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Why imitation ≠ duplication

My father has been an entrepreneur for most of my life. For many years prior to that chapter, he worked for the airlines and when his employer sought to spin out a cargo unit it had, he and a partner took the plunge. The story has all of the entrepreneurship twists and turns from “this is really working!” to “will we survive?”

One in particular comes to mind this morning, which has to do with the long hours most business owners log to keep the business going. Several years in they had grown quite a bit and one weekend day in particular while making his way through the quiet office he says it occurred to him that despite all the equipment and papers surrounding him, file cabinets, computers, office supplies and more, that without his employees, the company could not operate. He always valued his people but after that day he says something changed for him.

Herb Kelleher, the infamous co-founder and long time CEO of Southwest Airlines once said, "we’re interested in intangibles — a spiritual infusion — because they are the hardest things for your competitors to replicate. The tangible things your competitors can go out and buy. But they can’t buy your spirit. So it’s the most powerful thing of all.” Kelleher’s statement lends itself to the aphorism, "Often imitated, never duplicated”.

No matter what industry or sector you operate in, it’s natural to look around at what other are offering and hope to identify the “secret sauce” they may be utilizing to achieve their success. These observations though are almost always focused on products, software, hardware, intellectual property, etc. To Kelleher’s point about tangible items, the things is they are something you can define and attempt to acquire or create in order to some of your competition's success. The reason though that imitation rarely leads to duplication is because companies fail to adopt intangibles. They are ok with buying the tangible item but do not “buy into” the intangibles.

In the same interview, Kelleher discussed a point where it opened its doors to organizations seeking to learn from Southwest and translate its success into their own company, "We used to have a corporate day. Companies would come in from around the world and they were interested in how we hired, trained, that sort of thing. Then we’d say, 'Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well,' and then they’d go home disappointed. It was too simple.”

The problem with culture/spirit is it cannot be left on autopilot. It is either being built and reinforced or taken down. Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality groups defines it as, “constant, gentle pressure”. The reason why your intangibles, the things you believe, need to transform from statements into behaviors is so your culture can be reinforced in action rather than just words. When looking at a competitor’s success, it’s crucial to not just look at what they do or have but how and why they do it. What is tangible whereas how and why are intangible.

Go Forth Boldly

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