Quirky is probably the most interesting experiment in how products are designed and produced in recent memory. But when they launched, they seemed like a bold but ultimately wild-eyed idea. No more: They just secured an impressive $6 million in Series A venture financing.
Quirky turns the standard product design process on its head—think of it as collaborative product development. Here's how it works:
The site caters to any cocktail-napkin Thomas Edison. Inventors pay $99 to submit an idea. Each week, the community rates the new batch. Among the ideas that come across the site in any given week, you might vote for, let's say, three: An RFID dog bowl that keeps other pets from chomping Rover’s kibble; a double-sided USB stick, for separating work and personal files; and a credit card-shaped holder that stores a half-dozen sim cards, for example. You pan the underarm maxipads and the dog mints, among other things.
Best outcome for you, the inventor: Your idea gets produced. Worst outcome: free advice and feedback.
Quirky's own team of industrial designers are the ones initially vetting the ideas and choosing the ones to be mocked up as renderings. These are then put back in front of the Quirky community for further vetting and refinement. Finally, if a concept wins out over competing ideas in a public vote, anyone gets a chance to pre-order the product. Once enough pre-orders are secured, the product goes in for limited-run production.
Quirky originally started just nine months ago with $1.6 million gathered from friends and family of its apple-cheeked, 23-year-old founder, Ben Kaufman. (More on him in a second.) The new funds are earmarked for construction of a full-scale rapid prototyping shop, a global sales force and retail distribution, 24-hour design and engineering, and new interactive tools for the site. Kaufman will remain as founder and CEO, but he'll of course be joined with some VC types: Mitch Lowe, who founded and ran Jumpstart Automotive Media, will be serving chairman of the board and will have a day-to-day management role; and James D. Robinson IV of RRE Ventures will serve on the board as well. RRE is, like Quirky, based in New York. They led the financing round, with additional cash coming from unnamed angels and three other VC firms: Village Ventures, Contour Venture Partners, and Lowercase Capital.
Kaufman invented Quirky at the tender age of 22. It’s his third company. At 18, he had an idea for an earphone lanyard. His parents mortgaged their house to fund it, and a year later, in 2006, his new company, Mophie, won Best in Show at Macworld. But by 2007, the iPod accessories market was already glutted. So at the next Macworld, Kaufman, and his employees gave out 3,000 notepads and told people: You invent our next product.
Mophie then developed the best one: A case for the iPod Shuffle that doubled as a bottle opener. "That product was invented by a 17-year-old skater. At best, the prototype would have been junked at a flea market," Kaufman says. "But it ended up being sold in 25 countries." And that’s when Kaufman realized that he was more interested in developing products—and in helping people like himself, when he was 18. So he sold Mophie, and built a platform for idea sharing, called Kluster.
In June 2009, Quirky went live. "Until we get a product produced, it’s a fairy tale," Kaufman said shortly thereafter. But he was confident—after all, the community had 10,000 members in its third week, and 11 ideas. (He started with the idea that 15 to 20 ideas per week would sustain the operation.) "We could probably sell 10,000 copies of our cord retractor, the Slingback. Easy. Easy," the young entrepreneur said back then. Today, Quirky has a user base of 20,000 and has put 12 products into production.