup scene in that country because they’re mostly just clones making copycat versions of existing blockbusters: calling it ‘vibrant’ or even ‘innovative’ would be an insult to my readers’ intelligence”.

But here’s what may really be going in a burgeoning, but copycat-dominated startup scene:

  • overseas investors will be encouraged to invest in that country’s startups
  • local innovative startups (including non-copycats) will be encouraged
  • local ‘traditional business startups’ will be encouraged (innovative startups always need as many nearby cafes as possible)
  • local investors will be encouraged to invest in startups
  • local startup founders that have exited will become local innovation investors

And if Vivek Wadhwa’s theory is correct, a truly ‘startup-welcoming environment’ will eventually attract potential startup founders from overseas, and these kinds of incomers often prove to be a ‘best kept secret’ as catalysts for rapid proliferation of successful innovative ventures.

We innovation-fixated reporters have to constantly remind ourselves that innovation itself is only a small part of the innovation investment process, and that ‘truly innovative startups’ are not the only kinds of ‘innovation agents’ that are necessary for an innovation-starved economy to transform itself.

If we are going to be effective in helping the startup scene to be a valuable resource to everyone, then perhaps it is not enough for writers to clearly distinguish copycat startups from their more innovative counterparts.

It may be equally important to ask questions about how investment in less innovative startups (not just copycats, but the entire SME scene) contributes to the startup ecosystem as a whole.

What about encouraging the formation of startup accelerators specifically aimed at nurturing startups based upon non-innovative but viable ideas?

  • startups that specifically support (or even revive) historically important but imperilled unique local traditions?
  • startups that specifically provide support services for other startups?

If we pay disproportionate attention to exclusively innovative aspects of what people are doing, we risk missing what is possibly the most neglected aspect of innovation, which is how people’s lives and work experiences are (or aren’t) changing in the parts of the world which we don’t usually associate with innovation.