Invent It, Make It, Sell It – Quirky Empowers Consumers to Innovate

John Jacobsen, Quirky

Have you ever had a great idea for a design? An innovation that could save time and countless frustrations? If only you had an outlet for your brilliant invention – a way to get it created and on the shelf at Target or OfficeMax. That’s what New-York-based social product development company Quirky does every day.

Quirky has grown a collaborative global community of over 200,000 members who actively participate in the invention of new products, commenting and voting on the designs of their peers. The most popular designs are manufactured, patented and often passed along to big-name companies like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond at a cost of just $10 to the inventor.

I caught up with John Jacobsen, head of engineering, research and development at Quirky, at PlanetPTC Live 2012.

What is Quirky and why are you different from crowdsourcing companies?

We bring an idea or a concept of a product to life. We do all the heavy lifting to take that idea through to design, development, research, testing, branding, communication, packaging, manufacturing, and onto the shelf.

It is not crowdsourcing. It’s true participation where the community is involved throughout, from the idea itself to every decision that has to be made along the way – and it’s all done in exchange for a lifetime perpetual royalty. Crowdsourcing is about putting a question out to the community and saying I’ll pay you for your idea, but it’s a one-time transactional thing and once that challenge is done I don’t want to know about the community. It’s very different from what Quirky does. Our community members are engaged and consistently come back because they believe in Quirky as a brand and they want it to do well.

What kinds of products has your community developed?

We try to stay very open, but some categories of product are defined. We tend to focus on solving everyday problems that naturally occur in your life – so products you’d find in the kitchen, or nursery, but we’re not limited to that. And we can get a really broad range of ideas – something simple, like for instance, when you unplug your phone charger and the wire falls behind your desk or table – we have a paper-weight-like gadget with rubber fingers that holds your cable in place.

Then we can also get ideas that are fully patented. The inventor may have been working on it for two or three years. Something that came in recently was an automatic toilet paper dispenser. Our company is about open innovation and we’re not limited to one type of idea.

How do you know which products are going to be successful in the marketplace?

We work very closely with retailers and Quirky experts know where there’s a gap in the market and what retailers are looking for. Our community doesn’t necessarily know those things. It’s a good combination of experts at Quirky and then our community.

You’re making revenue from these products. As an open community do you worry about others taking your ideas and going to market before you?

There is some risk, but it’s a trade-off. By not opening your notebook and sharing ideas you’re missing out. And we are very fast out of the gate. All of our tools and processes we use in-house and all our methods are about taking ideas and articulating them as quickly as possible – staying ahead of the curve. And we don’t really have direct competition because most of our contemporaries are big product development institutions struggling to figure out how to do things with a community. Traditional product development firms also have a much slower cycle.

Who are your buyers?

We have over 7,000 doors open around the world. We sell to retailers like Target, and we’re also on Amazon and have our own e-store. What retailers love about what we’re doing is we’re bringing something fresh which theoretically represents the voice of the customer. Retailers want something innovative that speaks to and satiates the customer, and we’re doing it at such a rapid pace -traditional product development companies have long drawn-out processes.

We hear a lot of doom and gloom about how manufacturing and innovation are dead in the United States. Do you think Quirky and companies like it can bring new vision and life?

We do make some products abroad. It makes a business model work and it can be cost efficient. But what I’ve seen in the past year or so is that things are beginning to change. Asia is not as cost efficient anymore. They are being more selective. If you’re a small company they’re not that interested in you because the volumes aren’t there for them.

What are the benefits of keeping the manufacture of your products in the United States?

Quality and accountability. So often when we manufacture abroad we don’t know what product we’re getting back. If it’s a child’s product and there’s lead in it. There’s a disconnect – there’s thousands of miles in between and cultural differences. People want more meaning in their lives and more meaningful products and they’re willing to pay a premium if they feel they’re getting better, higher quality and more honest products.

We’ve started to work with local manufacturers. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work. The initial costs in tooling and labor are higher but the trade-off is that it’s a better quality product; maybe you can even make it faster. You can drive a few hours and actually have a face-to-face meeting with your manufacturer and solve issues. And there’s a hunger. Manufactures want to keep their factories at home and they want to hire more people in the US.

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