The Download: ThinkGeek’s next product idea? You tell them

August 12, 2012

Calling all inventors: It’s time to get your geek on.

Fairfax-based ThinkGeek, the e-commerce site that carries all things quirky, is turning to its loyal customer base to originate ideas for its next crop of creations. Designers and inventors can submit product ideas through a program called Idea Factory, and ThinkGeek will manufacture, market and sell the best ones.

Winning submissions receive $1,000 up front, plus 10 percent of retail sales.

So is the company simply running low on nerd-tastic ideas? Steve Zimmermann, the company’s undersecretary for the ministry of misinformation (read: spokesman), says no. The customer-created products will plug holes in ThinkGeek’s development pipeline and allow the company to churn out exclusive items with more regularity.

ThinkGeek formed an internal team — dubbed “GeekLabs” — in recent years to dream up unusual products that are likely to resonate with buyers. The group’s creations to date include an electric guitar T-shirt you can actually play, a Star Trek Enterprise pizza cutter and plush, talking bacon.

“It’s rare in the e-commerce space having an in-house R&D shop,” Zimmermann said. “We turn out a lot of awesome things on our own. But we know that our fans are just as brilliant and incredible, and we wanted to access their brains.”

And the company is sure to give credit, and control, where it’s due. In addition to the financial payout, inventors retain the rights to the product and the ability to sell it elsewhere.

“We’re not going to say, ‘It’s ours — you can’t do anything with it’,” Zimmermann said. “We’re not going to try to steal people’s idea.”

For more than 10 years, the company has run a similar initiative to generate T-shirt ideas. Winners receive $250 in cash and an additional $250 if they provide the design. Best sellers include T-shirts that read “Self-Rescuing Princess” and “Non-Flammable? Challenge Accepted.”

ThinkGeek culls the majority of its inventory from third-party retailers, but has found success with its own products in recent years. The e-commerce division generates the bulk of revenue for parent company Geeknet. ThinkGeek collected $17.8 million in revenue for the second quarter, compared with $14.3 million for the same period last year.

Fixmo funding

Mobile security firm Fixmo added even more capital to its coffers last week following an investment from Motorola Solutions Venture Capital, the investment arm of the wireless company’s corporate and government business.

As more employees use their personal mobile devices in the workplace, Fixmo helps corporate IT departments ensure that information on the gadgets is kept private and meets government security requirements.

Fixmo said in a news release that the investment, worth between $1 million and $5 million, will be used to support research and development, as well as its expansion into global markets. The company also raised $23 million from investors last November.

This isn’t the first local investment for Motorola Solutions Venture Capital. The financier has also funneled money to Reston-based enterprise app maker Canvas Solutions and Vienna-based security software provider VidSys.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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