The 2011/11/25 at 06:40
Cécile Boutelet, in Berlin
The formula consisting in copying a successful web site, developing it and reselling it to the market leader is profitable. Examples abound, and there are some who make it their speciality, like the company RocketInternet, the start-up incubator set up by the Samwer brothers, well-known entrepreneurs on the German Web scene. It was perhaps the success of these copies that urged publishing giant Georg von Holtzbrinck to lay 85 million euros on the table to acquire, in January 2007, the fashionable social network, StudiVZ (an abbreviation for “Studentenverzeichnis”, literally, “student directory”), hence dubbed “the German Facebook” due to its striking resemblance to its US big brother. But the company VZ Netzwerke, grouping together StudiVZ and two other social networks in the same vein, lived its final hours of glory in 2008.
Still an essential network on German campuses at that time, the network drew the interest of Facebook, which offered a sum to take over the company. Holzbrinck declined the offer, considering it unattractive. Three years later, VZ Netzwerke has 8 million fewer members than in the same period in 2010, while its US rival leapt up from 6 to 13 million users in Germany, and makes no secret of its target of one billion users worldwide by 2013. Facebook versus VZ Netzwerke, could this be a declaration of victory of the original over its clone? The answer is not so certain, according to Nora-Vanessa Wohlert, Head Editor of the German online magazine Gründerszene.de, aimed at web entrepreneurs. “Certain copycats get inspiration from their models and accelerate the innovation process. They generally create healthy emulation in the start-up ecosystem and their success sometimes surpasses that of their model. This is the case of Zalando (inspired by the American Zappos, editorial note).”
Despite a relaunch of the web site at the start of autumn, it seems that VZ Netzwerke is having trouble getting back on its feet after two years of pointless struggling against the giant Facebook. “Two weeks after the relaunch,” continues Nora-Vanessa Wohlert, “media coverage was zilch. To top it off, its CEO Clemens Riedl has recently left the company. Instead of seeing this as a new departure, this news has above all given the impression of a company well on its way down.” Asked about the failure of VZ Netzwerke, Nora-Vanessa Wohlert explains that “the strategy of Clemens Riedl, CEO at the time, was to create a German social network for Germans… while underestimating Facebook’s capacity for market penetration, and in particular, the importance of international links. VZ-Netzwerke proved inadequate for adapting to new trends, such as share functions and applications.”