On Quirky’s Site, Anyone Can Invent a Hit Consumer Product

6/21/11Follow @arleneweintraub

[Updated 6/21/09 3:30 p.m. See below.] On June 15, Jake Zien stood outside the Bed Bath & Beyond store on 6th Avenue in New York gazing at a giant poster of himself in a sprawling window display. The display features his product, Pivot Power, a flexible power strip that he invented with the help of Quirky—a New York-based company that solicits product ideas from everyday people via its website, and then patents, produces, and markets the finished goods. “This is crazy, it’s amazing,” Zien said, seeing the display for the first time. “It’s a thrill to see my product sold nationally.”

Quirky has only been around for two years, but its out-of-the-box approach to product development is generating buzz around the world. At the company’s bustling headquarters in early June, a camera crew from the Sundance Channel was wrapping up a reality series on Quirky that will air in August. Quirky’s marketing folks had just returned from an appearance on the Home Shopping Network, where they spotlighted products ranging from a clip-on LED desk lamp to a shower-organizing system—all designed by off-the-street inventors and submitted on Quirky.com. John Jacobsen, Quirky’s head of engineering, calls the startup a social product-development company. “The basic concept,” he says, “is we are trying to make invention accessible.”

Quirky.com centers around the 67,000 would-be inventors and consumers who have registered on the site. Anyone with an idea can go there and answer two simple questions: “What problem are you trying to solve?” and “How do you intend to solve it?” Inventors can also submit ideas for Quirky-posed challenges, like “help invent a barbecue product” or “help invent a suction product.” Then the other members of the community vote on which ideas they like the best.

Every week, the Quirky staff evaluates two of the ideas that have received the most votes and decides whether to produce them. The company has made 25 products and is in the process of manufacturing 15 more. And while the products are branded and patented by Quirky, the deal the company has with the community is that everyone who contributes gets some sort of royalty—from the original inventor, to the people who suggest colors for the product, to the shoppers who pre-order products. “If you put your credit card down” before a product is available, Jacobsen says, “you get a small royalty for being an early adopter.” [Paragraph updated to clarify product availability.]

All together, Quirky gives 30 percent of sales back to the community as royalties, Jacobsen says, with about 12 percent of the total for each product going to the original inventor. Quirky celebrates successful inventors, featuring their names and faces not only on the website, but also on the product packaging.

And as Zien is demonstrating, it’s possible to become quite wealthy by inventing a Quirky product. Jacobsen says Zien earned $28,000 in royalties after Pivot Power’s first month on the market. “It’s not far-fetched that he’ll make in excess of $100,000 in royalties in the first year, based on the projected volumes,” Jacobsen says.

Pivot Power was born from frustration: In 2006, when he was in high school, Zien found it was becoming increasingly difficult to charge his electronic gadgets. “All the big plugs would block each other” in outlets or power strips, he says. “I had power strips with eight plugs, but I could only use three. It was a stupid, annoying problem.” So he designed a power strip that could bend in many different directions, opening up each outlet so it could fit large or odd-shaped plugs.

Jake Zien invented Quirky's Pivot Power

Zien, who went on to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, refined Pivot Power with 3D modeling software, but didn’t know what to do from there. Then a family friend pointed him to Quirky. He submitted the idea on the website in 2010 and quickly collected enough votes to grab the attention of Quirky’s engineers and designers. They made a prototype using Quirky’s giant, in-house 3D printer, (affectionately dubbed Bertha by the staff). The printer churned out plastic in perfectly shaped layers until the model was complete. Quirky then passed that model along to manufacturing partners who specialize in making electrical components.

Zien, who now works in New York as a designer for a social-media startup, says he couldn’t have invented Pivot Power without Quirky. “Even if I had $10,000 to get a patent, I’d still be this one guy trying to convince big companies to produce it,” he says. “Quirky truly is the missing piece.”

Quirky is one of several New York-based companies that have embraced 3D printing as a key part of their business models. MakerBot Industries, for example, sells low-priced 3D printers and accessories directly to consumers. Shapeways, which recently moved from the Netherlands to New York, allows inventors to upload their designs to the company’s website and then prints models for them. But unlike those companies, Jacobsen says, Quirky treats 3D printing as part of a bigger process. “It’s integral, but it’s not the end result,” he says.

The startup’s staff of more than 40 includes product-development pros, marketing experts, packaging designers, and patent lawyers. The company was founded by 24-year-old Ben Kaufman, a serial entrepreneur who founded an iPod accessories maker called Morphie and sold it to Michigan-based mStation in 2007 for an undisclosed sum. Kaufman has surrounded himself with an impressive slate of consumer-products veterans, including Jacobsen, who previously worked for Smart Design, where he created products for brands like Logitech, Pyrex, and Corningware.

Quirky has raised about $8.5 million, according to regulatory filings. Investors include RRE Ventures, Contour Venture Partners, and Lowercase Capital.

Even though the company is now bringing in some revenues, it will need to raise more venture funding, Jacobsen says. “We’re maxed out in our physical space, and we want to scale and grow,” he says.

Meantime, Quirky continues to add to its selection of, well, quirky products. There’s everything from Broom Groomer, a dustpan with bristles that clean dirty brooms, to Wrapster, a gadget that prevents earbud headphones from getting tangled. The products all are all very different, but they have one thing in common, Jacobsen says. “The community curated the ideas,” he says. “We’re an open-source product-development company.”

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