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Imitation Is the Greatest Form of Flattery

April 20th, 2009 by shawn · 7 Comments

“Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.”

- Charles Caleb Colton

You may have heard this quote before, and I’ve seen it mis-quoted as

imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

The idea is that by imitating a company, you are paying them a compliment. It could also mean you are trying to show them a better way to do something – and often, the imitator really does know more or do it better.

But how does all this relate to business? Here’s another quote that might be more apropos:

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
- Pablo Picasso

If you want to make money at something, you can either be a great innovator or a great thief – but most likely you’ll be a little of both. If you look at all the great business leaders of the day, you’ll see that they took an existing idea and improved upon it’s original purpose or implementation.

Want an example? Apple is a prime example (Steve Jobs, specifically). There are many “improved” products from this company, but the most obvious is the iPod. MP3 players were around for quite some time before Apple decided to take all the best ideas, simplify them, and package all the existing ideas into a sleeker (sexier!) package. It became a best-seller.

There’s really nothing new under the sun (to quote Solomon). What sells is when you do the same thing as everyone else…better. Or make it seem new. It happens in everything from music (remember when Nirvana became popular? what about musical forms like the fairly new Dubstep?) to coffee (Starbucks) to clothing (styles often come back when a designer “refreshes” a look).

So what can you do? Stop trying to think of totally new concepts, and – instead – think of something that already exists and see if you can do anything to either…

  • make it look fresher
  • make it sound fresher
  • make it seem exotic
  • make it more exclusive
  • make it do more

It can simply become a matter of combining the functions of two or more products. Or, it could be a matter of simplifying a product to do only one thing – but do it well. (37signals is the master of doing this.)

So, next time you think “I should make one of those. I can do it better…” remember: Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

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    Comment by AutoSpector
    2009-04-20 22:37:41

    You are absolutely right in your point of not necessarily going out and blazing a new trail in business ideas, but in “making the better mouse trap”

    Nice post!

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    Comment by Ken Nickless
    2009-04-21 01:33:54

    Very true! Sometimes reinventing the wheel is a laborious process which doesn’t get he desired results.

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    Comment by Angel Taylor
    2009-05-01 05:00:09

    Imitation is definitely the greatest form of flattery. You just have to remember not to overstep into actual stealing :)

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    Comment by Corinth James
    2009-05-08 16:13:18

    I’ve been told that when I want to learn something, find a person who is doing what you want to learn, them ask them to teach you. Good slant on the same idea.

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    Comment by Franck Silvestre
    2009-05-09 08:35:07

    I absolutely agree with what you’ve written. Honestly a lot of things you read on blogs can be found elsewhere too. The key is to use the same idea, and present it differently into something new, refreshing or enticing.

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    Comment by Tony Rawlings
    2009-05-18 20:20:54

    Plagarism is not flattery, it’s stealing, but a lot of peeps. will rip off your content, what can you do. We think Google penalises this, but they don’t, they just ignore it saying “I seen this before” and move on.

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    2011-09-02 09:51:17

    In a sense, yes. It means that you are worth copying, you have impressed them enough to mold themselves the way you did yourself. But there is a fine line between taking an idea and improving it and plain stealing an idea.

    Almost nothing is original anymore, the things that you think is original is only an improved version of something or someone before. Then they just enhanced it with technology and knowledge from today’s era to make it look almost original.

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