What Darwin has to say about Facebook and Pinterest

By  T T  Nguyen Duc

As recovering (neuro)biologist turned entrepreneur, it is hard to ignore some of the patterns in the transformation of ideas that mirror Darwin's theory of evolution. 

Innovation = Human-driven adaptation
The most basic tenet of evolution relies on the principles of mutation and adaptation to drive change.  Genetic mutations that result in improvements enable the species to survive or precipitate the emergence of a different species.  Adaptation enhances a member's resilience and fitness under varying and changing environments.  The Lean Startup Movement espouses the same belief: that pivoting (aka adaptation) drives product innovation and improvements, ensuring better product-market-fit and better chances of a startup at succeeding.  Like the principle of mutation, only idea refinements and changes that result in improvements stick. 

The two major points of failure: premature death and inability to replicate
The evolutionary process is dependent on variety, selection, and replication.  There are two potential points of failure in a member's lifetime - during the selection or replication process.  A member could prematurely die because of non-adaptability to the environment or lack of fitness.  The second point of failure lies in a member’s inability to replicate and propagate its genes.

In the startup context:
o    Variety is dependent on the rate of new idea generation, idea adaptability, and pivoting.   
o    Selection refers to product-market fit. 
o    Replication mirrors the scaling process. 

Similar to nature, the two key points of startup failures occurs during the selection and replication processes.  The lack of product-market fit results in the death of the idea and the inability of scale reduces the startup's impact on the market. 

The mating ritual
In nature, highly attractive members have a higher probability of passing on their genes and influencing their species evolution.  The courting ritual is equally important for a startup's evolution.  Attracting users, customers, investors, and employees increases the startup's chances at survival.  Highly mated companies - those highly integrated in the ecosystem - increase their influence factor.  API platforms enable companies like Facebook to seed their businesses into other websites, increasing the stickiness and pervasiveness of their platform. 

The tension between the individual's and the species' interests exists in nature, as does the parallel tension between the startup and its ecosystem.  Startups have to balance their competitive drive to outperform their peers while at the same time fostering a thriving ecosystem.

The mimicry complex
In evolutionary biology, mimicry refers to the action of one species in duplicating the features of another species.   Mimicry benefits the mimic but may have positive, negative, or neutral impact to the species being copied. 

It is only natural that mimicry is prevalent in the startup world, as evidenced with copycat companies and me-too products.  Oliver Samwer indicates that this occurs all the time in both the offline and online world.    In a recent talk on campus, Wanderfly founder Evan Schneyer noted that "it's okay to steal", endorsing the usage of other companies design elements as sources of inspiration.  Rather than reinventing the wheel for features such as the log-in button, resources are better spent on areas that would increase the startup's chances of survival.  Like in nature, this mimicry act doesn't necessitate a negative impact on the company being copied, and can result in positive or neutral outcomes.   Pinterest-like design principles are being emulated by many companies, which can have a positive impact on Pinterest itself;  the aggregate impact increases consumers preference of content consumption away from static/text based designs towards dynamic image-based feeds.

Mimicry in nature occurs in response to the slow rate of change in species. Rather than waiting for genetic mutation to occur over generations, mimicry provides a quick way to duplicate phenotypic features intra-generation.  On their recent visits to HBS, Ray Rothrock talks about the constraints to new idea generation and Brad Feld refers to the step changes in big "geometric ideas".  Big bang events which changes the technology landscape (transistors, bandwidth, mobile access) occurs in staggered waves, each time creating a new generation of innovation and ideas.  In between these "generations", innovation potential may be constrained, resulting in some companies (e.g. Rocket Internet) leveraging ideas/concepts from other startups to increase the mimic's chances of survival, similar to the mimicry effect.


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