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Is originality in tech overrated?

The brilliant idea is prized above all else in Silicon Valley but the success of Berlin-based Rocket Internet highlights something else – it’s execution that matters most.

Rocket Internet’s accelerator programme has often been dismissed as a clone factory and last week sold a 10% stake to PLDT the largest telecoms provider in the Philippines, taking its valuation to $3.3 billion. That news was followed earlier this week with a further $60 million injection into its food delivery startup Food Panda.

Speaking to Wired in 2012, Oliver Samwer, the most talkative of the taciturn trio of brothers who steer Rocket Internet, said:

“We are builders of companies, we are not innovators. Someone else is the architect, we are the builders.”

It’s that mentality that has drawn vicious criticism from some quarters – investor Jason Calacanis called the Samwer brothers “despicable thieves” – but there is something to be admired in their ruthless focus on building businesses that work. The idea is only a starting point.

Keeping it simple

Rocket focuses on creating companies in three areas – e-commerce, online marketplaces and money services – because, as Samwer told the FT, they serve “universal basic needs leading to universal basic industries”. In a world of app developers building something then hoping to find an audience, that kind of clear-eyed approach feels almost refreshing.

Where some in the startup world romanticise the process of building a company, the Samwers bring a teutonic bluntness to the process. In the same FT interview, Oliver shares a truism that every entrepreneur should realise:

“A customer who buys shoes, who buys a phone, who goes on a taxi service, who orders a pizza – it’s the same process of customer acquisition, comparing the cost of marketing versus lifetime value.”

Execution is key

The Samwers’ first big success is an incredible example of how execution can be more important than the initial idea. Inspired by eBay, they launched Alando, a German-language auction website, in 1999. Within 100 days of launch, they had sold the site for eBay for £35 million. There were at least 20 other auction sites in the German market at the time but the Samwers focus on customer acquisition outstripped their rivals.

Clone Factory or Business Savvy?

I’m not arguing that Europe needs to breed a wave of clone factories copying the Samwers’ approach.

However, getting hung up on originality alone is a bad place to start. The Samwers show that understanding markets, building products that serve them and executing effectively is the route to success. Even with an original idea, you’re only at the beginning of the journey.

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