Ben Kaufman's website harnesses open innovation to let users develop new products.
He's Quirky Ben Kaufman
A start-up called Quirky draws upon a community of 57,000 members to invent, develop, and market products. On the company's website, users can select a product's name or color palette, suggest design tweaks, and vote the most appealing prototypes into production. The company's wares—including iPad-friendly gloves called Digits, spoons that hook on to coffee mugs, and various power-cord-taming equipment—are sold online, and the most popular of them have grabbed airtime on HSN and shelf space at Bed Bath & Beyond. Revenue topped $1.2 million last year. Founder Ben Kaufman recently spoke with Inc. contributing editor Donna Fenn.
What has been your most successful product? It's shifting all the time. The inventor of the Cloak, our iPad case, has earned between $40,000 and $50,000. The PowerCurl, a cord wrap for Mac power adapters, has been popular. And Cordies, which keep the cords on your desktop organized, were a huge surprise to me. I thought we would sell 10,000, and we'll sell hundreds of thousands this year. A new product, Pivot Power, is an adjustable electrical power strip that can hold large adapters in every outlet. The inventor is Jake Zien, who's a senior at the Rhode Island School of Design. The kid doesn't know it yet, but he's going to make six figures on that.
What about your biggest disappointment? Sometimes our timing is off. We created a case for the iPhone 3G and 3GS with a built-in LED flashlight. We launched it the same day Apple introduced the iPhone 4, which has the same thing built in. So I was a little bummed about that.
And the weirdest product suggested on Quirky? An edible Frisbee. The guy passionately pitched it. Fortunately, we had 12,000 community members tell the inventor that his idea was the stupidest thing they'd ever heard.
How did you go about marketing your products to retailers and to partners such as HSN? This has been the easiest sales gig I've ever had in my life. Retailers are looking to buy more products from fewer people, and Quirky solves that problem. They also want newness and, at Quirky, we're set up for that. We create two products a week. Third, we have this amazing community, so we can tell people exactly where to buy our products.
What about your manufacturing process? It seems as if that would be a nightmare. It is. It's the side of the business that gives me the most frustration. We really changed the way the front part of the process works. The back part is still stuck in 1975. Currently, we do 70 percent of our manufacturing in China. I'd like to do more here, and my goal is to have an innovative factory in the New York City area in the next year.
You're only 24. How do you envision the next 24 years? Are you kidding me? I have no clue. I'm three months away from this being my longest gig ever, but I am nowhere near bored yet.