When and how do copycats - consultants who don't have all the expertise they promote - profit and thrive? I recently came across an interesting biology concept that shines a light on this phenomenon.
I first heard it on this podcast by Farnam Street, where NFL executive Michael Lombardi was interviewed and discussed topics like leadership and decision-making in football. Mike commented on the challenge of differentiating mimics:
There’s two kinds of snakes you come across. There’s the Texas Coral Snake, and the Mexican Milk Snake, and they both look exactly alike. The Texas Coral Snake is dangerous, it’s venomous, it can kill you in a minute. The Mexican Milk Snake can’t do anything to you; it’s an impostor.
Several species mimic the Texas Coral Snake but are not venomous - the Scarlet King Snake, the Florida Scarlet Snake, the California Mountain Kingsnake. These are so tame you can even adopt them as pets.
In biology, this phenomenon is called Batesian Mimicry. Harmless species ("mimics") had evolved to imitate the warning signs of a harmful species ("models"). This avoids predators, who most of the time won't take the risk of mixing up the two.
This is a useful model to understand competition and differentiation in the business world as well. Copycats or up-and-coming brands and professionals are often very effective to profit from segment or niche leaders. They know what to do, what to say, and how to say it.
Indeed, in today’s world imitation is a reality of doing business. That's the case for B2C and direct-to-consumer companies, where every smartwatch, electric bike, or smartphone looks the same. It's also common in tech, especially with software solutions that borrow the same features and user experience.
Copycats also exist in the consulting industry, but with some important differences. To understand it, it helps to revisit the idea of Batesian mimicry.
These are some conclusions that were drawn from real-world observation:
- If there's a high number of "mimics" in a system, the "model" will start to be seen as harmless by predators. This happens because predators will find much more harmless species, and the risk of facing a dangerous one is low.
- In stable systems, however, mimics are usually less numerous than models. This happens because over time predators improve the ability to distinguish mimic from model, with mimicry becoming less effective.
- Some mimetic populations have evolved multiple forms (polymorphism), enabling them to imitate several different models and thereby gain greater protection.
Now, we consultants don't sell a product but our expertise. Using the snake analogy, the bigger your expertise the more venomous you are.
The market will continuously try to commoditize your services. Your predators are the people and companies that try to hire you for less than what you're worth. Protecting yourself means defending your price.
It's interesting to revisit the scientific observations with this perspective.
If there's a high number of mimics in a system, the model will start to be seen as harmless by predators. This happens because predators will find much more harmless species, and the risk of facing a dangerous one is low.
This describes the life of consultants who are not specialized. When you sit at same table as "full-stack" or generic business consultants, buyers will struggle to differentiate you and a freelancer. Who can best tell the difference between a Coral Snake and its Mimics? Only the Coral Snake itself.
The same can happen when we look at relatively new niches or specialties. The market is not mature, and it's very difficult for buyers to spot real expertise. Things move fast, and many end up overpaying for consultants with little track-record.
In stable systems mimics are usually less numerous than models. This happens because over time predators improve the ability to distinguish mimic from model, with mimicry becoming less effective.
As Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Plagiarizing someone else's work or overestimating your expertise will wreck your reputation at some point.
First, it will be difficult to deliver consistent results. As the market changes, a mimic will need to constantly learn what true experts are doing and update their methodology accordingly. Their ability to deliver may suffer.
But even when that's not the case, people talk. When you are specialized, your buyers and competitors are close-knit and all know each other. Your work and reputation will be better understood over time, and word about it will spread.
Some mimetic populations have evolved multiple forms, enabling them to imitate several different models and thereby gain greater protection.
That's one for you to think about: Could a consultant command high fees by painting himself as an expert in multiple niches, or declaring a new specialization decision every couple of months?
If yes, how can buyers identify those to avoid being overcharged?