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Why Creator Clones Fail

swyx
Infinite Builder πŸ‘·πŸ½β€β™‚οΈ I help people Learn in Public β€’ Author, the Coding Career Handbook (https://learninpublic.org)
Originally published at swyx.io ・5 min read

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TL;DR

Incumbents fail to clone creator startups because:

  • You need big creators to adopt them...
  • ...but your algorithm punishes change
  • You can't support it on all clients...
  • ...and you can't make a new client for it
  • Clones need original content...
  • ...but clones are expendable

Context

There's a lot of cloning going on in the creator economy. Twitter cloning Clubhouse, Facebook cloning Clubhouse, YouTube cloning Patreon, YouTube cloning TikTok, Instagram cloning SnapChat, on and on. Every time a new clone is announced, naysayers love proclaiming the imminent doom of the challenger.

They are sometimes right. But usually wrong.

I'd love to explore why.

I love collecting examples of the Innovator's Dilemma, which was coined by Clayton Christensen. The Innovator's Dilemma demonstrates how successful, outstanding companies can do everything right, and still lose their market leadership, or even fail as new unexpected competitors rise and take over the market.

Part of this thesis is when the incumbent company despite better distribution, resources, people, whatever... is constitutionally unable to clone the small startup.

This is known as counter positioning, as popularized by Hamilton Helmer in the 7 Powers. And you can hear it 30 minutes into this MKBHD podcast talking about the failure of YouTube Shorts:

You need big creators to adopt them... but your algorithm punishes change

Marques: "The TikTok algorithm is something special. It just surfaces things you want to see. It's really good. So they have that to compete again."

Andrew: "People might wonder why we made a podcast video channel and a podcast clips channel... the theory behind it is that if you have long form content and you have shorter clips, the watched overall watch time on the channel is going to be all over the place.

Because if you have. 30 minutes of watch time on the long one and six minutes of watch time on the short one, it gets confused and has a hard time serving those videos. Yeah. So that's why we separate them.

Now bring it back to YouTube Shorts. Imagine being a channel like us, that creates generally 10 to 15 minute videos. Now putting a bunch of 60 second clips on where the watch time is 60 seconds. How is that going to affect our 15 minute video?"

The MKBHD channel still doesn't use the YouTube Premiere feature (despite it requiring no change in format).

Why? Because when they tested it, their premiered video "literally had the worst rating out of our last 10 videos, with like half the views of number 9. It was pretty bad."

It turns out that Premiere views don't count towards overall video ranking. YouTube screwed up and creators found that out to their cost.

You only need to be algo-burned a couple times before you just decide to never deviate from the success formula.

So what if you make a separate channel?

Andrew: "I would consider that a fail for YouTube's marketing in the sense that they're hoping big creators bring this to their main audience, but the minute you switch it to another audience, you're going to lose a giant portion of your subscribers"

You need big creators to adopt them... but they have different formats

Andrew: "Not to mention that they're vertical, which we would never, ever, ever put on the channel.... [Most people] use YouTube on desktop, because it was originally built on desktop.

It became mobile. And even when you're using mobile, you're almost almost turning to landscape, whereas. Tick-tock works well because it's only supposed to be on a phone... YouTube is not quite that. It's becoming good at it, but it's still always has its heart and soul in the desktop version of it. And that's why this feature just feels a little. Off."

You can't support it on all clients... and you can't make a new client for it

Established apps have a number of clients across web, mobile, and tablet, whereas startups can often just focus on one thing. Twitter Spaces, Twitter's Clubhouse clone, is still not available on iPad or web, despite being on iPhone and Android.

Andrew: "I tried to look at Shorts on my desktop and I literally couldn't."

Marques: "Oh, you won't find that on the desktop, but you will find that on your phone, which is where they're competing with TikTok"

So what if we just made a different standalone clone to tackle it head on?

Marques: "I think if they wanted to feel less 'off', they would have made it a separate app, like a YouTube shorts app. So then you go vertical with just that work bad. Cause nobody's opening that app."

Clones need original content... but clones are expendable

This is particularly true when dealing with any significant format change - going from async to live, long from to short form, or landscape to portrait. And it's likely that startups break through because they figured out how to make a new format work.

MKBHD: "YouTube knows that it needs YouTube shorts creators instead of just people uploading to Tik Tok, and then copying that file and also putting it on shorts."

Andrew: "That's literally all Reels is. All of Reels has the TikTok watermark and the name on it. People are just using Reels to find more people to go follow on TikTok."

So you want to encourage creators to invest in your clone in order to make it successful... but what if you yourself don't have unlimited patience or budget to invest in it?

This may be a particuarly Google problem, but the truth is that no clone at any incumbent is strategically important. People aren't going to fight tooth and nail for survival because their "survival" is never really at risk.

Whatever the reason β€” once you have a perception that you could shut down the clone, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

MKBHD:

"The hesitation by a lot of YouTubers to dive into Shorts is really interesting. I think a lot of the longer-term creators like me have a bit of an aversion to YouTube releasing new untested unproven features because... they could possibly get killed in six months and you will have just poured a bunch of resources and pivoted your channel down a path that ends up being a dead end."

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