Suddenly, the Samwer Brothers Face a Clone of Their Own

There it was one day last November: Pinspire, a site that looks almost comically like Palo Alto-based Pinterest, the popular pinboard site that invites users to find and collect images online.

For anyone familiar with the oeuvre of the Samwers – Alexander, Marc, and Oliver – months-old Pinspire comes as little surprise. Even the prim Economist recognized the brothers as the “copycat kings of Europe” last year, marveling at their “knack for spotting good business models in Silicon Valley” – then reproducing them almost exactly in Europe.

Still, assessing Pinspire, it was hard not to be awestruck by the increasing audacity, if not recklessness, of the savvy trio. While others of their companies have shared the same color schemes, layouts, fonts and business models as their U.S.-based predecessors, the brothers have historically come up with somewhat novel names for their productions. When the Samwers produced a Groupon lookalike, they named it CityDeal. When they copied eBay in the late ‘90s, they called the company Alando. Their version of the short-term home rental service Airbnb? Widmu.

Possibly, their first name choices were already taken. Someone is already squatting on Curation.com. The destination cutandpaste.com was nabbed seven years ago by a New York firm that sponsors design-driven contests. Meanwhile, Pinboard.com -– you just know that one came up in conversation — is already a known if bare-bones social bookmarking site.

It’s highly likely that the Samwer brothers are simply too emboldened at this point to care how closely they track their US predecessors.

Pinterest did not respond to an interview request this week, but as intellectual property specialist David Goldstone of Goodwin Proctor told the Economist, registering patents in most countries isn’t just expensive and time consuming, the patents are also hard to enforce. Even powerful investors like those at San Francisco-based Founders Fund are unable to do much about the Samwers, who named their own Munich-based investment firm European Founders Fund a year after Founders Fund launched. The implication was that they are somehow affiliated. They aren’t. And judging by past conversations I’ve had with Founders Fund partners, they would just as soon the Samwers found a new brand.)

Yet another possibility exists for why the brothers veered off their traditional course with Pinspire. They’re busy facing the prospect of being cloned — by their own former employees. In fact, what began as a few departures from their so-called incubator, Rocket Internet, has suddenly become a mass, and very public, exodus, one that’s seemingly still in process.

According to the site  Venture Village, which tracks the European venture capital and startup scene, 20 employees of Rocket Internet skedaddled this week to form a competing “incubator” called Oryx Project that will go toe-to-toe with Rocket in several markets.

Venture Village reports that the firm has already raised “high double-digit” millions from Otto Group, the worldwide retail and services group.

And it most definitely sounds like war. At least, one of Rocket’s former managing directors, Uwe Horstmann, didn’t hesitate to let loose a few zingers on the way out the door.

Said Horstmann: “We’re different from Rocket in that we’ll put a higher amount emphasis on quality and technical sophistication — not just marketing battles. We want to approach projects with more innovation and move away from the copycat model.”

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