Sensible Stealing

In our early twenties a friend of mine and I stumbled across a niche product during our normal jobs. We decided to dive in and try to figure it out to see if we, too, could play this game. We talked to those using the product. We were honest. We told them we didn’t know anything about it, worked in a related industry, and were interested in learning more. The product was a battery pack used to power some electronics situated in a directional drilling instrument. My friend having a business degree and myself having a psychology degree and being a law school drop out had no training or background in the oil and gas industry. We knew nothing. One gentleman was kind enough to provide us with one of their used batteries. We took this and proceeded to take it apart. It was like we had been given both the test and the answers by our teacher and all we needed to do was transfer the answers to the test. We didn’t need to take the four months of classes that preceded the test. We just had to transpose what we had been given.

Slowly, we determined what the ingredients were. We developed a BOM or Bill of Materials of the over 100 items that comprised the completed battery pack. We also began to create our own wiring diagram for the unit. Our efforts at reverse engineering weren’t pretty. However, they worked. From our parts list, we began to source required materials. We then created our own WIP or work instruction procedure to detail our effort at assembling these packs. From an existing sample we were able to determine the ingredients then design our own recipe. To nail the ingredients was itself a process as we stumbled finding the exact specifications required for certain items. Additionally, with the recipe, we needed several kicks at the can in order to improve our product quality and the efficiency of the process. Nonetheless, our efforts at copying proved fruitful. We were able to produce the product and our business developed.

Copying has negative connotations. We conflate copying with cheating. It’s something losers do because they’re too lazy or stupid to figure things out on their own. However, copying is inherent to being human. We are always looking around at others and watching what they’re doing. It’s natural. We watch our siblings, fellow students, colleagues, and other businesses. From our earliest ages, much of our learning follows copying. We learn to talk by copying words we hear from others. We learn to write by copying letters drawn by our teachers. We learn most of our movements by copying the model of someone else. We learn to do a great number of things by mirroring the practices of others. This continues to be the case as we progress in a field. What are those doing that are achieving at things that we too value? At each level, we’re aspiring to be like the leaders. We’re watching what they’re doing and seeking to adopt their program into our practice. Benjamin Franklin coined the word “Copywork.” It was his way of describing (and encouraging) that we look to copy the work of those we want to be more like. Franklin offered it originally in the world of writing. He suggested we read and study the work of a writer we admire and then seek to recreate it. The act of trying to rewrite from memory helps us see what the writer may have been seeing. A similar approach is interviewing those that have come before and achieved performance. In Body of Work, Pamela Slim suggests, “So what is your brand-new business idea or big goal that you have no idea how to accomplish? … Answer the following questions: Who has done this, or something similar to this, and done it well? Of all the people I find who have done this well, which of them share my values, work ethic, and life goals? What were the key moves these people made in order to have success? Who are the deep experts, enthusiasts, and influential people in this area? Where do they hang out, so I can go meet them? … How can I apply this learning to my own business planning? What are my key moves in the next month, next quarter, and next year to get me to my goal as quickly as possible?” Deconstructing the path of those that have been down this road before provides a trail of crumbs which you can then seek to follow to accelerate your progress. It’s the look and learn stages of the Evolution of Excellence.

The fancy word for copying is known as reverse engineering. The ability to build things spreads from one group to another where a group encounters a new item, takes it apart, learns the constituent elements, sources them, and begins building their own version. From this copying, tweaks are made and the next generation of the product makes its way into the world. We learn from dissecting the work of others. Reverse engineering is at the root of much of the transfer of military technology. Recently, a US jet crashed in the ocean near China. Both the US and Chinese were in a race to try to recover the jet. The Americans wanted to keep the jet out of the hands of the Chinese for fear that they could slice and dice it in order to learn its strengths. A news article notes, “The Chinese military will want to reach the fighter jet first in order to harvest ‘all the secrets behind this very expensive, leading-edge fighting force.’ ‘It’s vitally important the US gets this back,’ Abi Austen, a defense consultant, said. ‘The F-35 is basically like a flying computer. It’s designed to link up other assets—what the Air Force calls ‘linking sensors to shooters’. ‘If they can get into the 35’s networking capabilities, it effectively undermines the whole carrier philosophy,’ Austen added. Similar intelligence victories have been achieved by military adversaries in the past. ‘In 1974, at the height of the Cold War, the CIA secretly pulled a Russian submarine from the sea floor off the coast of Hawaii using a giant mechanical claw,’ the BBC noted. ‘Two years earlier, the Chinese military secretly salvaged the UK submarine HMS Poseidon which sank off China’s east coast.”

