Products available: 100
Products to be introduced between now and December: approximately 25
Lesson: People will contribute really terrific brainstorms for a 4 percent share.
Here’s Ben Kaufman’s business, in capsule form. You have an idea for an invention. You submit your concept, one of 3,000 per week, to his website, Quirky. Hundreds of users vote on it, and the most up-voted ideas rise to the top of the pile. Then, every Thursday night, 200 people gather under a bank of webcams, with Kaufman and three or four other people up front, where they pick over the front-runners. Viewers weigh in again, and the room chooses three items to put into development, with Quirky’s engineers taking over. (They once got a kitchen item—an egg separator called Pluck—into Bed Bath & Beyond 29 days after the crit ended.) If you voted for, say, the winning color, your name will appear, in microtype, on the product’s packaging, and you’ll get a tiny slice of the profits. It’s a pretty rare company that’s so hippieish—Let’s have everyone get a say!—yet so purely free-market. Hence the transparency: “We don’t want to be the big bad company sending you a little form letter,” says Kaufman, 26, whose participation is so active that his business card lists “maker” and “breaker” along with “founder.” “I’ll stand up there on a Thursday night, and we’ll discuss it. I’ll look you in the eye and tell you why your idea isn’t good.”
Two things stand out here. One: The wisdom of crowds is taken only so far. The hive mind helps, but Quirky’s people are in charge. (This has become truer since the company’s early days, when the process was looser.) Kaufman even stops me when I mention crowdsourcing, saying “I don’t use that word.” Quirky’s newest partner, in fact, is General Electric.
And two, the inventor’s take tops out around 4 percent, once retailers and distributors and Quirky and all those little names on the box take their cuts. How you, the inventor, feel about that may depend on your mind-set going in. The Quirky route is not for the aggressive Zuckerbergian solo entrepreneur. It’s for the person who’s had an unexecuted sketch on a crumbling Post-it stuck to the fridge for five years. Of the 80-plus inventors whose products Quirky has brought to market, many, Kaufman says, “are in, like, salary range: $30,000 to $40,000.”
If anyone has come out of this with the best possible attitude, it’s Jake Zien. He designed Pivot Power, a strip of electrical outlets that flexes to admit oversize plugs. It’s Quirky’s runaway hit, with (as of last week) 612,054 sold; Zien’s cut is about $400,000. He cooked up the idea as a high-school student and made a few halfhearted salvos at established manufacturers. Then Quirky appeared. “Listen—and I know this sounds coached, but it isn’t—I didn’t think I was gonna make anything,” he says. “Two percent, 3 percent, whatever it comes out to? One percent is a gigantic share of a business. People think if it’s your idea, that gives you three-quarters. Having gone to design school, I know that’s just the beginning.”