The Graveyard Indicator For Startups

I’ve been working in the tech sector my entire career and one often-discussed topic has been a repeating event: what do you do about copycats?

My answer: let The Graveyard Indicator be your guide. Well, what is The Graveyard Indicator? Imagine a graveyard off into the distance, you can see it through your office window, and in that graveyard is a tombstone for every copycat that’s come and failed. The tombstone shows the copycat’s name, and date of existence until failure. The indicator measures how many tombstones there are, and, ironically, the positive impact that each new tombstone has on your company.

That’s right – the larger the graveyard the better you’re doing.

As a founder or company, you should want a large and beautiful graveyard. You should tend to that graveyard. You should plant flowers, mow the lawn, and know at all times how active it is. A large and beautiful graveyard validates your company, its direction, and strategy. More importantly, it validates that what you do is actually unique, impossible to be copied, and that you have a large lead over any new copycats.

There’s nothing wrong with copycats.

In-fact, I would tell you that if copycats are annoying or threatening, then actually, something is wrong at the core of your strategy and long-term plans.

Copycats arise in the first place because they’ve seen your success and want to get a piece of it. Or, get ready to pat yourself on the back, because your work actually inspired them to build something similar! It was literally that good, and they wanted to do the same. There’s a reason why the Oscar Wilde quote is as popular as it is in tech circles:

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” – Oscar Wilde

So, to quickly summarize, The Graveyard Indicator measures how many companies copied you and then failed, ultimately creating a tombstone that you can count and measure overtime. As the graveyard grows, you and your company are building separation between any future copycats:

🪦 – One tombstone, signifying a single failed company that tried to copy you, shows that you may have a solid plan. Well done, sir or madame.

🪦🪦 – Two tombstones demonstrate that you’re popular enough to inspire others to build something similar. How cool is that?

🪦🪦🪦 – Three tombstones are when you know your plan, your moat, the fortress you’ve built, is strong enough to withstand any additional competition. Now you simply must welcome it. Embrace it.

🪦🪦🪦🪦 – Four tombstones or more are enough to create a marketing event, large enough to discourage anyone from ever trying to copy you again. At four or more tombstones, the failures are now in the public lexicon, and people would be a fool to try. This reverse marketing is does not get enough credit.

No matter where we look, big companies or small, tech or biotech, The Graveyard Indicator is an applicable indicator. Apple has fended off countless copycats! Their graveyard is so massive no one dares to compete, except other large corporations that literally have no other choice. When was the last time you heard of an iPhone startup competitor? Exactly. So many have come and failed, millions and billions invested and now gone, it’s a brand event to not even try.

Netflix has fended off countless live streaming startups. Similar to Apple, only mega tech companies like Google or Disney try to compete. The Netflix graveyard of competitors is fairly massive. Remember Quibi? No startup will ever try to compete again with Netflix.

Amazon has defended against delivery companies, online shopping companies, and AWS copycats for 20+ years now. Their graveyard is so enormous few companies even bother to try – actually the opposite – they claim it’s a monopoly!

With all this being said, I need to make it clear why I wrote this post to begin with: copycats are, truly, a good thing. And, this message should be shared more frequently within companies, especially with leadership.

Bonus reading

The post is over, but if you want to hear more of my thoughts about copycats, and how I think people in business should approach them, keep on reading, because while copycats can be harnessed to inspire your business, they’re also an exercise in humility because, ultimately, we are all copycats. You may have developed an amazing new technology or product, a service or brand that feels entirely new and unique, but at the end of the day, as Isaac Newton once said despite being the founder of gravity:

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Isaac Newton

What he meant by this, and is true for all us, is that everything we’ve ever done is in some way inspired by the things that were built, created, and discovered before us. We must be thankful for the legends that gave us the opportunity to begin with. A copycat has every right to pursue a similar company or goal as you did when you started your company.

If you start to think of it with this mindset, you start to see the game at hand. The challenges, and insights that can be discovered.

Copycats may also be a sign that you need to end a project early before it fails. What I mean is, if a copycat does up-seat you, well, you should be thankful. You’ve saved yourself tons of time, there is no competitive advantage or edge, so go build something different.

Good luck! Competition is a beautiful thing.

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