📋 Great PMs steal
Plus a simple process to copy successfully
Being great at copying helps you build a better product.
It helps you:
Focus on what matters
Make your product easy to use
The most successful copycats:
Learn from many industries
Understand the underlying principles
Experiment with the solution in their own context
Why great PMs copy
Most product teams pride themselves on innovating (building from scratch, based on user insights) while regarding learning from others as a second-class citizen.
But there can be a lot of value in copying. Even Van Gogh copied other painters, allowing him to focus on color and stroke rather than composition.
Similarly, if we can re-use a proven ‘composition’, we can focus our energy on the aspects that make our product unique; our color and stroke 👩🎨
Blindly copying others doesn’t get you ahead of the game. To unleash our inner van Gogh, we need to answer a few questions:
What benefits does copying bring?
When should we copy or innovate?
From whom should we copy?
How can we master the copying game?
The benefits of copying
The PMs in our club shared four reasons to copy others:
Time-pressure - We need results fast
Prioritization - We only want to spend resources on the most important problems
User expectations - Users expect things to work in a certain way
Competitive pressure - We need to have a better value prop than alternatives. Especially in B2B products that might require a complete feature set.
From these reasons we can derive the main benefits of copying:
It takes longer to go through a full ideation process yourself. If you have an example, fewer decisions need to be made and you can move faster. This helps teams that are under time pressure (a.k.a. all of us 😅)
Focus - Your team should spend their time and energy on the highest leverage problems. By copying what already works for flows that aren’t differentiating your team can do just that. If van Gogh had to study the anatomy and movement of his subject himself, he wouldn’t have had the time to focus on his unique colors and brush strokes.
Familiarity - If something feels familiar, it feels better and is easier to use. Users have a hard time dealing with completely new ways of doing things. This is why Apple decided to make their first icons look like things from the physical world.
Competitive position - Sometimes it's a winning strategy to offer a similar feature set at a lower price point. But at the same time, adding too much functionality can bloat your product and decrease its value.
When to do what?
As with most things in product management, it’s all about the context.
When to copy 📋
In some situations, it’s relatively safe to copy.
Proven success - The solution is clearly a success in other products.
Not a differentiator - It’s not part of what makes your product unique (think onboarding flows)
Reversible decision - If it’s an addition (reversible), rather than a full change of your product
When to innovate 🚀
Sometimes you need to do all the hard work yourself. The risk is simply too high to rely on what others have done.
Success unclear - When you are not sure the solution is actually working in the other product
Change to product’s foundation - If the change is very fundamental to your product, it’s good to be more deliberate about it.
New behaviors - When you try to do something truly new, there might be no one to directly copy from.
Who to copy?
It’s enticing to copy competitors, but then you will always be trailing behind. In my opinion, it’s more powerful to learn from less related fields.
Dyson’s vacuum cleaner was based on the vortex used in industrial sawmills 🌪.
Our club members agree with Dyson, most don't consider their close competitors as their main source of inspiration. So what type of problems are you trying to solve? Are they already being solved elsewhere?
At VEED.IO, I look at how other browser-based tools such as Google Docs & Github make collaboration easier.
Mastering the game
Study success in other industries-
Find the most successful products that already do what you want to do, but in a different context. Study why it works. What’s the context of the user? What technologies or flows do they use?
Understand the underlying principles - Try to reverse-engineer the thinking behind what your competitor is doing. It will give you a deeper understanding, which allows you to further improve the feature and make it your own.
Test for your context - Once you have ‘stolen’ the most promising approach, try to put it to the test as quickly as possible. There’s no guarantee it’s successful for your context as well. Take an experimentation mindset.
Copy, then steal
Don’t try to invent every single thing yourself, but use the building blocks you see around you.
Great PMs understand at a deeper level what makes something good and then build on the shoulders of that and build something even better. Just like van Gogh.
My process 📋
This is my simple process for stealing the best solutions:
Problem - Decide what problem you want to solve & check how unique it is to your product
Raw material - Create a Figma file with screenshots of the ~10 best solutions you can find
Patterns - Find the underlying patterns. What works the same for each product? Why?
Highlights - Find what makes some details stand out. What craftsmanship or clever solution were applied?
Create - Now forget the input and start creating. Your subconscious will still have the info available, you just need to add your own magic ✨
Feel free to copy 😉
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Useful tools & further reading
If this article sparked your curiosity
Library - The App Fuel is a huge library of screenshots of popular apps, with powerful filters.
Article - Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great story on The Creation Myth
Book - The hero with a thousand faces explains the universal motif of adventure running through all of the world's mythic traditions
Good stuff! BTW, do you know the story that both Millet & vanGogh were visualizing? :)