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Frank Xerox and the Copy Cats

August 23, 2011

I was just sorting out my final batch of old LPs and Singles last tonight, as I build up my digital collection to replace the back catalogue of the old black vinyl. Oh the nostalgia! Teenage Kicks! Alternative Ulster! White Man in Hammersmith Palais! Love you More! Shot By Both Sides! – already got the iTunes versions but keeping the vinyl forever, the tactile experience of the big sleeves, the notes and the lyrics – and then I came across Frank Xerox and The Copy Cats’ best ever tune, Judy in Disguise.  Released in 1978, it was a real annoy-your-mum-and-dad tune with raucous vocals and slamming guitars sound. All over in 2 minutes 32 seconds.

Frank wasn’t the most talented of musicians, but as the band title says, copied the style of others – no, he ripped their ideas off – and tried to stand alongside them in the pantheon of the punk social revolution. Of course, being a leader of revolution often means you get shot down or arrows in your back, and those running behind you in your shadow think they’re smart and avoid the arrows and then without any of their own ingenuity, copy you. What Frank failed to realise is that plagiarism is ok for one tune, but not being brave enough to think about your own ideas and live off your wits is, well, it’s just lazy in my view.

Today, cut price fashion designers are working night and day to create ready-to-wear copies of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. Within seconds of the first glimpse of Sarah Burton’s classic Alexander McQueen gown (hey, I’ve a teenage daughter, I know my stuff), the fashion workshops around the world were hurriedly planning ­lucrative rip-offs. ‘King of the copycats’ in the fashion world is Hollywood tailor Allen B Schwartz.  Designers despise him as ­immediately after their most recent pieces are revealed, Schwartz and his team of go to work, creating ­‘inspired by’ dresses at a knockdown price. Indeed, I’m sure there were vouchers collectable in the News of the World until recently for such fakes. But why bother, create your own!

And so to the mantra I try to enthuse my clients with, it’s all about innovation and creating your own space. An inspired, intuitive piece of thinking to make your business or its offering stand out from the crowd is what we’re about to help counter the pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap hypermarket practices of most markets today.  A cool idea, cool for (copy) cats? Surely not, but they say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, be it similarities to plagiarisation to blatant rip-off, so with such a great idea, watch out for cheaper versions coming out, maybe with immediate price discounting. However, the core of all successful organisations is the ethics, values, ethos and ambitions about being different and making your mark, none of which cannot be copied, whatever it says on a web site. Have you ever copied someone else’s idea? I did cheat once at University in my metaphysics exam, I looked into the soul of the student sitting next to me…. I also tried to copy Paul Simonon’s bass playing in a Clash tribute band at University, The Haddock Brains. Never did catch on – but then I was never as cool or talented as Simonon and we split up over musical similarities before we played our first gig.

In my day-job as mentor and coach to entrepreneurs and growth-wish businesses, I reckon that you get maybe 10% of people who are creative, original and the rest are generally following on, same-as. Nothing wrong in that, there’s room for us all, and I think you can have moderate success by copying something else, but if you really want to land a knock out blow you have to do something different yourself.  I want a story and the original thinking about the future journey of the business and where it’s going, how it will spark new ideas for an unbeatable value proposition and why it’s going to create a crowd of noisy, happy customers. Of course, we need to see the cash going in and out of the pocket, and who are the key players in the first team, but let’s press the accelerator to the floor on fresh thinking, to create a vibrant route map of new opportunity and a bold narrative of future direction and innovation. Let’s go for the high hanging fruit.

Here are some of my thoughts I use to stimulate my client’s thinking:

  • Audacious thinking: From the Earth to the Moon – One Small Step. Drawing on our own research of NASA archives, Kennedy’s vision, and from first hand accounts of those involved, how do you create and then activate a strategy that seeks to put a man on the moon? There’s no route map, it’s bold and audacious, but the crazier the vision, the bigger the potential result. They said it could never be done, but it was.
  • Innovation: The success of Apple and how a customer led innovation strategy can create a brand, market position and sustained demand for new products that customers didn’t know they wanted, and continually stay ahead of the competition. Apple has a band of followers, product advocates and a number of copycats, but stand back and look at how a customer-led strategy can create market leadership positions.
  • Radical rethink: Who says Elephants can’t dance? Lou Gerstner’s first hand and thoughtful reflections on the competitive and cultural transformation of IBM, from a lumbering hardware-based to an agile computer services & software business, is a very readable book, a narrative of ‘if we carry on doing what we do, we’re going to get to where we’re heading’ – and oblivion. Look at HP’s recent decision to get out of hardware. Challenge the norms.
  • Creating new markets: the story of Cirque du Soleil, how to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant – the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ breakthrough thinking of Kim and Mauborgne and the value innovation it creates is one of the most thought provoking books you’ll ever read, your business thinking is turned upside down, inside out.
  • Survival of the fittest: Based on Stephen Berry’s Strategies of the Serengeti – we learn from the strategy experts – the animals of the Serengeti. Some use speed, others stealth, others raw power. The key to strategic success is using the right strategy at the right time, as having the right strategy is a matter of life and death.

As Tom Peters said, Life is pretty simple. You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others notice and quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is being first to be doing something else.

Copying is easy, it’s pirating someone else’s eureka moment.  The essential part of innovation is not being afraid to fail, as success is on the far side of failure. But please, do your own thing as you’ll never hear Straight in at number one, Frank Xerox And The Copy Cats.

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