How Quirky.com Killed My Dreams of Becoming an Inventor
Well, not quite. It was more fun than anything else, but you have to be prepared for criticism when you submit your idea to one of the most famous online invention incubators which is driven exclusively by “crowdsourcing”.
Crowdsourcing, is a relatively new online phenomenon which relies on the wisdom of the crowds to dictate the ultimate success or failure of a product, a brand or an idea.
I first read about Quirky.com while on a Delta flight to Colorado. Delta actually went ahead and field tested the theory.
For our February 2010 article on crowdsourcing (read the article here), we thought a fitting way to illustrate (literally) the concept of crowdsourcing was to tap the thousands of graphic designers on the Internet for our headline treatment. We submitted a request for designs on crowdspring.com and received more than 100 submissions, from professionals and amateurs alike. Here are some of our favorites, along with explanations from the artists and feedback from our art director.
The article described this amazing site where you could submit an idea for $100 and if it made it through the evaluation stage could eventually end up being manufactured, marketed and distributed through the financial backing of 23-old Quirky.com founder, Ben Kaufman.
Kaufman calls himself the “Poster Boy” of amateur inventors and started his career at the age of 18 with a product called Mophie and two years later won Macworld “Best of Show. Over the last two years has a built of team of researchers, developers and technology platforms under the Quirky.com label which allows a nobody like me to submit any idea I like at a mere $100.
According to Kaufman, his parents mortgaged their house to help finance one of his inventions while he was still in his teens. Those are cool parents.
If Quirky accept your idea they get to get most of the profits. Officially, this is their line:
30% of all top line revenue brought in by each by our quirky.com store, as well as 10% of our wholeale/retail sales goes back toward towards rewarding the community…and when we say “community” we mean the person who posted the winning product idea as well as the influencers along the way. So even if you weren’t feeling super inventy that day and you just rode someone else’s project’s coattails, you can still cash out for having influenced (voted for) one of the ideas that did win.
That fact that they keep 70% of the profits and only 30% is shared with community does not really bother me. Do you really have the time, energy or cash to put oneself through the rigours of patenting, copyrighting, protecting, safeguarding, building, distributing and fighting for their invention to come to life on your own?
I sure don’t, especially after reading books about such great inventors as Nicole Tesla who struggled most of his life to get the recognition and financial award for his brilliant inventions.
There is also the chance you will be labelled a “mad scientist” if you pursue your invention into the grave. Seems like a lot of work. No, thanks, I would rather take the easy way out and now days the Internet allows you do just that through sites such as Quirky.
Now, I am not saying my invention was on the same league as any of Tesla’s whose last patent in 1928 involved a type of Vertical Takeoff AndLanding plane (VTOL) very similar to the future British Harrier Jet stationed on naval battleships.
In fact, my product scored very low on the Quirky ratings system and I never got an “Oh Wow” whenever I mentioned my idea to a friend or co-worker. But, I did consider it relevant, simple and elegant. Plus, what did they know. The world is full of naysayers. My product rocks!
To put you out of your misery, my idea was to simply implant a thin mirror upon the inside panel of an iPad cover. The iPhone variant involved embedding the mirror on the back of the rubber casing one buys for an iPhone.
Well, I thought it was pretty neat and adhered to the KISS principle. I did some competitive analysis and found there was a product which advertised a mirror casing for the iPhone. However, it’s main intent was protection; not vanity. It did not really get the idea across.
As far as I could tell nobody has used my approach in the iPhone rubber casing. Further, there was no similar product for the iPhone. Trust me, I looked! If any reader has further links for me to review, please add them to the comments below.
Whenever I told somebody about my idea their usual reaction was “oh there must be something like that already”. I took this as a good sign since it implied it should exist.
The specific intent of my device was to appeal to the vanity of female user. Surely, I thought, she would find this useful?
I went to work and came up with this marketing pitch:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the fairest Apple user of them all.”
– Female iPad / iPhone user, 2010.
Not only does she want to protect her two prized assets, but she wants to look good doing it.
Mirror is embedded inside cover of iPad case
Mirror is embedded on outside cover of iPhone case.
That’s it! No more, no less. Even if it failed to make it to the factory floor I figured the “idea” just sounded and “looked” good.
You probably noticed I have not yet made any reference to a “Name” for my product. This is an important point since one of the steps after having your product accepted in the evaluation phase is coming up memorable, market winning name.
In stage 1 — Product Evaluation — you had to have a good name to capture peoples attention and give you an edge over the hundreds of other competitive inventions that will be competing against you.
In later stages the community would help you validate that name or come up with a better one if your product made it through the early rounds.
Did I forget to mention you would be in a knockout competition with other inventors? Sorry, yes, there was lots of competition from all over the world!
Now would be good time to explain how their system is set up. It’s kind of like the round of 16 knockout phase in the World Cup except the game goes on for several days and during this time registered users, or Influencers as Quirky calls them, would comment and vote on your product and others.
It’s a very democratic process: During this phase you can reply to comments and make adjustments to the materials you uploaded to the site all the way until clock runs out and the winner is announced.
I bring up this point because I had NO choice but to make adjustments once my product was submitted.
