No joke: Facebook clone champions Russian innovation

Wed Jul 20, 2011 8:51am EDT

Pavel Durov is often referred to as the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia — and for good reason. At just 26 years old, he’s young and ambitious but generally likes to avoid the gaze of the media. Like Zuckerberg, social networking has made him rich — with analysts suggesting that his business, Vkontakte, could be worth in excess of a billion dollars.

But most obviously is the fact that Durov seems to draw his inspiration directly from Palo Alto: Vkontakte is one of a legion of Facebook clones that have made a pretty pile from stepping in to foreign markets before the American company. And this isn’t just a loose, “inspired by”, situation — you only have to glance at VK to see that Durov and his team have copied their service almost wholesale.

This success has irked Zuckerberg, who believes that he has to succeed in Russia if the company is ever going to crack tougher, more complex markets such as China. Of course, it’s a little ironic given given the constant controversies about Facebook’s origins, but you can see where he’s coming from: VK has swollen to 135 million accounts in a country where Facebook itself has lagged — it’s way down the local list of top social networks and actually lost around 100,000 users in Russia recently, according to Inside Facebook.

Despite this success, Durov’s latest mission still seems rather odd: to talk to the press about his desire to prove that Russian products are superior to their foreign counterparts. In a rare interview with Forbes.ru, Durov said his ambition was to turn around the international perception of his country’s output.

“My dream is to turn around our national inferiority complex, proving that the products of Russia may be massively in demand around the world,” he told Forbes.

He admitted that to get there, his site may need to evolve. But yet there’s no mention of whether that will take it further than Facebook or not.

“It could be that, in order to achieve our goals, Vkontakte will need to change beyond recognition — or our team will need to create a new product,” he said. “But sooner or later it will be done.”

Is this going a little far? The conflict between Durov’s public statements and his business operation seems obvious to me, but it’s hard to encapsulate what element of it really jars the most.

Clones certainly don’t do much good for Europe’s reputation. And, their continued success only goes to underline the fact that there’s easy money to be made copying somebody else’s work (Vkontakte is considering whether to launch on the stock market — perhaps in New York). And then there’s the fact that, on a business level, there’s a conflict of interest between the people backing the two businesses: VK’s big investor, Yuri Milner, is the same man who has put around $350 million into Facebook. Clone-makers are looked down on by the rest of the industry, until the money starts flowing.

So is it time to agree, once and for all, that while clones might be big business, that doesn’t mean they are good business?

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