Sun, Aug 28, 2011 - Page 10 News List

Invention site Quirky finds genius in the masses

A new Internet startup gives everyone the opportunity to be an inventor and the chance to have their product developed and sold, as long as it can survive the voting stage

By Jake Coyle  /  AP, NEW YORK

Quirky Inc’s offices, at first glance, 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 Web site 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 crowd-sourcing, it still relies on nuts-and-bolts creation of tangible goods. Beyond Quirky’s rows of desks lurks a design shop, complete with a 3D 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 US$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 on Tuesday, the Sundance Channel will premiere Quirky, a six-episode reality series that documents the fast-paced life at Quirky.

“There’s a difference between your crazy scientist garage inventor and regular people,” Kaufman says. “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 pre-sale. 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.

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