A Quirky Idea

The use of web-enabled networks of people working to solve problems or to get things done is already well-established. Translation, marketing design proposals, and many other applications are continually popping up and mutating. By marrying the crowdsourcing model with the quick turnaround of 3D printers (The Beginning of the End of Scale Production Thinking?) to make prototypes and, in some cases, to produce final end products for sale, a growing number of companies are enabling anyone with a product idea to get feedback on their product design, to have prototypes made, and to sell their final product online and, in some cases, bricks and mortar stores.

One example is Quirky (http://www.quirky.com/), which The Economist visited recently:

Its new design studio in a converted warehouse near the Hudson river includes a small factory complete with a couple of 3D printers, a laser cutter, milling machines, a spray-painting booth and other bits of equipment. This prototyping shop is central to Quirky’s business of turning other people’s ideas into products.

With the help of a growing online community, Quirky comes up with two new consumer products a week. It works like this: a user submits an idea and if enough people like it (as on Facebook), Quirky’s product-development team makes a prototype. Users review this online and can contribute towards its final design, packaging and marketing, and help set a price for it. Quirky then looks for suitable manufacturers. The product is sold on the Quirky website and, if demand grows, by retail chains. Quirky also handles patents and standards approvals and gives a 30% share of the revenue from direct sales to the inventors and others who have helped.

Quirky’s most successful product so far is called Pivot Power. It is a $29.99 electrical extension lead with adjustable sockets, which makes it easier to plug-in different chargers. Jake Zien of Milwaukee came up with the idea when he was at high school, submitted it to Quirky and was helped by 709 people to bring it to market. By early April, with over 200,000 of the gadgets sold, Mr Zien had made $124,000 from his invention.

By using its community as a sounding board, Quirky can quickly establish if there is a market for a product and set the right price before committing itself to making it. Much of the firm’s production is carried out by subcontractors in Asia, particularly China. The speed with which they can turn designs into products is hard to match anywhere else, says Ben Kaufman, Quirky’s chief executive. Additive manufacturing is not yet capable of doing this on a large-scale, he points out, but that could change.

Quirky is hoping to make more things in America because it sees benefits in being close to manufacturing technology. “The amount of creativity that happens when you are standing next to a machine that’s making hundreds of thousands of things is much greater than when you are working 4,000 miles away,” says Mr Kaufman. “Your mind is spinning as to what else you can design for the machine to make.”

An update: Pivot Power as of June 16, 2012 has sold 256,000 units with $290,000 paid out to the inventors and others who helped.

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