There’s no stopping 26-year-old Ben Kaufman.
Every week, his New York City-based company receives 2,000 new product ideas from its online community of wannabe inventors. A handful of those ideas are given the green light and thrown into development. At the end of the week those products are ready to ship to stores around the country.
Kaufman built Quirky—now a $50 million business—from the ground up in just five years. The company handles everything from design concept to manufacturing, and has brought more than 100 new products to market so far, selling to big-box stores like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy. It has attracted close to $100 million in investments, and recently earned a contract with industry giant General Electric.
But Kaufman’s not ready to sit back and enjoy the spoils just yet. “I’m always learning,” he says. “Invention is never finished.”
Quirky evolved out of Kaufman’s experiences with his first business endeavor Mophie, which continues to make cool paraphernalia for Apple products.
Mophie won “Best in Show” at MacWorld 2006 when Kaufman was still a teenager. He sold the business a year later to raise capital for Quirky. Mophie is now worth over $100 million in revenue.
“Through Mophie I learned how difficult it is to build a consumer product,” Kaufman says. “I went through all this hard stuff to get that product out there and I realized the best ideas in the world aren’t actually in the world, they are locked in people’s heads.”
You get the feeling Kaufman—who never attended college—knows what it’s like to be in the trenches. Through his own struggles as a young entrepreneur trying to sell his idea, he inadvertently stumbled across an untapped market and a source of raw innovation.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a company that took your good ideas and did all the hard stuff for you, provided a platform or infrastructure, so you didn’t have to worry about quitting your job or dropping out of college to get your product idea out there?”
Half a decade into Quirky’s journey and Kaufman admits it has been a pretty crazy ride – something that probably couldn’t have happened 10 or 20 years ago. Posting your ideas online to be voted on and commented on would have been a scary concept just a generation ago. But things are changing rapidly.
“This generation understands the internet and it’s comfortable around social media. It’s been a huge shift and it has made Quirky something people can wrap their heads around,” Kaufman says.
There’s something exhilarating and rebellious about the Quirky model. It’s grassroots innovation at its best. Taking power away from the Man and giving it back to the people. The company has a thriving online community of 500,000. Regular folks with regular lives who have great ideas they want to share.
“The best products aren’t born in the boardroom; they’re born in the living room. Quirky is in the living room talking to real people with real ideas,” Kaufman says.
Will this bottom-up approach, where the consumer is both inventor and manufacturer, revolutionize product development?
“Yes,” Kaufman smiles, as if the answer to this question is already abundantly clear. “It will completely change the way consumer products exist and come to be.”
Quirky’s products are for the most part just that, quirky. But they’re also useful—ice scrapers, kitchen utensils, and organizers that have proven very popular with consumers. Quirky’s bestselling item, the Pivot Power, is a flexible power strip that can be manipulated into lots of different positions. It retails for $30 and 665,000 of them have been sold nationwide.
Quirky’s success is in large part due to its fast turnaround. As soon as a new product idea is given a “yes” vote by the community, it’s in production. Time constraint is part of the Quirky culture and one that’s worked to its advantage.
“At Quirky we take on impossible projects and build great things, but we also work on crazy timelines with limited resources and limited people,” Kaufman says. “As we’ve grown we’ve maintained those constraints.”
Everyone at Quirky knows that the Empire State Building was built in one year and 45 days and the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star fighter jet was built in 143 days. It’s Kaufman’s favorite mantra: Constraints give way to really great invention.
With a huge pool of community members Quirky has a unique insight into what consumers really want, and its small team and nimble product development process allows it to innovate faster than most “traditional” manufacturers. But Quirky’s bullish nature and can-do attitude is really what brings innovation to life here. And it’s this same bullishness that larger, more established manufacturers often lack.
Asked why some companies struggle to innovate, Kaufman responds without hesitation: “People are afraid to make decisions. It’s that simple. They’re afraid they’re going to be wrong. As soon as you start embracing risk things start moving along.”
Forward-looking manufacturers can learn a lot from Quirky. And the company has already generated interest from major players like GE, which recently partnered with Kaufman to build a line of smart connected products for the home, available for purchase in time for the holiday season.
“When I started Quirky one of the few companies I looked to for inspiration was GE,” Kaufman says. “They figured out how to commercialize invention.”
At first glance the Quirky-GE partnership may seem like an odd one. But while their products are quite different in many respects, the two companies share a core philosophy around innovation.
“We see a grown-up Quirky in GE and they see a young GE in Quirky,” Kaufman says.
GE brings with it a rich history of innovation along with myriad global research centers and scientists. Quirky brings modern technology like 3D printing, and an intimate knowledge of online communities and crowdsourcing. More importantly, Quirky is not afraid to take risks, and that, Kaufman believes, is what got GE’s attention.
“We have a lot of mutual respect for one another,” Kaufman says of the Quirky-GE relationship. “We were talking together for maybe two or three years about partnering, and when this category of connected products came up there was no stopping us.”
The Quirky + GE co-branded product line—for sale at Home Depot and Best Buy— runs the gamut from smart egg trays that notify you when you’re running low on eggs or when your eggs go bad, to multipurpose sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, light, sound, and motion within your home. All of the products connect to smartphones with an app called “WINK” so users can access information on the go.
“We’re very happy so far,” says Linda Boff, executive director of global brand marketing at GE and part of the team leading the Quirky + GE relationship.
In fact, just this week GE announced it will sink $30 million into Quirky and launch 30 new products with it over the next five years. GE believes its partnership will help drive faster innovation and scale in what will be a $25 billion connected devices market.
But is this partnership in some way selling out to big corporations? Kaufman bristles at the notion. “Not at all,” he rebuffs. “We are making invention accessible, we are giving the community tools to get its ideas out there and shape the future of the consumer world.”
As part of the partnership, GE has also made its existing patents available to the Quirky community – an unusual move for such an industry heavyweight, but one that could prove beneficial to both parties.
“It’s not like the Quirky community is going to try to build a jet with this information,” Kaufman laughs. “But the patents can be useful in other ways. It puts patents back in their rightful place which is to act as a source of inspiration for future inventors and not a fenced-in source of corporate warfare.”
So what’s next for Quirky? We can expect a move away from commodity products and more focus on “provocative” electronics and technologies, Kaufman says.
“We’re going deep into this connected world and taking on a lot of fun projects. You’ll see a more sophisticated Quirky going forward.”
Photos taken by Albert Ayzenberg