You see, I made the biggest strategic blunder of all before the online games even begun; I chose a name whose complete meaning I did not fully understand.
And, of course, any Influencer worth his (or her) salt on Quirky would not miss an opportunity to point this out. And, point it out they did, leading to much embarrassment on my part.
What was this name you ask, that caused so much mirth and laughter?
Well, I thought I would be ultra-clever and find a Latin name to codify my product and give it a Romanesque edge. Ummm, it was late night and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
My Big Pre-Game Blunder
After a few Google Latin searches I had my name: Speculum. It’s literal meaning is “Mirror” in English. I will get to it’s actual meaning in a few paragraphs, but if you are really impatient click here to catch a preview.
Girls, I am sure you do not even need to click that link, you should know this already. Right?
But there were a few idiot males like myself who had no idea. I apologize in advance for my stupidity. I just hope there are few other male readers who will also own up to NOT knowing the name of this instrument or its modern meaning.
Okay, now that some of you have finished laughing, let me continue.
Mightily proud of myself I added the finishing touches to my Photoshop PSD, converted it to a JPEG and uploaded the sucker into their system along with my promo description. At this point I felt really confident.
The submission process is very straightforward and my product was assigned to Product Evaluation Group 0046 which meant that less than 50 products had thus far been evaluated and pushed into production on Quirky. There was a countdown clock on the Quirky home page which indicated 0046 evaluation phase would begin in 72 hours at 3 p.m on May 11, 2010.
Finally, my moment of glory arrived and 0046 went live on the home page. Mr Kaufman can be a bit dramatic when announcing each new evaluation, but I liked it!
The horses are at the gate, the gun’s about to fire… ladies and gents, step right up and place your bets. We have a bunch of new product ideas for your perusing pleasure. Maybe you submitted one this round, maybe you didn’t. Either way, it’s time to rate them (just drag those hot pink circles in the direction you’re feeling), then choose your three favorites by checking the boxes next to your top picks. We need YOU to help us select this week’s winner… and we’re o
Unfortunately I noticed that my product within 0046 group was appearing on the middle of page 2 and there were at least 40 other submissions. It was a bit lost in the “crowd” but it was no big deal really.
For some reason Quirky do not include a search box on their front-end site. It may because they don’t want you to bypass the other products or because they are still building up their inventory. I thought I would mention this because if a friend or family member wants to find your product they kind of have to trawl manually through the product list. A slight pain in the neck.
Latin can get you into some serious trouble
Within few hours I had my first comment — you guessed it — relating to the name of my product and making absolutely no reference to the utility and value of the product.
It was from a female Influencer called “Michelle” and she pointed out that the “Speculum”, according to the Wikepedia defination, is a “a medical tool for investigating body cavities”. Ouch. Game over. Crash and Burn. Idiot. How could I not know that. Exit the Round of 16?
Well, no, I was not going to give up that quickly. I quickly wrote back to Jessica Marati, the Community Ambassador at Quirky and asked If I could modify my original submission to reflect a new name?
Yes, it’s possible she said. Within about 30 minutes I had a new name “Hey Good Looking” splashed against all my online promo files.
Unfortunately, there were also some new comments posted which kept poking fun at the old name “Speculum”. Sigh. Once the online community senses a weakness or sees a hole in your product you have public relations disaster on your hands. This is where the community acts on emotion and not logic. It is lesson for any company considering a community platform. Of course they were dead right about the name, but many chose to ignore the intent of the product. Then again, should a good name not invoke a emotional response? Hmmmm.
It was not all bad, during the next two days I got a few positive comments including a clever suggestion to rename my product “Deja Vu” by an Influencer called Michael. Considering my product could be geared towards both the iPhone and the Ipad, this was a very marketable name.
Of course, there were the expected comments that ‘this has been done before” including a link to one of the biggest “mirror” scams on the iPhone app store by Juice Wireless Inc, which is basically just an app which displays a “frame” around your reflection.
Still, they were on the right track. One of my favorite ideas has always been to turn your laptop screen into mirror “screensaver”. Your screen would be composed of liquid chrystals that would somehow mimick “mercury quicksilver” to produce a laptop mirror effect. Now, that would be cool, but I have absolutely NO idea how to do this and will wait for some smart 18-year old kid in India to come up with this application.
By the end of the third day I had roughly 17 comments posted to my product. You could not see who had voted for you as this remains hidden until the product evaluation phase is complete.
My product rivals
While all this was happening other products were faring better or worse. It was quite interesting to see the interplay between the Influencers and the inventor. In some cases, the the inventor was re-posting his submission from earlier failed product evaluations. They were quite determined to make sure their products got as much exposure as possible and appeared to have built up a loyal following from Influencers who had voted for them in earlier evaluations.
You could gauge the interest levels in the product by the number of comments.
In case your wondering what motivates a person to “Influence” a product, it’s quite simple: Cash
According to Quirky Influence is a real-time measure of your contributions to a project. You can earn influence either by submitting a winning idea, or by supporting and refining that winning idea. Quirky kicks back 30% of profits made by any manufactured product back to the community. Thus, any Influencer can win a percentage of this profit if he takes a proactive role in voting, commenting and helping improve products submitted by inventors.
