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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook Home launch event.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Until, that is, it starts to get annoying.

Facebook has definitely reached that point with some look- and act-alike sites outside of the U.S., according to Mark Zuckerberg. So much so, in fact, that it has hurt the company’s international growth prospects.

“Clones actually end up being a pretty big nuisance. People have made such great clones of Facebook outside the U.S., it made us harder to grow,” Zuckerberg said at the Y Combinator Startup School event over the weekend. Russia in particular, he pointed out, has done the best job of mimicking Facebook’s abilities.

“They’ve made such an awesome clone of Facebook it’s been hard to beat them,” he said. “It’s almost been 10 years since we started Facebook, and we still haven’t beaten them in Russia.”

Zuckerberg gave interesting reasons for the struggle. Besides the fact that the so-called “clones” were first to market in home countries like Russia, he said, many startups would make Facebook lookalikes and then introduce the sites to European countries. From there, Zuckerberg said, the first-movers would appreciate the network effects of viral growth, and make it that much more difficult for Facebook to grow.

One other thing: Some Facebook “clones,” like the ones in Russia, are also home to illegal file-upload hosting services, which makes it a more attractive proposition for those seeking free music and movies to pirate.

Indeed, if you compare Facebook’s quarterly European user-growth rate to other regions (like Asia, which also hosts stiff competition to Facebook with homegrown social sites), it has slowed quite a bit over the past year. Europe, in particular, is important to Facebook, as it is home to far more consumers with money to spend than, say, developing-world nations that are also slowly being introduced to Facebook.

In other words, it’s a big problem that Facebook needs to solve.

One solution? The “lockdown” approach, started in Facebook’s early days by Zuckerberg and co-founder Dustin Moskovitz – basically stopping just short of literally locking the employees inside the building until they come up with a way to fix a problem (though I imagine this isn’t kosher with OSHA).

Or there’s another approach: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Facebook has cloned competing services in the past (Snapchat, Quora, Foursquare). Perhaps the company could take a few cues from what its foreign competitors are doing well.

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