For startups looking to build a significant European presence, Germany’s Samwer brothers are like three horsemen of the apocalypse. The trio behind Rocket Internet have become a terrifying force across the continent, making millions from their ruthless cloning of big services like eBay (s ebay), Facebook and Groupon(s grpn).
The latest business in their sights appears to be New York flash sales site Fab.com, which specializes in daily discounted sales of design products. Tuesday, Fab CEO Jason Goldberg was alerted to a Rocket site called Bamarang.co.uk, which appears to be copying Fab wholesale.
Here are screenshots of Fab (on the left) and Bamarang (on the right).
There’s a small irony in that the victim is a copy of sorts itself; Fab started out as a social network for the gay community, but pivoted last year to become what is effectively a niche version of Groupon.
But it’s not just the business model and idea of Fab that Bamarang is copying: it’s the entire design, look and feel.
Let me put bamarang [sic] and the other copycats on notice. Ripping someone off is not going to work in this space. Knock-offs are just bad design. Users will see right through it. Such tactics may work in some industries, but not in design.
You can understand his frustration. However, if he thinks that the Samwer brothers’ tactics will fail, he may be underestimating what’s actually happening here.
True, Bamarang.co.uk appears to be a relatively small operation at the moment. It was incorporated in Britain’s second city, Birmingham, is hiring staff based in London, and has directors including Arnt Jeschke and Christian Cornelius-Weis, who have both held senior roles at Rocket alongside the Samwers (although according to TechCrunch Europe, Cornelius-Weis quit Rocket shortly before Christmas.)
But Bamarang isn’t just a single clone site for a single local market that borrows heavily from Fab’s design: it’s a whole network.
Looking around, it’s obvious Rocket plans to go seriously big with Bamarang. It’s already running the service in Germany and France, and individuals with links to Rocket appear to have registered the name in countries including Italy and Poland too. Also troubling: it has also registered Bamarang.com — although there’s nothing there so far.
If that isn’t enough to get Fab worried, here’s another reason.
Bamarang UK’s domain name was registered through another Rocket subsidiary, the interiors sale site Westwing. Essentially, it’s a very similar operation to Fab but slightly less focused on the same high design credentials. This connection could be an important sign of things to come, because Westwing is a great example of the Samwers’ copy-and-expand strategy in action: It launched just a few months ago and is already in an estimated 20 European countries, including Britain (under the brand name Dalani) and the increasingly hot Turkish market.
In the past, the Samwers were content to stay in Germany, but they are now taking a bigger, broader — and altogether meaner — approach. It’s something Oliver Samwer referred to in an email as a “blitzkrieg.”
Fab may not be facing a small challenge here: It may be facing a knock-off prepared to go much bigger and much faster than it’s willing to.
I contacted both Rocket and Westwing to inquire about their plans for Bamarang, but they did not respond.
In the meantime, while Bamarang’s visual identity and business model may be near-identical copies of Fab, I’m not sure a small protest from Goldberg and an appeal to the design community is going to be enough to stop Bamarang from growing like a weed.
After all, claims of copying didn’t stop the Samwers when they copied eBay to build Alando (a clone they later sold to eBay), or StudiVZ (a Facebook clone), or Citydeal (a Groupon clone, later sold to Groupon), or Zalando (Zappos (s amzn) clone) or Wimdu (Airbnb clone) — or any of the other companies they’ve built.
Clones are a depressing reality all around the world. But Fab may soon learn that you can’t simply rely on ethics to help you overcome them. Faced with a clone, you have to execute better, maintain your vision and — crucially — be prepared to compete globally.