Ben Kaufman was an 18-year-old high-school senior when he started inventing. Attempting to tune out during a dull math class, he dreamed up an idea for a set of earphones that masquerade as a lanyard. His parents remortgaged their house so that he could get his idea to market.
Soon after, Kaufman started his own iPod accessories company. Riding on the subway one day, he saw a complete stranger wearing his original headphone-lanyard.
“It was the most incredible feeling in the world,” Kaufman said. “I was like, ‘I made that,’ and it was amazing. At that moment, I knew how incredibly lucky I was to have been able to bring my product to life.”
He decided his next company should help other inventors achieve that same, joyous “I made that,” feeling.
Quirky.com is a two-year-old start-up that helps independent inventors get their products to market with the help of a “community” of online followers and guidance from Quirky’s own design and marketing team.
Each week, thousands of aspiring inventors pay $10 to submit their ideas as videos, hand-drawings or even just in paragraph form. The Quirky “community” members then vote on the best pitches, and at the end of each week, Quirky selects the two products that they’ll move forward with.
From there, Quirky’s team of experts works with the inventor to refine the product, including making the actual prototype. Along the way, the community weighs in on the name, the design and other aspects. Ultimately, Quirky manufactures the product in China and sells it through retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and the Container Store. Inventors get about 35 percent of the profits, and the community members who influenced the invention’s final form get a small cut, as well.
“The platform is great for people who want to bring ideas out of their heads and on to shelves,” said company spokeswoman Tiffany Markofsky. “We do all the distribution, packaging, and sales.”
The idea is that it’s easier to navigate the product-design process when there’s an established company (and thousands of Internet commentators) providing support.
Inventing “can be hard to do it on your own,” the Quirky site says. “It can kinda cost a lot, which sometimes means tricking your parents into remortgaging their house (cough, cough, Ben).”
Most of the inventions solve quotidian problems — plastic widgets to tame tangled computer cords, a dustpan to banish messy “broom bunnies,” a caddy for disorganized showers. One of the best-selling products is a flexible power strip called the Pivot Power, which bends to accommodate the myriad bulky power adapters of the modern age.
“It’s the crown jewel of the Quirky empire,” Markofsky said. “That product’s inventor will make over a hundred thousand dollars this year.”
We put together a slide show of inexpensive gift ideas from Quirky’s catalog. All of the products sprang from the mind of an inventor with nothing but a dream and an Internet connection — for those who want to shop really, really small.