Attack of the clones
American web firms are battling foreign hordes that look remarkably similar
Aug 6th 2011 | BERLIN AND SAN FRANCISCO | from the print edition
ON AUGUST 1st Airbnb, an online marketplace that helps people rent rooms, admitted that it had mishandled a complaint from someone whose apartment was ransacked by one of its renters. Brian Chesky, the firm’s boss, begged forgiveness and announced that from August 15th Airbnb would cover up to $50,000-worth of damage caused by its customers, subject to certain (as yet unannounced) conditions. Soon afterwards 9flats, a rival based in Berlin, said it, too, would offer insurance.
An Airbnb executive gripe s that such behaviour is typical of 9flats, which he says copies much of what Airbnb does. (9flats admits to being “inspired” by American e-commerce, but insists that its website and pricing model differ from Airbnb’s.) Other American web superstars, such as Groupon, a discount firm, and Kickstarter, which crowdsources funding for arts and technology projects, have also been attacked by “clones” (services set up in foreign markets that are almost identical to the American originals). As the cost of computing power plummet s and the prices of hot start-ups soar—Airbnb was recently valued at an eye-watering $1.3 billion—the clone wars will get bloody.
One battleground will be China. There, opaque rules have kept many American firms at bay , leaving the field open for Chinese ones to develop similar services. Diandian, for example, resembles Tumblr, an American blogging platform. Zhihu, a question-and-answer service, looks a bit like Quora, an American firm.
Another battleground will be Germany, where three brothers, Alexander, Oliver and Marc Samwer, have become the copycat kings of Europe. The brothers have a knack for spotting good business models in Silicon Valley, and then quickly starting something similar in Europe. They later sell these “clones”, sometimes to the firms on which they were modelled.
The Samwers scored their first success in 1999 with Alando, an online auction house which they sold to eBay. They have notched up several other big deals since then (see table). In 2007, beside their investment vehicle, European Founders Fund, they set up Rocket Internet, an incubator that uses its own pool of experts—now around 90 people—to help launch several start-ups a year. Kinnevik, a Swedish investor, has a stake and also invests in its portfolio .
Airbnb is now firmly in the Samwers’ sights. In June, the American firm bought Accoleo, a start-up in Hamburg, as a way into the European market. It faces stiff competition not just from 9flats but also from Wimdu, a clone backed by the Samwer brothers and staffed with experienced hands. Arne Bleckwenn, the boss of Wimdu, is on his third start-up for the Samwers. Gamegoods, his first, was a rare flop. The second, GratisPay, a virtual-currency platform for internet games, was sold last year to SponsorPay, a German rival.
Wimdu is no shoestring operation: in June it raised $90m from its core investors. In July the Samwers raised more money for Zalando, an online shoe-shop that resembles Amazon’s Zappos. Both Wimdu and Zalando may ultimately be snapped up by other firms, though the Samwers could choose to hang on to them or to take some equity in the buyer—a strategy Rocket Internet adopted when it sold CityDeal, an online-discount firm, to Groupon last year. Rocket Internet has been helping to develop Groupon’s international business, along with two of the Samwer brothers. It stands to make more money from Groupon’s planned stockmarket listing .
Wimdu可不是小本经营，仅在6月它就从核心投资者那儿获得了9千万的投资。在7月Samwer兄弟又为Zalando带来了更多的投资，这是一家在网上卖鞋的网站，和Amazon的Zappos类似。不管Wimdu还是Zalando，最终都可能会被别的公司收购，虽然Samwer兄弟可以选择是自己经营还是从购买者那保持一定的股份——在去年将CityDeal（一家在线团购网站）卖给Groupon时，Rocket Internet就采取了后一种策略。Rocket Internet和Samwer兄弟中的其中两位决定帮助提升Groupon的国际业务，这样他们就可以从Groupon的上市计划中获利更多。
Florian Heinemann, the boss of Rocket Internet, is unrepentant about cloning. Internet ideas are rarely patented and rightly so, he says: patents create a temporary monopoly which tends to stifle competition. Mr Bleckwenn at Wimdu also defends copying good ideas: “BMW didn’t invent the car,” he observes. German mechanical engineers are brilliant at improving existing inventions. From their perspective, the Samwer brothers are simply applying that same genius to the internet.
Florian Heinemann，Rocket Internet则对克隆企业的做法不以为意。互联网的创意大都没有申请专利，并且他认为专利会造成一时的垄断，扼杀竞争。Wimdu的Bleckwenn也认为模仿好点子的做法合理。“宝马公司也不是汽车的发明者”，他说道。德国的机械工程师们很擅长对已有的发明进行改进。对Samwer兄弟而言，他们也仅是将自己的这一天赋用于了互联网而已。
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but some of the imitatees can’t take a compliment . They hate having to buy back their own ideas at a hefty premium. And they gripe about the clone troopers’ aggressive tactics. Airbnb claims that clones have sent people to rent its properties so they can give owners a sales pitch . Such tricks make Silicon Valley types choke on their freshly squeezed mango juice. But they are perfectly legal.
Fred Destin, a venture capitalist at Atlas Venture who has worked in both Europe and America, sees a double standard. “When something works in America”, he says, “eight companies immediately go after the same opportunity and venture capitalists fund them. But nobody calls them clones.” The fact that Groupon has been willing to work with the Samwers on building its business is another sign that some of the outrage is overdone.
来自Atlas Venture的Fred Destin，作为一位在欧洲和美国都工作过的风险投资家，他发现了其中的双重标准。“当一些企业在美国兴起时”，他说道“8家相同的企业会立马获得相同的机会，得到风投们的支持。但是却没有人说他们是抄袭。”事实上， Groupon愿意同Samwer兄弟合作发展业务的意愿就给了我们一个信号，来自克隆企业的冲击太过分了。
Still, start-ups do need to think about the threat. Suing clones is hard, says David Goldstone, an intellectual-property specialist at Goodwin Procter, an American law firm. Registering patents in many countries is both costly and time-consuming, and they may prove hard to enforce. A better bet is to out-innovate the opposition. Firms that can harness powerful network effects, in which users encourage friends and family members to join them on a particular service, may be best placed to fight off the clones. Others will just have to draw their light sabres and hope that the Force is with them.