Just like Google search results can be “gamed” to some extent by using black hat practices to push up your ranking, it’s possible that Quirky may be open to some abuse too. I would say from my experience that the majority of the Influencers fall into the same category as the Wikipedia contributors who don’t seem to mind giving up a major portion of their time to contribute to an online community. They are largely forces of good.
However, some of the posts relating to my product submission displayed borderline “spam” comments in the sense that there were just trying to get their post hit-rate up and earn influence. In other words, quantity over quality. I guess you get the bad with the good. On the whole, it was great to have this community feedback.
You may be wondering what other products I was up against. A very few of them listed further below and they ranged from the functional to the outrageous.
Some of these guys have submitted several inventions. They are serious about this stuff!
For example, the inventor of the Hidden Coffee Table, Jared Joyce, has his own Facebook page and added YouTube videos to his Quirky product page. This dude does not play games!
Hidden Storage Coffee Table
Freddie the Fire Hydrant
“Freddie the Fire Hydrant” is a sprinkler lawn toy. Freddie takes the water from the garden hose and sprays it from the hydrant caps of his frame. The user interface has multiple water release settings. Perfect for neighborhood lawns to schoolyard playgrounds.
Underwater Circular Bubble Gun
Basically the idea is to create a waterproof handheld toy gun/device that can create circular bubbles so kids can swim through, play with, shoot at each other underwater.
There were a lot of smart and clever designs in my category 0046. It’s amazing the length some of the inventors will go to tweak and perfect their product even if they have no hope of winning. But I guess it’s this self-belief that turns an amateur inventor into a superstar and its great to see.
There are some very, very smart people out there. I wish some of them would turn their attention to innovative products for the oil industry. If Kevin Costner can do it, I am sure these guys could too.
From the beginning one one product stood out. It was an amazingly simple idea. Almost ludicrously simple. Some of the comments were “I can’t believe this has not been done before”. Whenever you hear these words you know you have a winner on your hands. The products transitional name at the time of submisson was: Mug with Sliced Handle to Keep Teabags In Place
If any of you dudes out there ever drank Roobibos Tea from South Africa you know what I am talking about. The damn tea bag keeps getting sucked back into the brew and getting drowned. It’s annoying as hell. Even though I now live in the United States I have not given up Rooibos Tea as I try to moderate my coffee addiction. I get it down the road in Fort Lauderdale at a place called Meal-In-The-Pie run by South African family who are originally from Durban.
Thus, I immediately saw the utility of the invention. Very, very clever. Extremely simple. Use a parting in the handle to hold the drawstring and tag in place.
The inventor did not use any flashy videos or expend too much effort on elaborate graphics. His innocuous pitch went something like this:
This mug helps holding the teabag in place and to help avoid em from falling in.
Just slide the thread thru the narrow sliced handle – thats actually all there is to say 😉
hope you like it.
Genius! By the time the evaluation phase was over he had 159 comments posted and won a clear majority of the votes. By Stage 4, Product Naming, it became known as “Steepers Keepers”.
While I have not gone into much detail relating to every stage leading up to product manufacture you can simply review the product development history to see all the steps involved. See left hand column of the linked page to review each stage.
You will notice that the community contributes name suggestions and actual industrial / logo designs along the way until the product is 100% ready to be templatized for industrial manufacture, probably in China somewhere. Not sure.
Its amazing that 22-year olds are coming up with sites such as Quirky, SwipeBids and Facebook. Part of the reason may be due to the 10,000 hour rule mentioned in my review of Outliers By Malcolm Gladwell.
He argues it takes roughly 10 years or 10,000 hours to become a Genius. It’s within everyone’s reach if you put the in the time and remain passionate. Since these kids grew up in the Internet jet stream by the time they hit their 20s they have already consumed vast amounts of Internet information and are probably well over 10,000 hours and approaching “Genius Broadband Capacity”.
If its the “right” information, for example learning to program or develop websites like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg then you have an edge by the time you get to College. If you can apply yourself with “Imagination” out comes something like Facebook. You are already an ‘technology’ expert. You do not necessarily need additional education. Remember, that Zuckerberg came up with Facebook in first year at Harvard. It was the offshoot of previous application which allowed you to vote on who was the hottest girl on campus. This controversial voting app almost got him expelled. He ended up putting his Harvard education on hold to aim for the lofty goal of attaining 1 million unique Facebook users. He went well past that, including Google.
Anyway, it’s a throw away thought but there may be some logic in there somewhere. You also have to give Ben Kaufman’s parents a lot of credit: They remortgaged their house to allow him to pursue his ideas. That’s unusual but that’s maybe what it takes too.
At the time of writing this article Steeper Keeper was already in production and retailing for $8.00 on Quirky. It’s new tag line: Brews the bag, not the tag.
Another product, Switch, an advanced pocket knife was retailing for $79.
Personally, I am not sure I would ever buy that knife, but I am damn close to purchasing Steeper Keeper for my Rooibos tea at work. Well done Marc — keep those inventions coming!