Copying what’s been done before or imagining what’s next: which do you see as the most critical founder skill? Most people would probably go with the latter. But I actually go with the former, or a version of it I call – to borrow a term from the music industry – “remixing”.
Let’s first tackle my definition of a remix: imitating, transforming, and recombining existing materials into something new. Imitation is learning what the essences of success of previous works of art were and drawing inspiration from them; transforming is breaking out of the original work’s box; recombining is taking the elements of different works and integrating them together. Doesn’t this process strongly resemble that of forming a brand new idea?
The fact is that content creation, establishing a business, and generally most of human culture, in some form stems from combining different, pre-existing stuff. Basically all renowned artists started out copying others before gradually forming their individual style. And from the business side, Google’s success as the world’s largest online portal didn’t come from creating original content, but organizing, replaying, and remixing the content of others.
If all original ideas could only ever be used by the person who conceived them, a ton of innovation would vanish from the market. If the idea of the mobile location function had not been up for remix, would we have Google Maps or Uber? And imagine what the smartphones of today would be like if they hadn’t been able to integrate touchscreen technology.
The key to remixing is that after extracting the essence of the original version, you then optimize it in line with market demand, creating something that’s not only new but exceeds the value of the original.
For example, a big selling point of the early stage iPhones was the touchscreen, which had existed for many years before the iPhone was even created. At the time, touchscreen technology had only been used on large-sized interactive boards. Apple was the first company to integrate touchscreens into a mobile phone, propelling the technology forward and making it the standard configuration of mobile devices.
Steve Jobs was once asked in an interview how he felt about Apple’s products being copied by competitors, to which he replied bluntly, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
Another form of remixing in business is quite common in marketing innovation. Examples include brands like Apple and Hermès collaborating to create watchbands that blend technology with luxury fashion, or boutique yogurt brand Matthew’s Choice* teaming up with bubble tea shops and famous dessert stores to introduce new products. This not only boosts both brands’ recognition but also attracts new customer segments and opens up new markets.
Since the emergence of TikTok, remixing has become the norm for Generation Z. The viral short videos on TikTok are often rooted in the concept of remixing – from imitating dance moves from existing videos to playfully lip-syncing to classic songs, or creating new versions through speed changes, pitch adjustments, and blending different beats.
The remixing trend in music is not slowing down – on TikTok, an account dedicated entirely to speeding up songs has amassed over 400,000 followers. Warner Music’s sped-up music channel on Spotify attracts over 13 million listeners per month. Perhaps in the future, every song will have multiple genre variations like hip-hop, acoustic, or dance tailored to different audiences’ preferences.
As long as copyright is attributed clearly, content remixing can bring a win-win situation for creators, remixers, and listeners. For remixers, creativity doesn’t solely rely on waiting for random bursts of inspiration, since they can actively draw from existing material. For original creators, besides aiding in re-marketing their work, remixes with clear copyright attribution can create an additional revenue stream. And for audiences, there’s a broader range of choices.
Grammy-winning artist Kimbra recently released her latest single on the open music copyright platform Oursong**, allowing other creators to remix it. Just a single song has garnered over 200 remix versions. In the future, with the original creator’s agreement, these remixes can be directly uploaded to music streaming platforms like Spotify via Oursong, generating additional income for creators.
These examples all serve as a reminder that the key to innovation isn’t always about being 100% “original.” Instead, it’s about finding potential elements within fragments of inspiration, transforming and recombining them, and continuously iterating based on the market’s demands. Through this approach, it’s possible to discover a treasure trove of unsatisfied customers waiting to be served.