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View Count: 122 |  Publish Date: April 05, 2014
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Imitation often mistaken for innovation

Heres the ironic truth about innovation: It gets copied a lot.
A year ago, I visited a startup in San Francisco and asked about a replica of the iconic British red telephone booth sitting in the middle of the office.
Oh that? the office manager said. I saw that on Craigslist and thought it would look great.
A few days later, I saw the same red telephone booth at one tech company. And then another. Along with foosball tables, hoodies, red brick walls, white boards, bean bag chairs, and meeting rooms named after movies, bars and San Francisco landmarks.
For a region that prides itself on breaking the rules and changing the world, there is an appalling lack of creativity and spontaneity, and an oversupply of conformity and pretension. Such me-too-ism can be dangerous: Bubbles form and pop because venture capitalists fund copycats at ridiculous levels hoping to replicate someone elses success.
Maybe WhatsApps $19 billion price tag is justified, said Ezra Perlman, a partner at private-equity firm Francisco Partners. But what are the chances that all of these companies are worth the money VCs are throwing at them?
Hint: not good.
Of course, no one will ever admit they are copying someone else. Everyone independently thought red British telephone booths were a cool office decoration at the same time.
Its the stuff of satire (the folks over at HBOs Silicon Valley sure eat it up), but its no boon to business.Hacking conference
Even hacking, perhaps the regions most subversive talent, looks oddly corporate these days. Next weekend, South San Francisco will host iOS JailbreakCon, a conference for hackers who create apps that Apple wont authorize. Since jailbreakings legality is grayer than the back of an iPhone 5S, an organized hacking conference seems weird. Do participants get group hotel rates, along with name tags and complimentary pens?
Apple employees are rumored to have in the past attended the JailbreakCon event in secret to get innovative ideas for improvements to iOS itself, conference organizers bragged - in a news release of course.
Innovation can mean two things. Theres the total game-changing sort, a title to which Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google can rightly lay claim. But then theres the far more common innovation: an incremental improvement or expansion of the original technology.
Hence the endless investor and media pitches like the Netflix of the emerging world or the Airbnb of parking spaces.
Theres nothing inherently wrong with this next-step approach - but it shouldnt be the driving force in the regions economy. What makes the Bay Area special is its knack for creating breakthrough technologies that disrupt old business models.New paradigms
The regions ability to retain this distinction (for innovation) is a result not just of the many technological advances it has achieved, but also of the ongoing creation of new business paradigms that produce new companies and redefine entire industries, says a report by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton commissioned by the Bay Area Council.
True innovators actively and directly engage both current and potential customers to help shape new products and services, the study said. These companies often address unarticulated needs and then work to be first to market with the resulting new products and services.
Unfortunately, the rising copycat culture breeds a false sense of bravado - a confidence more rooted in proximity to true innovators than actual creativity.
People who decorate offices with telephone booths are missing the point. Furniture doesnt produce innovation. Courageous entrepreneurs do, whether they work in an old industrial building in Dogpatch or the 22nd floor of a Financial District high-rise.
Whats the point in producing something that follows a formula? John Hegarty, founding creative partner of Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising agency, wrote in a recent book. None. What does it take to produce something that doesnt? Fearlessness.
Thomas Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle business editor and columnist. E-mail: tlee@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ByTomLee

Time: 23:23  |  News Code: 395539  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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