When you look at early Uber or Lyft, they were notorious for copying each other on offers, features and more. A recent look at Instagram reveals how they’ve added new features to their product over the last few years to fend off competitors such as Snapchat (Stories) and TikTok (Reels).

There’s a lesson here: If you’re not imitating what growth marketing industry leaders are already doing in your vertical as a startup, you’re going to be adding months and possibly years of unnecessary testing to your timeline. To be clear, I’m not stating that you should be copying your competitors’ website designs and print copy word for word. There’s a clear line between copying everything a competitor does exactly and using frameworks outside while adding your own flavor — make sure you do the latter.

But if even the major players are using imitation tactics strategically, it’s even more important to imitate as a startup. Instagram is a multibillion-dollar company today and they’re still reaping the benefits from imitation! However, it’s even more critical for startups to imitate than established players because the pockets just aren’t as deep.

While trying to gain traction in the early years, most of your time and attention should be focused on imitating successful marketing tactics.

I’ll be utilizing the Triple I Model to help you understand the startup curve for imitating, and add a few examples from my days working on the growth team at Postmates.

Triple I Model

The Triple I Model consists of three pillars: imitate, iterate, and innovate. As a startup, you’ll have opportunities to do all of these, but how you emphasize each will be crucial in the early stages.

While trying to gain traction in the early years, most of your time and attention should be focused on imitating successful marketing tactics. This means drawing inspiration from competitors on their ads, emails, website, and other consumer touchpoints.

The type of messaging testing should vary over time

The type of messaging testing should vary over time. Image: Jonathan Martinez

Iterating can happen in tandem as you achieve wins from successful imitations, and it should be a constant process to improve metrics. If you do feel you have a groundbreaking idea you’d like to test, go ahead. I’m not saying you shouldn’t innovate. I have done this when consulting for small seed-startups.

What I am saying is that instead of expending so many resources on the uncertainty of innovation, early on there’s so much more for your startup to gain from imitation. There’s no need to constantly reinvent the wheel. Conserve your resources to innovate for high-probability tests that you’re excited to try at various stages of your startup’s life.

However, it must be said that these ‘home run swings’ should be reserved for those times when there are ample resources to allow for experimentation.

Imitating on paid acquisition

At Postmates, most of my time was spent scaling our acquisition efforts. We upped our spending from $50,000/month to $5 million/month. After raising $300 million in Series E, we had plenty of monetary resources to scale as we unlocked new paid channels. However, we still lacked adequate resources on the design side. Our team had to get crafty with repurposing or imitating designs that DoorDash and other competitors were launching. I personally kept an eye on the competitors and their ad libraries on a weekly basis to make sure we stayed on top of any trends.


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