Marco Arment, the creator of the popular read-it-later tool Instapaper, has an excellent blog post discussing copying, innovation, and the best ways to react to competition. Arment discusses a new Instapaper competitor called Readability, which launched last week and received a lot of praise for including custom fonts, something Instapaper lacks:
I could have interpreted this defensively and complacently: “Georgia and Verdana are great, versatile, highly screen-readable fonts! I don’t need to do what competitors do! Newer isn’t always better! My crusty old fonts have some technical advantage that you don’t care about!” And so on.
That would have just made me look stubborn and out of touch, failing to understand (in fact, trying very hard not to understand) why newer fonts could be attractive to customers, and failing to admit that I should have done it first.
Instead, I’m taking this misstep as a wake-up call: I missed an important opportunity that’s necessary for the long-term competitiveness of my product. So I’ve spent most of the last week testing tons of reading fonts, getting feedback from designers I respect, narrowing it down to a handful of great choices, and negotiating with their foundries for inclusion into the next version of Instapaper. And the results in testing so far are awesome. I wish someone had kicked my complacent ass about fonts sooner.
Reacting well to competition requires critical analysis of your own product and its shortcomings, and a complete, open-minded understanding of why people might choose your competitors.
This is someone who understands how innovation and iteration really work. Interestingly, when Readability was announced last year, it had a different focus and was actually going to work in conjunction with Instapaper, but then it morphed into a direct competitor. At the time, other developers tried to shame them for that, but Arment himself was unsurprised and untroubled, saying “this is a very big and increasingly crowded market, and there’s no reason why we can’t respectfully share it.”
He never tried to claim that copying was wrong or even unneighborly—not then, and not today. Arment clearly respects his competitors, recognizing what they bring to the table and using it as motivation to improve his own product. That’s the mark of a true innovator.