Where to Innovate, Where to Imitate

Rapid growth requires making decisions and executing quickly. One of the fastest ways to make and follow through on important choices is to figure out the areas of your business where you can imitate industry best practices, and where you’ll need to innovate. Time saved not reinventing the wheel can be applied to areas where you need to do something the world hasn’t seen before.

Here are some areas where you should aim to innovate, areas where you should aim to imitate, and the domains that fall in between.

Where to Innovate

Your product lies at the heart of why customers will give their money to you and not someone else, so it’s important to have an innovative product vision (even if this vision boils down to something as simple as, “we’re going to be just like X but deliver on Y important dimension significantly better”). If you want to earn outsized rewards with a differentiated product, your product vision and roadmap should be innovative and different from others.

(The mechanics of product management such as discovery, prioritization, or project execution can be lifted from other organizations, however. It’s your roadmap of what to build for your customers that should be unique)

Your Product Marketing should typically not pull heavily from other companies. If your product is special, you should plan to tell a special story around it. Copying others in how you communicate your unique value add can backfire if you aren’t sufficiently differentiated.

Some of the more creative areas of marketing are also areas of opportunity for innovation, because so many companies will be running the same playbooks in the same domain. Content marketing, brand marketing, and even viral social media marketing are all areas where being different can pay off.

Where to (Usually) Imitate

Many functions are largely the same across technology companies, and sometimes even all companies in general. Legal, People Operations / HR, Customer Support, and IT are examples of departments where the path to success is typically not company-specific, and in some cases not even industry-specific. (Note that there are always exceptions)

Sales strategy and operations is another area where you should lift wholesale from other companies and their best practices. You should have a unique approach for how you sell your product (see product marketing above), but you shouldn’t aim to reinvent the wheel on how you segment your market or carve up territories. A similar principle applies to many areas of demand generation and performance marketing – these are essentially quantitative fields where you can plug & play an industry-wide template.

Finance deserves its own special mention as a place where you should only try to innovate with great caution, particularly when it comes to accounting. If you innovate in a space like People Operations, you end up with a reputation for a quirky culture. If you innovate in your accounting practices you can end up in prison.

Dealer’s Choice

There are a few areas where you can choose to innovate or not. You need to pick your battles in these either/or categories, since most teams only have the bandwidth to be special on a few dimensions at once.

Pricing and business distribution models (eg Uber and Lyft’s strategy of creating 2-sided markets to deliver value) are areas where you may need to innovate, but should otherwise imitate. Inventing a new business model can be a powerful differentiator if you make it work, but doing so without a good reason is a great way to distract yourself and waste time. For example, there’s a reason that almost all SaaS companies are priced as recurring plans based upon seats or consumption.

Engineering and Design are areas where many companies choose to innovate. The question to ask – are you a product like Slack or Lemonade that’s trying to innovate with better UX? Are you a company like Snowflake or Google that’s going to out-engineer your competition? If so, you should strike out on your own. But if you aren’t, it’s probably better for you to apply best practices so that you can build a solid product and differentiate in other areas of your business. In practice many companies need to be innovative in some but not all dimensions of their technology; for example, Snowflake is highly differentiated in their database engineering approach but they have a fairly standard web dashboard.

This is a particularly important conversation to manage with engineers and designers, as they’re among the most artistically minded teams and typically eager to try novel approaches. These teams need to understand and get onboard with the fact that while your product will be unique and special in some ways, in others it’s usually most efficient to pull from industry best practices to save energy for when you absolutely must invent something entirely new.

Closing Thoughts

This framework applies to smaller strategic decisions as well. If you read 3 blog posts on your situation and they all say something different, you’re probably on your own. If you can’t even find 3 blog posts, you’re definitely on your own. Innovate away.

I also like this heuristic for deciding where to hire external experts versus promoting internally. For example, it’s little surprise that virtually all companies hire an external CFO on their road to an IPO, and that the high-level product direction and market positioning of even very large companies is often determined by a CEO, CTO, or CPO (and is often homegrown talent). It’s more effective to find a hired gun for your finances than for your product vision.

If you aren’t trying to innovate in any area of your business, that’s a major red flag. Make sure that you understand where you feel that your take on the world is different from others.

And finally, in my opinion your default path with any decision or function should be imitation over innovation. Many people in the startup world view themselves as inventors. This isn’t wrong, but if you’re in a position of leadership at a startup you’re probably only inventing a few things at once – a new product here, a new piece of technology there, or a unique vision that you can sell with an otherwise normal sales team. Trying to do everything differently is a recipe for failure, because the reality is that most functions ultimately boil down to people, and people are fundamentally similar everywhere.


Innovate when it comes to:

  • Product vision & roadmap
  • Product marketing
  • Brand and content marketing (if you can)

Learn (or copy) from the best when it comes to:

  • Finance
  • People Operations
  • Legal
  • Customer Support
  • IT
  • Sales and Marketing operations

Your call on:

  • Business model
  • Pricing
  • Engineering
  • Design