News & Analysis

Startmate graduate Flightfox unfairly accused of “ripping off” Nomad List?

- October 16, 2014 4 MIN READ

TechinAsia.com recently published an article with the snarky title When does ‘copying’ become ‘ripping off’? Just ask FlightFox. The article boldly claims that Australian founded Startmate alumnus Flightfox ‘ripped off’ and even plagiarised elements of Nomad List. Although TechinAsia.com is one of the best tech publications in the world (let alone Asia), and a source of inspiration for me as a writer, this article seems questionable and pretty much reiterates what Levels.io (the creator of Nomad List) complained of in a recent blog post.

Flightfox, which is essentially a marketplace of travel hackers that compete amongst each other to find tickets that meet a user’s criteria, recently introduced a new section to the site which lists the world’s “17 Best Cities To Live Cheaply”. The list has been criticised by Levels.io and TechinAsia.com for having a similar layout and content to Nomad List. It should be noted that the two are completely different businesses and operate under different business models – one’s a marketplace for users to source a travel expert and the other is a essentially search engine or directory that allows you to find locations based on criteria like weather, time-zone, living costs, flight length, etc.

Based on the image that TechinAsia.com uses to demonstrate ‘plagiarism’ (see below), Flightfox’s new section has very little resemblance to Nomad List. When you visit the two sites separately, similarities are even less obvious. In both lists presented, the top five cities appear in the same order: 1) Chiang Mai; 2) Prague; 3) Ho Chi Minh City; 4) Budapest; and 5) Bucharest. So what?


Source: TechinAsia.com

Well, Levels.io, the creator of Nomad List, seems to be somewhat offended by this similarity:

Levels, who is currently in Bangkok, tells Tech in Asia that he while wasn’t “doing anything unique per se” with Nomad List, he was rather upset that FlightFox copied without any attribution made whatsoever.

“Blatantly copying without attribution is not a very nice thing to do. If they’d asked, I’d given them instant access to the Nomad List API, like many other apps and startups already have,” he explains.

Levels.io even wrote a blog post on the matter, stating the following:

It’s not just the concept of putting up a list of cities to work from remotely. That’s not unique. Sites before Nomad List have done it, and other startups are working in this space, like Teleport. But it appears as if FlightFox directly scraped my site, merely stripping out a few cities and adding a few others to make it look theirs.

Apparently, Flightfox changed the title from “The 17 Best Cities To Live Cheaply for Nomads” to “The 17 Best Cities To Live Cheaply”. What this means is unclear, though Levels.io feels this is a ‘gotcha!’ moment.

A lot of people have jumped on the Levels.io bandwagon and communicated discontent towards Flightfox via Twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 12.21.17 pm

Source: Levels.io

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 12.22.04 pm

Source: Levels.io

Attribution is important, and Levels.io/Nomad List has a right to be attributed for the research it conducted to create that list. But it’s unclear whether this is a case of deliberate copying.

I’m sure there are plenty of Top Female Entrepreneurs lists that feature the same women. We’ve seen our own entrepreneur lists appearing very similar to those created by bigger media companies at a later date – and frankly, we didn’t think much of it. Perhaps, we were unintentionally influenced by lists we’ve seen in the past. In this age, originality is practically a myth. Everything is based on something – often we don’t know it.

And if a list is to be truly objective, and based on facts or the same criteria, then all lists on a certain subject ought to be the same. For instance, lists that explore “the top five cheapest smartphones in Sydney” should be the same or very similar if it’s based on price. I’m sure there are plenty of variables that come into the picture when creating a list, which is why they differ from one list creator to another.

In the case of Nomad List vs. Flightfox, it really seems like an overreaction.

One commenter, Fergus Tan, did his due diligence and wrote the following comment below the TechinAsia.com article, explaining the variables in both lists:

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 12.43.38 pm

Source: TechinAsia.com

Many startups approach investors and the media with words such as “revolutionary”, “truly unique”, and “first ever” – failing to recognise there are about 10 other similar products in the market. It’s not a case of dishonesty, but naivety. If there are 7 billion people in the world, odds are there are a few people who’ve come up with the same idea.

Whether or not Flightfox deliberately copied elements of Nomad List, or drew inspiration from it, the more interesting subject to ponder is the attitude towards ‘copying’.

In October last year, Martin Martinez, Founder of Entrepreneur Card, told Startup Daily that a lot of people say they don’t want to be a ‘copycat entrepreneur’, and to those people he presented the following rhetorical question:

“How many coffee shops are there in the city? There are hundreds, if not thousands. They’re all selling the same thing, so they’re all copying each other. So if you want to open a coffee shop tomorrow, aren’t you copying someone else’s idea?”

So what happens if people are offended? “It doesn’t matter what they think … If you can beat them at their own game, then kudos to you.”

“On the other side, if an idea is that easy to replicate, then you don’t have anything proprietary.”

Martinez added that, even if copying takes place, competition should be welcomed: “competition is great because it sets the benchmark. It defines the ranking by default. If there are 10 people offering the same thing, somebody is going to be number one, and somebody is going to be number 10.”

In the case of Nomad List vs. Flightfox, it’s hardly a competition. They’re very different businesses. I don’t think anyone here has the exclusive right to “own” the list of best cities to live in cheaply for nomads.