human capital

A Quirky approach to product development

January 15, 2014

Quirky is a Web 2.0 product development platform that combines distinctly 21-st century phenomena: social networking, reality television, crowd-sourcing, and online shopping. Quirky has now developed over 400 products, drawing upon the efforts of a community of inventors numbering over half a million.

Ben Kaufman founded Quirky on the premise that most of us are armchair inventors – without the time, money, expertise and patience to see the process through. Quirky seeks to ‘democratize innovation’. Ben Kaufman’s big idea – in other words – is helping you use yours.

A lone wolf inventor, operating by stealth and borrowed funds, might need to outlay upwards of $200,000 to take an idea from restaurant napkin to retail shelves. This is where Quirky steps in: by providing consumer  feedback, industrial design, mass manufacture, and distribution.

What is Quirky?

Quirky – for those who do not obsessively lurk the web – is officially ‘a web site that lets users submit product ideas for feedback from the Quirky community of Users’.

This simple description belies the depth and sophistication of Quirky. The site is far more than a suggestion box: a social network of users vote newly submitted ideas, and later on, collaborate to bring selected products from concept to prototype to production to web cart.

Many ideas – in fact most – fail to thrive: while the platform is inherently collaborative in nature, it is also ruthlessly Darwinian. Each week Quirky harvests over 2000 idea submissions, and following community upvoting – and gatekeeping by the Quirky team – approves three or four product concepts for further development.

At the other end of the notional production line, an average of three completely new products are delivered each week, for sale through Quirky’s own site, and chain of online and retail partners. There are even plans for a Quirky-branded chain of retail stores.

While you can start submitting ideas, or start contributing to the projects of others, you can also go straight to the online store to buy products that others have successfully seeded using Quirky.

How does it work?

The idea submission process is modelled as an entrepreneurial ‘elevator pitch’, and can include uploaded media, such as sketches, videos and so on. Quirky community members vote on ideas, and a weekly meeting is held at head office in New York to make a final selection of the most compelling product ideas that will be developed further. The weekly meeting or ‘Eval’, and ensuing debate back and forth is streamed live to all interested.

Quirky retains the rights to all the ideas that are submitted via the site, and voted into the development process. The company risks nothing, as any design development only starts once a product concept is validated by its potential customers.
Importantly, the wisdom of crowds is taken only so far. While the hive mind of the Quirky community seeds ideas and contributes, the Quirky engineers ultimately steer the process.

Manufacturing only starts once a critical mass of pre-orders is received. There is an elegance and beauty in this approach – and what’s more, Quirky is unlikely to miss any great opportunities either, as users indicate exactly which products they would like to buy.

What is influence, and how do I earn it?

For ideas that survive, the Quirky community pitches in where required with research, design, naming, and pricing, amongst other aspects of the product development cycle.

This is not all altruistic assistance, as community members earn ‘influence’, which is tallied in the form of points – and calculated according to individual contributions.

A portion of profits from product sales are apportioned to users accordingly to how much they have ‘influenced’ a particular product. This is a black box process, and subject to Quirky’s ‘proprietary and confidential algorithms’.

Using ‘influence’ as a proxy for contribution is always going to be subjective and somewhat arbitrary, but it is in everybody’s interest that the result feels fair and equitable to all involved. A proportion of sales revenue is allocated between influencers, according to their relative contribution.

Can I make real money?

One of Quirky’s biggest successes is called Pivot Power – it is like a regular powerboard, but segmented and articulated. Its inventor is Jake Zien, who thought of the idea during high school, while doing a summer program at the Rhode Island School of Design. His idea was for a power strip that could telescope or flex or rotate or in some way accommodate large power adaptors in every outlet. Power Pivot retails for $30, and has sold over 600,000 units. Ben Kaufman claims that inventor Jake Zien should make $1 million in Pivot Power royalties in 2013 alone – with more to come as an entire differentiated line of Pivot Powers are rolled out. According to Jake Zien, he knew nothing of electrical engineering – he had submitted only “very basic drawings”, and it was Quirky that did all the hard work.

What kind of products?

The Quirky store has categories such as ‘Electronics & Power’, ‘Health & Fitness’, ‘Home & Garden’, ‘Parenting’, ‘Kitchen’, ‘Travel & Adventure’. The finished products are simple, stylish and functional in appearance. The ‘look’ is in keeping with the crisp minimalist aesthetic of contemporary industrial design. So, imagine if Apple moved into homewares.

For all that, you would undeniably call these products ‘gadgets’: you never knew you really needed them until you visited quirky.com. On one level, it strikes you that these are the products that nobody else has gotten around to making yet. Well, now Quirky has, by harvesting the individual and collective wisdom of crowds – the eureka moments, and the collective expertise that makes that insight a reality.

Presumably, the genres of products brought to life via Quirky will evolve as its technical reach grows. For example, Quirky has partnered with GE to deliver app-enabled gadgets – such as a remote app-enabled environmental sensors, and app-control central heating vents.

An alternative to traditional product development?

Quirky certainly provides an interesting alternative model for the aforementioned ‘armchair inventor’ – and many advantages compared to a traditional path to market.

First, the platform essentially provides free, frictionless market research from a panel of experts and interested by-standers. Second, the full insight, wisdom and experience of the Quirky community (in design, materials, manufacturing, branding, marketing) can be brought to bear upon a suitably compelling product idea. Finally, manufacture and distribution are also sorted via the Quirky web store.

While Quirky takes the risk away, it also dilutes the reward – and removes control. And the more assistance rendered, the less your own slice of the pie. Some people might be over the moon simply to see their product idea become a vendible reality, but obviously this is not for everybody.

What about IP?

The terms and conditions for Quirky are riveting reading compared to most such documents, and reveal a complex of what ifs that play out between Quirky Incorporated and its contributing community of inventors.

In a nutshell, yes you do forgo rights and control, but you get a cut of up to 30% of the sales revenue, along with other contributing ‘influencers’. Unless as an individual you are absolutely determined to go it alone, you will be bringing in a partner one way of another – and probably taking a royalty rate of some sort.

Manufacturing as a whole is a notoriously low margin activity, so the recompense offered by Quirky is in the scheme of things quite generous and would quite likely rival if not best any deal you might strike elsewhere.

A sea change to open innovation?

Whatever the merits for inventors, Quirky is certainly in step with the broader cultural change towards open innovation in the IP field. Through partnering with GE, Quirky has opened up thousands of GE patents for use by the Quirky community.

Ben Kaufman is on record as saying “For years patents have become widely misunderstood and misused. We are going to return patents to their original purpose to act as a blueprint for technological and societal progress while protecting inventors and becoming a source of inspiration for future creators.”

Some of the first technologies that GE will open up from its portfolio are in the fields of optical imaging systems, barrier coatings and telematics. These technologies have application in very diverse products – such as holographic data storage, biometric capture, vehicle navigation, and remote sensing.

Even such IP luminaries as David Kappos (former director of the USPTO) have weighed in: “Creative partnerships are good for innovators, consumers, and our country. There is tremendous value in patented ideas, and it is wonderful to see new collaborative ventures aimed at moving such ideas into the marketplace.”

Is it unique?

Well, it might be nice, unusual and different – and some would say unique. There are of course other companies that a have a crowd-sourced or crowd-funded model that caters to new products. IndieGoGo, KickStarter, RocketHub, Genius Crowds come to mind, and doubtless there will be more to come. Quirky does seem however to have hit upon a winning formula. This is perhaps owing to the deep engagement of its community at every stage of the product development process, as well as a manifest commitment to engineering know-how and manufacturing capability.

By David Perkins

creativity   know how   products

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