As he prepared for the 2007 Macworld Expo, 19-year-old inventor Ben Kaufman wondered how he could ever top the buzz his company, mophie, had generated at the 2006 event. Instead of shooting for another iLounge Best of Show award with a clever new iPod case, he decided to invent a product on the spot—and enlisted total strangers to help him do it. Decorating his booth with messages like “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If?” and “Design, Doodle, Deliver,” Kaufman gave out pens and sketchpads and asked people to help design mophie’s 2007 product line. After posting over 100 submissions on the Web, he held a vote for the top three ideas. Bringing in designers equipped with tools like laser cutters, he transformed his booth into a miniature industrial design center and cranked out a series of prototypes for actual products. He didn’t win any prizes, but turned quite a few heads. Now 25, Kaufman is CEO of the consumer product company Quirky, which is transforming manufacturing by letting consumers decide what gets produced. I sat down with the opinionated, occasionally profane Kaufman at his company’s Manhattan workspace to talk about Quirky product development, the virtues of big-box retail, and why crowdsourcing is bullshit.
How did you get into inventing stuff?
I was a horrible student. Just couldn’t stay focused for the life of me. I was in the back of math class my senior year in high school trying to figure out a way to listen to my iPod without my teacher realizing I didn’t give a shit what she was saying. I went home and prototyped a product out of ribbon and giftwrap and created the first lanyard headphone for the iPod Shuffle. My parents remortgaged their house so that I could go to China and build my first product. That product turned into my first company, mophie—named after my two dogs, Molly and Sophie. Mophie was an Apple accessory company that did cases, clips, batteries, et cetera. [Kaufman sold mophie, which produces the popular Juice Pack rechargeable battery case, in 2007.]
How did you get from lanyard headphones to creating a community-based invention engine?
I was on the subway and I saw a woman wearing a product I designed and it was the best feeling in the world. At the same time, I realized that I wasn’t unique in having had an idea. Everyone has ideas. I was unique in that all these circumstances lined up to allow me to execute my idea. The best ideas don’t always come out in the world—the ideas that have luck and circumstance and pedigree make it. That didn’t seem right. I realized my passion wasn’t developing iPod condoms, it was figuring out how to make invention accessible. I started focusing on how to execute on your idea because it’s good and not because you happen to have the finances to quit your job.
How does social product development work?
People come to our website and submit their product ideas by answering a few simple questions. What problem are you solving? What are your key features? What does your competition look like? They can attach whatever files they want. It goes to a community of over 200,000 people that go in and vote and rate and comment. We take the top ideas and whittle them down by asking, “What’s the viability of this? Are we going to infringe on anyone’s patents by moving forward with this?”
Have people executed their design ideas to a certain point, or are they just saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a flexible power strip?”
We get inventors who have patents and prototypes and tooled-up product, and then we get people who are just telling us their dreams of what life would be like with a better product. We’re now getting around 1,500 product ideas a week, and that’s growing pretty quickly.
What happens once an idea makes it through your vetting process?
It moves forward into rapid product development, which is broken into 10-15 little projects that run very quickly, usually in a couple of weeks: industrial design, mechanical engineering, naming the product, colors, taglines, materials, finishes. The community works on every one of those small tasks to push the product forward. The Quirky staff of industrial designers and mechanical engineers shepherd people through to make sure there’s a cohesive product story.
You have an in-house staff of engineers and designers?
Yes, that’s fundamental to the company. We can’t successfully make invention accessible unless we can look an inventor in the eye and say with the utmost certainty, “We got you. No matter what your idea is, we can take you from soup to nuts. If you need technology to go along with it, we have technology guys. If it takes a video to explain your product, we got the video guys.” I didn’t want to hire electrical engineers on a contract basis. The people who work here are personalities that the community understands and trusts. Everyone knows JJ [Quirky’s head of engineering John Jacobsen] is going to help engineer their products. JJ was a top engineer at Smart Design and engineered every Oxo product for the last ten years. That makes people confident that, if their product is engineering-heavy, they’re in good hands.
What happens once you have a working prototype?
We create a video, a beautiful argument for why this product should be made. We put it on our website and we do price discovery. We have a section with all of the products that are in prototype mode and we ask what price would be a good value, what price too expensive. We take that into consideration along with the cost of making the product and how many people are getting excited about it in social media; then we make a decision as to whether or not it moves forward. If it moves forward, it gets produced and winds up on store shelves, and everyone’s happy.
Do the people who contribute ideas get a piece of the action?
Why don’t you like to call it crowdsourcing?
Fundamental to that term is the notion that the community is smarter than the experts, that you can do better by just pulling from the community and forgetting about what the experts say. That is not sustainable. It doesn’t work and it creates fatigue within the community and within the company. What we do is both push and pull. We’re feeding the community designs; they’re responding to them. They’re feeding us ideas; we’re feeding them expertise. It’s much more of a conversation, a collaboration, or co-creation.
With social product development and 3D printing enabling fast prototyping, are we going to see a new economic model based on dispersed manufacturing?
If you talk to the MakerBot guys or any gung-ho, 3D printing motherfuckers, they’re going to tell you every kitchen in America will have a 3D printer and if people need a fork they’re going to print a fork. I don’t see that happening. No one wants to deal with that shit. No one wants to deal with putting plastic into a machine and cleaning it. Do I see factories getting more agile? Do I see hardened steel tools becoming less important? Absolutely. But I believe in mass. Most people in my space are about mass customization—people designing one-off things that can be printed and created on demand with no inventory. I believe in Bed Bath & Beyond. I believe in companies that sell not one of things but hundreds of thousands of things. I understand you get a nice little glitzy feeling when something’s created for you and just for you. But most people want it cheap, they want it quick, they don’t want to think. You want a fork, here’s this motherfucking fork. Actually, here’s a 50-pack of forks.
But you want the products at Bed Bath & Beyond to be better and more ingenious.
The best ideas in the world sometimes lead to better products, sometimes lead to cheaper products, sometimes lead to more beautiful products. Those are the three pillars. There aren’t too many crazy innovative ideas that the world needs, but they’re around. I think our power strip is a good example of that. The world needed that and it came to life because Quirky existed. People say, “Why are you creating so much stuff? The world doesn’t need more stuff.” To that I say, “Well the world’s going to have stuff no matter what. Why not make sure that the stuff the world’s getting is the stuff the world actually wants?” We’re the only company that is going to produce the products people are actually saying they want.
Does it work as a business model?
We did $1 million in revenue in 2010, our first year selling products. We did $7 million last year, and this year will be around $25 million. We’re about to announce that we’ve sold a million units of community-developed product that would not have existed without our company.
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