A statement I occasionally hear from people who are investigating the startup ecosystem in Iran is that we don’t have innovative startups, or that most of the startup companies here are replicating the ideas that have been a success in Silicon Valley, Europe or East Asia. They usually say this as a criticism, but is it really a bad thing that at this stage most of our tech companies in the country are copycats?


Working on a new idea on top of other ideas

You might have seen that interview Steve Jobs had during a TV Program in 1994. “Ultimately it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing. I mean Picasso had a saying, he said good artists copy great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” Many of Apple’s products were merely innovative and most of them were built by making minor changes into a product that was built years ago, however, couldn’t find its market at that time. Eg. Microsoft had built the first tablet a decade before the iPad was launched.

Others do it too!

Iranians are not the only people who are making clones of successful startups. You can see this by taking a look at the startup ecosystems in Eastern European countries or Asia. Even the major tech companies rip off features from their competitors and add something new to it. Eg. Instagram stories vs. Snapchat.

Many of the successful startups which were introduced in Silicon Valley, Berlin or London have been replicated in other countries. Even Germany’s Rocket Internet has done the same by replicating proven business models in the US into other emerging markets.

Thanks to the financial sanctions implemented on Iran, many local startups have flourished due to the absence of the international players. Here are some of the most popular tech companies in Iran and their international equivalent:

  • Digikala (Amazon)
  • Aparat (YouTube)
  • NetBarg & Takhfifan (Groupon)
  • Snapp & Tap30 (Uber)
  • Alibaba.ir (booking.com)
  • SnappFood & Chilivery (Eat24)
  • Dunro (Foursquare)
  • AloPeyk (GO-JEK)
  • ZarinPal (PayPal)

Even though some of these services are available in Iran, many users still prefer to use the local version.

In most cases, we actually see new features and improvements in the Iranian “copycats” which were not available in the original business. These startups usually consider the cultural differences and offer specific services since they have a better understanding of the local market and more importantly local regulations and laws. Ultimately if one day the sanctions were fully lifted, the international tech giants won’t have any other choice but to acquire or collaborate with their local imitators.

The innovation would happen in time

Iran’s startup ecosystem is still juvenile and in some sectors even far behind a country in the region such as Turkey. For now, the ecosystem needs to become more mature by trying the business models that have shown success in other markets. As the market becomes more saturated, entrepreneurs have no other choice but to target other verticals or niche markets.

Eventually, once the startup ecosystem reaches adulthood, investors (both local and international) would have more confidence to invest in cutting-edge technologies in this market.

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