'Quirky' idea reinvents invention

NEED TO KNOW
  • Ben Kaufman's company Quirky uses crowdsourcing to turn great ideas into real products
  • Kaufman became an inventor before the age of 20
  • He created Quirky so others could have the 'I made that' moment
'Quirky' idea reinvents invention
ben kaufman

Ben Kaufman became an inventor while sitting in the back of a high school math class. He called his idea, an iPod case with integrated headphones and lanyard, Songsling. And it easily could have died on the vine.

“I had parents crazy enough to re-mortgage their house to lend me money to get that product off the ground,” says Kaufman, who was just a few months from graduating high school at the time. “I also knew someone who knew someone with a factory in China. Stars aligned and I was able to bring that product to market and start my first company, Mophie. But my situation was unique and my circumstances were extraordinary. I was basically incredibly lucky.”

That lucky feeling reached critical mass a few months later.

“I was riding a subway in New York and I saw a complete stranger wearing the product I had invented. Til this day, it was one of the best feelings I have ever had,” Kaufman says. “It was the ‘I made that’ moment that made me want to create a company where everyday people can invent together to bring the best product ideas to life.”

That company is Quirky.

Kaufman sold his Apple accessory company, Mophie, in August 2007 and spent the next two years bringing his idea of “social product development” to life. He launched Quirky in June of 2009.

“I started Quirky in 2009 with one single mission: To make invention accessible,” says Kaufman, who was 21 at the time. He knew from experience that “even with all the help and good fortune, it was extremely difficult to make a product a reality. I created Quirky and a community that would share in the ‘I made that’ feeling.”

Simple solutions to real problems

Quirky fields as many as 5,000 ideas each week submitted by inventors of every ilk -- students, retirees, homemakers, professionals -- and asks 35,000 (and growing) Quirky enthusiasts to help refine the most intriguing ideas. Once the crowdsourcing is complete, Kaufman gathers a roomful of industry experts and friends at the company’s New York headquarters where they drink beer and debate the proposed inventions. Before the weekly ritual is over, they’ll have chosen the next Quirky products to become prototypes.

Since Quirky began in 2009, it has developed 412 products and commercialized 150 products. “We are in 35,000 retail locations around the world,” Kaufman says.

Read more: Can crowdfunders share in profits?

Among the crowdsourced inventions -- which have ranged from an under-fridge vacuum attachment and Nerf jousting equipment to a LED umbrella and a portable water purifier -- one stands out to Kaufman: Aros, a Wi-Fi enabled window air conditioning unit that can be controlled via a smartphone app.

“Garthen Leslie submitted an idea for a product that solves a universal problem and addresses a category that has not been touched in years,” Kaufman says. “I love simple solutions to real problems that allow us to create smart and beautifully designed products. Aros is an excellent example of reinventing invention.”

The bridge between idea and product

Leslie, a Columbia, Maryland, IT consultant who worked briefly at the Department of Energy, nearly let the “air conditioner 2.0” idea wither. Luckily, an episode of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” changed that.

“I was nodding off when Ben came on and started talking about Quirky. I realized I’d had a number of ideas that stopped at the idea stage because I didn’t have a viable option to move forward, mostly because it would cost a lot of money upfront before someone could even look at my idea. This sounded like the bridge I’d been looking for to get across the huge gap between idea and product.”

Leslie uploaded a sketch of his invention to Quirky.com, where it underwent a crowdsourced debate and was eventually selected to become a real-life product. “After Quirky started working on the idea, I got a call to go see them. I thought I’d see some detailed specs or a model, but when I got there, it was a working product,” Leslie says. “I was blown away by how far they had gone with the idea.”

Meeting Kaufman blew him away, too.

“He was probably the easiest CEO I’ve ever met,” Leslie says. “When I started walking toward him, he opened his arms and extended his hands, which really put me at ease. He’s a regular person, but when he gets excited about something, you know. it. Ideas are floating in and out of his company on an hourly and daily basis, and what better place to work than with someone who has that kind of attitude, who gets juiced up about new ideas and new products. You come away with a good feeling about where that company is going.”

As Aros is readied for market (you can already pre-order the product on Amazon), Leslie can expect to receive about 4% of the revenue. That’s his cut of the 10% of Quirky shares with community members who bring products to life. The remainder will be paid to Quirky members whose suggestions ended up in the actual product.

Leslie now keeps a three-ring binder of idea notes and sketches. “I’m going to continue putting inventions out there for review,” he says.

And he’s going to continue reviewing other Quirky products, something that’s known as being an “influencer” on the Quirky platform.

“I communicate with other Quirky inventors on their ideas, I offer suggestions. And sometimes I’ll get ready to put an idea up there only to find out someone beat me to it, so I’ll share my ideas. Maybe they can pull something from what I did to make their product better,” Leslie says. “To me, that’s what community is all about. It’s not about envy. It’s about making something better.”

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