Invention startup taps genius among masses

NEW YORK: At first glance, the offices of Quirky Inc. appear much like those of any number of Internet startups.

A mostly young staff of 50 sits in front of computer screens. Bikes, ridden to work, hang from the ceiling. A young visionary sets an eager, nontraditional vibe.

The rolling toilet, though, is a clue that Quirky is a bit different.

Quirky is an invention website that takes ideas from its online community and makes them into real consumer products. Ben Kaufman, 24, founded the Manhattan-based Quirky two years ago with the aim of making invention accessible.

Though it uses the en-vogue model of crowdsourcing, it still relies on nuts-and-bolts creation of tangible goods. Beyond Quirky’s rows of desks lurks a design shop, complete with a 3-D printer and various work-shopped inventions, along with the curious leftovers of development.

“We’re probably the most old-school startup you could possibly imagine,” says Kaufman, whose drive and know-how far outweigh his age. “We manufacture products. We put them on a boat. We ship them to retailers.”

The very concept of ocean freight is enough to make most Silicon Valley upstarts shiver. But Quirky is finding the kind of success startups dream of, while still keeping its feet in real-world production.

It recently picked up $16 million in financing from Norwest Venture Partners. Kaufman expects the site to be profitable by next year. They are readying a move this year to a larger warehouse across town. And Tuesday, the Sundance Channel will premiere “Quirky,” a six-episode reality series that documents the fast-paced life at the startup.

“There’s a difference between your crazy scientist garage inventor and regular people,” says Kaufman. “Regular people experience problems on an everyday basis that piss them off. Those are what I think are everywhere. That’s what Quirky is here to achieve, to capture those problems, those opportunities, and turn them into products.”

Ever thought you could invent a more ergonomic dog leash? Or create a power strip that has room for boxy plug-ins? Those are the kind of ideas that Quirky has turned into consumer products, splitting the profits with its inventors and members of the community (“influencers”) whose tips help shape the final product.

On the site, users vote for the product ideas they like the best. Every Friday, two winners are crowned. Quirky developers create the product, and then it goes into presale. If enough people commit to buying the product, Quirky takes it to market, produced from its manufacturing base in China (where 15 employees work).

Thirty percent of top-line revenue on direct sales is shared with the community, as well as 10 percent from indirect sales with partners like Bed Bath & Beyond and the Home Shopping Network. Those pies are broken up with most going to the original inventor, and various percentages going to those who made critical suggestions.

So Quirky always has products in various stages of development, going from idea to (if they’re lucky) store shelves. Two new products are launched every week.

The son of a business owner and a lawyer, Kaufman became an inventor as a teenager when he had an idea for a pair of headphones to accompany an iPod. He persuaded his parents to lend him the money (they had to take out a second mortgage on their Long Island home), flew to China to secure the manufacturing, and on his high school graduation day, had his first product in hand.

“I fell in love with the process,” says Kaufman. “That first product, what it took to make it made me realize this is really freaking hard. … That problem was implanted in my head. I guess from that point forward, it was all about: Can that be fixed?”

Kaufman started his first company, Mophie, a mobile accessory company that he sold in 2007. At MacWorld 2007, he debuted a project that got attendees to design a new product in just three days. That breakneck pace has continued at Quirky. In the past week, from a window display at a New York Bed Bath & Beyond, Quirky has been challenging customers to help create a new product in just a week.

“I love manufactured drama,” says Kaufman, making his appeal to reality TV producers thoroughly evident. “Not in a fake way, but in a high-stakes, put-it-all-out-there and let’s try to make something happen … It shows the world that we’re going to make something happen here.”

The first episode of “Quirky” features the inventions of two products. The Pivot Power, an adjustable electrical power strip, is Quirky’s flagship product. The idea came from a shaggy-haired college student, Jake Zien, and has been one of its most successful products.

Zien is ecstatic for any cash at all for his idea, while the other inventor featured in the premiere, Andrea Zabinski, is more demanding. She wants to see her vision for an all-in-one pasta strainer, mixing and serving bowl (the “Ventu”) fulfilled to her liking.

“I’m always on Quirky,” says Zabinski, who runs an online training company in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, when she is not trying to invent things.

“Once you have success, like I think the Ventu is going to be, it’s a little addicting.”

She says she has made more than $5,000 from her input on other people’s inventions.

“You have to spend time there,” says Zabinski. “You still have to work at it. Now I’m making money on other products just by voting and influencing. I’m getting little pennies here and there, but they all add up.”

The episode tracks the problems both products faced in production: regulator holdups for the Pivot Power, and slow design inspiration for the Ventu. But “Quirky” the show, much like the business, is thoroughly positive about invention. The message: Anyone can do this.

Kaufman believes similar shows like ABC’s “Shark Tank” and the older “American Inventor” focus on the wrong aspects of invention.

“That’s not what real product development is about,” he says. “Real product development is working with real people to solve real problems.”

“The world’s negative,” he says. “I like it, because it just allows us to be the positive ones.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 29, 2011, on page 12.




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