I am obsessed with the twin ideas of innovation and invention as the engines that propel us forward. And its not the idea of reaching a destination that interests me as much as the process of getting there, because the process disciplines our brains to think creatively, leapfrog real or imaginary boundaries – and that is where the real fun is. CNN’s The Next List – if you’re not aware, the show is hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta and airs at 2pm ET every Sunday – recently caught my attention with this short clip on Ben Kaufman, founder of Quirky, a company that is pushing the boundaries of open source collaborative invention and product development.
Intrigued? You can hear more about Ben and Quirky on The Next List at 2pm this Sunday 5/6.
In the meantime, here’s what fascinates me about the company – other than the fact that Ben is only 25 years old and started working on the idea when he was 19. The average life expectancy of Fortune 100 companies is now only 15 years. Given their size and centralized decision-making, these companies are simply not equipped to innovate internally in a consistent manner, and not agile enough to respond quickly to external innovations. At the other end of the spectrum are inventors who have ideas to solve for everyday challenges, but not the resources to develop and market them. Quirky brings the two together.
To begin with, inventors submit their ideas on Quirky’s website. Step 2 consists of Quirky’s 205,127-strong community voting for the ideas they believe will add value to their everyday. To prevent gaming, each community member is allowed only 15 votes as an incentive to vote on only the ideas they believe in the most. In step 3, all of Quirky’s employees evaluate the 1,500 inventions that are submitted each week and publicly defend those with the most potential. Step 4 is the executive team filtering each selection for design, marketability and viability. If an idea crosses this threshold, its time to market the product via Quirky’s partnerships with top retailers like Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Office Max, The Container Store, and Barnes & Noble. The clincher? You get paid if you’re the inventor or an “influencer” of a winning idea. Inventors get 12 cents for every dollar their product brings in on Quirky.com, and 4 cents on every dollar the product brings in at retail. The company also shares part of the revenue with influencers i.e. members of the community who have voted for the product or otherwise contributed to improving the product such as giving it a better name.
There are four things that Quirky is doing compellingly well that other (read “bigger”) companies should emulate:
- Using open source collaborative invention to spur on product development. Lesson: that problem that bigger companies have with innovating internally? Outsource it instead.
- Leveraging all employees and the community to select ideas they believe in. Lesson: decentralize selection and decision-making, keep it transparent when the public is involved, make decisions faster.
- Using game mechanics via “the Pricing Game” whereby community members are given 7 days to weigh in on the pricing of an upcoming product. Lesson: don’t be afraid to transparently engage your community as much as possible, even in critical decisions like product pricing. For company longevity, how much users will pay for a product and for how long are equally important.
- Providing a window into inventor demographics that others can leverage. Note that approx. 60% of Quirky inventors are U.S.-based so this information is more representative of U.S. inventors. Lesson: Since Quirky’s process is largely online-based, it follows that it trends younger, especially the 26-35 set. It’s also heartening to see that fully 43% of inventors are female.
Finally, I probably never would have heard of Quirky had it not been for The Next List. I’ve found it to be a forward-thinking show that introduces viewers to individuals who are not yet household names, but on the next list. Jim McGinnis, the show’s Executive Producer says that the show’s goal is to “expand the viewers’ idea of innovation and let the audience experience why an individual has been profiled; and how they overcame the challenge that led to their innovation.” For example one of their subjects was a game developer who created a game to help her brain recover. She is now using the game to help others recover as well.
Macro problems like healthcare, education, employment have been on the nation’s collective mind. As we get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day, its easy to forget that the U.S. is currently ranked 50th in the world for maternal health. In education, 30% of college and university students are dropping out by their second year. Unemployment is at 8.1%. While these are all being tackled at the macro level, in the meantime each of us is empowered to make a difference in our own way using platforms like The Next List and Quirky.
Originally published on the Seedwalker Blog.
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