Why startups shouldn't be afraid of Facebook cloning them

It takes a lot more than a clone to take out a scrappy startup with dedication to its vision.

It'll take more than a Poke to knock out Snapchat. Screenshot by Ben Parr/CNET

How long does it take a multibillion-dollar technology juggernaut to clone a popular social networking app? The answer: less than two weeks.

I am, of course, talking about Poke, Facebook's clone of Snapchat , the app whose messages self-destruct after 1 to 10 seconds. As many people like to point out, it's perfect for sexting , but there are a lot of other fun and innovative uses for this clever type of messaging.

For all intents and purposes, Poke is almost identical to Snapchat. Snapchat is focused on photos and videos, while Poke adds self-destructing messages and the classic Facebook poke feature to its arsenal. Poke relies entirely on your Facebook friend network, while Snapchat can dig into your contacts and let you share (sexy) photos with strangers.

One key difference: Snapchat already has a loyal user base that sends more than 50 million photos across its network every day, with many of its users teenagers. But Poke is quickly catching up. Within a day of its release, the app rocketed up the iOS charts to become the No. 1 free app in the App Store (it's now at No. 3). Snapchat currently occupies the No. 7 spot.

It's an impressive feat to hit No. 1 in the App Store, even for the world's largest social network. Facebook, unlike other giants, has the ability to quickly approve, build, and release products. The fact that it took just 12 days for this app to become a reality is simply mind-boggling.

Big players entering your market doesn't equal Armageddon
Should entrepreneurs just give up on their app ideas, simply because Facebook could eventually clone them and crush them with a billion users? Of course not, and anybody who thinks that Facebook (or any other big company) cloning a startup's product spells Armageddon for that startup doesn't know what they're talking about.

Remember when Facebook tried to make a Foursquare competitor ? How about the time it tried to make a Groupon competitor, and it went nowhere? The same is true of its Quora competitor (Facebook Questions) and even its Craigslist competitor (Facebook Marketplace).

I could go on and on, but the point is clear: a big company launching a clone can be scary, but it doesn't mean Armageddon. There are two other factors to consider: defensibility and vision.

Remember Facebook Questions? It sure didn't stop Quora. Facebook

Defensibility
As I have previously explained in depth , a product's defensibility comes from either its technology or its traction. Technology startups' products aren't easy to clone because they have proprietary technology that even the big companies don't have. Just imagine AltaVista trying to clone Google -- it wouldn't have succeeded.

The other type of startup is the traction startup, whose product is defensible because it has a growing network of engaged users. Why use a new social network or app, even one from a large company, if your friends aren't using it?

Instagram is a prime example. There were dozens of photo-sharing apps, but only one with large-scale traction. Facebook knew that Instagram's was so strong that it posed a threat to Facebook itself, so it did the only sensible thing it could: it bought the company.

Snapchat's current users aren't going to immediately abandon the app for Facebook's Poke. They've built up friends, messages, and a history on Snapchat, and they will continue to invite their friends to join. Poke's launch could affect user growth as potential users may choose it over Snapchat, but Poke also brings a lot more attention to the market and may end up boosting Snapchat's growth. How both apps perform in the App Store over the next few weeks will give us a better idea of Facebook's impact on Snapchat.

Defensibility matters, though it's always better if you have proprietary technology that even Facebook can't clone.

Vision
The other thing that people seem to be forgetting in the Poke vs. Snapchat debate is the long-term vision and commitment each team has to its respective products.

Snapchat's founders have been at this since May 2011. They've had time to think about the road map for their product, and they don't have dozens of other products and projects to distract them. Snapchat's founders reportedly turned down an acquisition offer from Facebook. They wouldn't do that if they didn't have a long-term plan they were confident in.

Poke, on the other hand, is essentially a two-week hackathon project led by Zuckerberg and product guru Blake Ross. I doubt they've had time to develop a long-term road map for the product. It's not even clear whether they're going to keep working on the app or simply let it languish in the App Store. Will Zuckerberg divert engineers and resources to developing Poke for the long haul? I doubt he's even thought about it.

I don't know what Snapchat's long-term vision is, but I bet it involves more than photo messages that disappear after 5 seconds. You can bet Snapchat will come fighting back with new features soon, though. Will Facebook care enough to respond? Perhaps. Will Facebook continue development on Poke for the next two or three years in order to keep up with Snapchat? I personally doubt it.

Final thoughts
My point is this: it takes a lot more than a clone to take out a scrappy startup. It also takes a long-term commitment by a juggernaut. For Facebook to take out Snapchat, it will have to constantly add features to Poke and find ways to either contain Snapchat's growth or chip away at its core user base. This is easier said than done, even for a company like Facebook.

Don't be afraid of the juggernaut entering your market, entrepreneurs. If you have a long-term vision, focus on defensibility and build faster than the competition, you'll eventually become the juggernaut.

 

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