It should be obvious that companies need to develop their own strategy and products and not copy what others are already doing. Otherwise, you are left competing on price which is a no win proposition. But more and more, we are seeing copycats out their that don't even try to differentiate their product through innovation but instead continue to be just like the leader in their field.
Case in point, are the slew of iPad competitors that have, or say they are going to, hit the market this year. Apple revolutionized a product category, which is something they do extremely well, when they introduced the iPad last year. Not only did this send consumers rushing to buy this latest gadget but it also sent Apple's cometitors rushing to create a competing product.
In late 2010 and earlier this year, HP, RIM, Samsung, Motorola and many others introduced iPad competitors that in many cases had better specs but last week Apple introduced the iPad 2 that now make these competing tablets seem old or in need of a refresh. And to drive the knife in harder, Apple will start shipping it's second generation iPad later this week while most of the first generation iPad competitors have not shipped yet. How will they ever win if they try to be like Apple?
Another example, is Groupon, a company that is all the rage in the daily deal space, which now sees copycat sites on a weekly or maybe even daily basis. In the past few months, Google, Microsoft and the New York Times among others have launched competitive products that are virtually the same. In this space, it's scale, relationships and the ability to offer the best deals that will win so while Groupon is firmly entrenched in many markets the competitors face an uphill battle.
You can make an argument that larger companies may need to build "me too" products in order to protect their existing markets or round out their portfolio so they can be a one stop shop. But a start-up building "me too" products is as good as dead. Start-ups need to innovate quickly, solve customer problems significantly better and create new markets or product categories. None of these aspects call for a "me too" product.
I wrote a post a while back about how having no competitors means there is no market but I want to be clear that this post does not contradict that one. You need competition and then you need to create a compelling message that differentiates you from them and communicates how you are better. If you can't do that and decide to copy them instead, then, as a start-up, you have big problems.
Om Malik (@om), the founder of GigaOm, wrote a post called You — Not Your Competitors — Define Your Destiny in which he states "If one sets the rules, then there is a distinct advantage when it comes to winning." He's absolutely right.
To win, start-ups need to focus on how their products and services better help their customers solve problems not on the competition. You look at your competition so you can better differentiate your product or service not to be like them. Trying to be like your competition means you've already lost.