In a separate example, generic medicines represent an ever increasing percentage of the supply consumed. Apparently, upwards of 90% of medicine we consume are now generics. These are drugs which are copies of pharmaceutical formulas which were originally invented by others. Generics are created through “deformulation.” Deformulation allows the original drug to be deconstructed into its individual components. In other industries, like the automobile industry, obtaining competitive products and tearing them down isn’t considered bad or cheating. It’s considered benchmarking. Competitive benchmarking is something most car manufacturers do and involves purchasing vehicles of a competitor and then dismantling them to learn both what the component pieces are and why they are put together a certain way. They are learning how the practices of others can be used to improve their own processes. Whether reverse engineering, deformulating, copywork, competitive benchmarking, or industry best practices, it’s all a form of copying which is nothing other than learning by looking. It offers an accelerated way to get up to speed in an area. It’s faster learning than trying to bang away randomly with no guidance. Unpacking the prior work of others can fast track our ability to improve.

Moreover, copying can be a catalyst that fosters innovation. Emboldened by our ability to figure something out that we had no business figuring out, we expanded our copying into other similar products. After a couple of years we raised some money to establish a separate company that purchased technology and equipment from a US military vendor that specialized in producing the chemistry of battery that we were using. Our willingness to purchase the technology and start manufacturing the individual cells was entirely predicated on a belief that we could figure out how to copy existing processes. Instead of seeing copying in a negative light as the refuge of the weak and uninspired, consider there’s no shame to it. We built two businesses completely on the back of knowledge others had developed first.

Franchise based businesses, for example, are imposed copying. Franchisees are buying the experience and expertise of those that have come before and proven their prowess. Moreover, franchisors demand that their franchisees follow their processes to the letter. There is no room for innovation or creativity in applying the systems of the franchisor. Copying is demanded. Other studies offer support for the idea that less creative entrepreneurial efforts tend to have higher success rates. Experienced entrepreneurs shy away from breakthroughs. Those with business experience seek new offerings that are proven concepts. They focus on taking something that seems to be working well in a given market and introduce it to a new region, for example. Ron Friedman in Decoding Greatness writes of Business Blueprint which is the idea of introducing a proven product into a new market. Entrepreneurs adopting this approach ask questions like “What cuisines, beverages, or desserts are popular near me that I can introduce elsewhere?” It’s taking a proven concept, copying it, and introducing elsewhere.

In so many areas of life, it’s much harder to go it alone. On whatever road we’re travelling either others have gone before or there are others with us now. In either case, we can learn from them. Trying to ignore the experience of others doesn’t make much sense. We simply can’t afford not to learn from others. Robert Moor put it as “We are born to wander through a chaos field. And yet we do not become hopelessly lost, because each walker who comes before us leaves behind a trace for us to follow.” We can move the needle forward in our own lives where we mirror the proven efforts of others. Former NBA coach, Kevin Eastman, writes in Why The Best Are the Best, “I believe that success leaves these footprints. And if we want to achieve our life’s goals we have to: Find them Follow them Fit them. We have to find the people who have been successful in our field. We have to look outside our field to find others who have employed a strategy that could apply to our needs or a characteristic that we lack. Once we find them we have to follow them. By this I mean study them. We need to read their books, watch their videos, study interviews with them—anything that can help us dig deeper into why they are successful. The last step is crucial, yet many people don’t give it enough attention. Some think once they get the information they can just copy it. It doesn’t work that way. Not everything someone else does fits the way you do things, fits your personality, or fits your value system. Study what others have done, and extract only what feels the best fit for you. There’s not a right way. But there is a way that is natural to who you are. You’re not stealing someone’s shoes, you’re walking in their footsteps.”

Copying from Eastman’s perspective is definitely a strength and not a weakness. It’s a big part of sport. High performers are constantly scanning their field (and other near by ones) for what those that are winning are doing. They want to be sure that they are doing their part to keep up with leading edge efforts. Copying is where the idea of best practices comes from. Instead of being bothered by the number of competitors in insurance, consider your peers as potential sources of information. It’s worth giving thought to which operations you may want to be paying closer attention. Are there objective standards of performance you’re trying to target? Are you watching those that are physically close to you? Does your competitive intelligence span only the types of information that are easy to access like industry publications? Or, are you actively seeking more rigorous standards of performance that the best in your industry are achieving against which to measure yourself?

The heart of learning involves absorbing the knowledge and information earned by others’ prior efforts. Learning how to learn is, effectively, learning how to copy. Dr. Robert Hatch, a professor at the University of Florida, offers, “If you want to be a master of anything, study what the masters have done before you. Learn to do what they have done. Have the courage to do it. And, you can be a master just like them.” Imitation is the highest form of flattery. We copy those we want to be more like. Who are you aspiring to be more like? We aspire to be like those we admire. What are the footprints in your field? Are there overt benchmarks that high performers in insurance are achieving? Who has already done what you’re trying to do? Find them, figure out what they did, and copy them. As Anthony Robbins observed, “Success leaves clues.”