Ask Ben Kaufman if his company, Mophie, will still be making iPod accessories a year from now and he'll answer without skipping a beat: "God, I hope not!" And that's after his line of slick gear -- headphone splitters, FM transmitters, and remote controls, all of which function with a protective case -- won a Best of Show award in the innovation category at MacWorld last year. So what gives?
"The thing about this industry is that everything is the same," says Kaufman, 20. "So we set ourselves apart by branding." Sure, Burlinton, Vt.-based Mophie (named after the CEO's two golden retrievers, Sophie and Molly), makes cool products, but that clears just the first barrier to entry in a crowded marketplace. For Kaufman, the real key to his company's distinctive brand identity is the product-development process, which can be summed up in three words: open source innovation. It's a popular concept these days -- allowing communities of users to drive the product development process -- but one that can be tricky to execute.
Kaufman, who started his company as a freshman at Champlain College, decided to put all his cards on the table in January at the 2007 MacWorld Expo in San Francisco. "We said, 'OK, we can have a regular booth, or we could shake up the floor and say we're not going to have products today. We're going to build and develop." Mophie's team handed out pads and pencils to attendees, uttering one simple command: "doodle."
In four hours, they collected 120 new product ideas for iPod accessories. That night, they scanned the drawings, put them up on the company website, and asked the expo attendees to vote for the best doodles. The result of the process, which Kaufman calls Illuminator, was a line of three new products, the first of which is a combination iPod Shuffle case, bottle opener, and keychain called the Bevy. Its designer, 18-year old Jared Fiorovich, gets credit on Mophie's website.
"MacWorld taught us that we could create great products on our own, but if we brought community together and said 'tell us what to make,' it created a better quality product." And so Kaufman is now in the process of making Illuminator the focus of Mophie. He's hired a team of software geeks to build an application that will analyze the "sparks" (product ideas) that the company's 50,000-member community will post on its website. Mophie will then work with partner companies to develop new products. "People have groundbreaking ideas all the time and they get nowhere because they don't have a forum," Kaufman says. "We want to facilitate the process of getting things out of heads and into the world."
And Kaufman has plenty of help lined up. Last year, he landed approximately $2 million in venture capital from some local Burlington angel investors. A condition of their investment was that Kaufman hire a bit of gray hair to give the company some gravitas. "They said, 'We'd love to give you $2 million but we're not giving $2 million to a 20-year-old kid," Kaufman recalls.
So he brought on 47-year old Dave Schmidt, a seventeen-year veteran of Burton Snowboards, and promptly demoted himself, making Schmidt the company's "navigator." So far, it seems to be working out. "There are times when the maturity factor is an issue," Schmidt concedes. "Ben will never sit still and it drives me nuts and it drives the VCs nuts because he seems distracted. But I've worked with some incredibly creative people and Ben is right up there with them. And that is age defiant."
Donna Fenn is a contributing editor at Inc. and the author of Alpha Dogs: How Your Small Business Can Become a Leader of the Pack.