Facebook, TikTok and the hack for innovation

In Om Malik’s recent post “Unicorns, Red Queen & Startup Reality” he talks about the kerfuffle regarding Facebook copying TikTok,

I was chatting with a friend about the increased frequency with which large technology companies copied their rivals. Microsoft was quick to imitate Slack with Teams. Instagram ripped off Snap Stories and even brazenly acknowledged it in its initial announcement. And today, Facebook-owned IG announced Reels, a competitor to the red hot creator platform, TikTok.

Of course, this is just one of the many times Facebook has copied its competitors. But more important is the broader waste of time spent bemoaning this mimicry when we really should be teaching it.

As Om notes, chefs in restaurants are constantly copying the latest craze, or even seasonal vegetables. I like the analogy to fashion crazes as it captures the fleeting nature of the opportunity and the relatively ephemeral nature of the appropriation. And cooking rarely involves patented techniques or products.

For the record, this is innovation. This is not another of the back-alley games played by amoral uber-geeks wielding their monopolistic power that we should be worried about.

Instagram copied FourSquare, then pivoted to copying hipstamatic, the camera filters app, finding their fortune in connecting those filter features to an easy means of posting to multiple social media platforms. Apple copied many of the Mac’s features from PARC’s Alto, and Microsoft copied those for Windows. Google borrowed the pay per click revenue model from GoTo.com. Don’t even get me started on music or movies (see Everything is a Remix).

If there’s a hack for innovation, it probably looks like “copy, save-as, open, edit.”

There are countless examples of copying in the early moments of what become long-standing products. It is how dominant designs and common standards emerge. Think of the automobile’s many features—four-wheel carriages, pneumatic tires, glass windshields, foot brakes, power-steering, electric starter motors, etc…

More noteworthy is the competitor who doesn’t copy the best parts of its rivals (i.e., the features those customers like best). Maybe that’s why we see so few of them surviving.

See it, Build it… early traction for a local startup

Nice profile in Comstock’s Magazine of local startup and BigBang winner Japa and its founder Mathew Magno. It’s not the first parking app (hence the name, Just Another Parking App), but a good lesson for anyone getting started that the key isn’t revolutionary tech. More important is a vision of the ultimate network and the drive to start building it.

The vision:

“Smart cities are coming, from smart streetlights to citywide wifi to smart trash cans,” Magno says. “We already have smart parking meters where you can pay through an app. With Japa, we can take any third-party data, put it into one app and have the whole bird’s eye view of the transportation industry in a futuristic way.”

So far, Japa has sensors installed at UC Berkeley and in Walnut Creek (and soon at the UC Davis Med Center). https://buff.ly/2FpGjPo

Microsoft, GitHub, and the Irony

Microsoft acquiring GitHub, the largest open-source code repository, brings them full circle to the infamous 1976 open letter by Gates to computer hobbyists who were sharing, not buying, their BASIC software for the Altair. The irony should be savored.


In ’75, Microsoft got its start when Gates and Allen adapted BASIC for the Altair 8800. BASIC was originally written by two Dartmouth professors, who put it in the public domain. As Paul Ceruzzi wrote in A History of Modern Computing:

“with its skillful combination of features taken from Dartmouth and from the Digital Equipment Corporation, [BASIC] was the key to Gates’ and Allen’s success in establishing a personal computer software industry.”In 1981, MS-DOS, Microsoft’s operating system for the IBM PC, was acquired for $75,000 from the tiny Seattle Computer Products (who themselves borrowed it from Digital Research’s CP/M).

That wasn’t the last of Microsoft’s creative pursuits.

Microsoft Word was originally written by Xerox PARC engineers as Bravo (but never marketed); it became a Microsoft product when Microsoft hired one of its original authors, Charles Simonyi, away from PARC.

Excel was derived from Visicalc by Software Arts, and from Lotus.

And the graphical user environment that is Windows first appeared at PARC in the Alto personal computer, and then in the Apple Macintosh, before becoming Microsoft’s flagship product.

The world is powered by building on and recombining what has come before. Too often, where we stand on this fundamental creative process depends on whether we profits from creating or defending our innovations.

A window into entrepreneurship education

Some exceptional folks in entrepreneurship at HBS just announced Harvard was closing their NYC-based Startup Studio. Considering the program’s ambitions matched the leadership of the Entrepreneurship program and the largesse of the school, the outcome offers a great window into the challenges of teaching entrepreneurship.1 Continue reading