In the mid-1950's a young blind boy by the name of Joe Engressia Jr. discovered that he could bypass the telephone protocol for long distance phone calls by copying the tones made by each key on the telephone keypad. In college, he sold his services to classmates for $1.00 per call. Soon, the college found out about Joe's "phone phreaking" talent and banned him from school, but not before he became a media sensation. The desire to cash in on Joe's talents led John Draper to work with Joe in creating a device, referred to as the "blue box". This device recorded Joe's frequency for each key on the keypad and played the tones back into the phone receiver, bypassing the telephone company's protocols for billing. Each blue box sold for $175.

In the late 1970's the phone companies switched to a digital protocol, making the existing analog blue box obsolete. Until two guys by the name of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak purchased a blue box and transformed the concept into a digital model. The digital version of the original blue box was, as Steve Jobs has said, the precursor to and inspiration for the first Apple computer. In the 1990's telephone companies changed their protocols once again to be able to distinguish between voice and digital tones, leaving the blue box in the dust.

Stories similar to this one exist everywhere because there are copycats, everywhere. Think Blockbuster and Netflix, Yahoo and Google, Myspace and Facebook. There are three types of copycats:

1. Low Cost Copycat. This copycat is the one that takes your idea and makes a cheaper and lower quality version. Low cost copycat companies fill the demand and need for the low-end market niche.

2. Same Same Copycat. This copycat incorporates your idea and strategic model, hoping to gain a piece of your existing market. Same same copycat companies have the ability to enhance markets by challenging your existing methods and forcing you to improve and expand.

3. Make Better Copycat. This copycat takes your idea and makes it better. They innovate a concept into the next best thing. Make better copycat companies are market creators.

Being a copycat has a negative perception attached to it because it is often associated with plagiarism and lifting, which is illegal and unethical and not the subject of this post. We are talking about the existing and creative opportunities present in the marketplace to serve alternative market levels or in the creation of new markets. Many of you are keeping tabs on your competition, always trying to offer the same or better options to your customers. These habits are what keep your company growing and innovating. Without competition, your company would stand still in time. So, go ahead copycat, inspire your competition so they can, in return, inspire you. Be the next best thing again and again.


April Salsbury, MBA is a strategist, an analyst, an operational guru, a recognized leader and C-suite global healthcare executive with drive and focus for competitive markets. Co-host of The Business Forum Show and regular contributor to various business journals, she possess multi-functional and multi-national competencies with more than 15 years experience in business and healthcare. Her expertise is in invigorating revenue growth and infusing value of lean practices in growing companies through improvements to cash flow and operations management.

Fueling revenue, growth and profit, Salsbury & Co. is a consultancy firm focused on helping businesses and healthcare organizations achieve excellency. Our specialists have executive experience combined with deep functional expertise to provide our clients with services that drive real impact and results.

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