Last month Ben Kaufman, who's 28, stopped running the company he'd been building since age 22.

Quirky, the platform where people voted on inventions to fund and crowdsource, burned though tens of millions of dollars in venture capital ($185 million, to be exact) and has had no luck persuading investors to give it a re-up.

This week, New York magazine published something of a post-mortem of the ambitious startup. Kaufman, for his part, cooperated, but didn't seem to shed much light on how the company was winding down. Other sources say it's gone from 400 to very few staff in its office in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, and Ed Kremer, the company's former finance chief, is stepping in as CEO to help pare the company down. (It will live on only as Wink, formerly a smart-home device arm of Quirky.)

"It's weird waking up one day and not even having an email address," Kaufman told New York. "This had been my whole life."

Before everything fell apart, much worked well at Quirky. When all cylinders were firing, the company's website would receive thousands of invention ideas a week, from more than half-a-million users. And each week, it would approve a handful of those products for development--and send a handful of completed products to its retail partners for sale. Strong partnerships--with online shops such as Amazon, posh locales such as the Museum of Modern Art, and big-box stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, and Target--abounded. And their ranks were growing.

Quirky was an easy company to fall in love with. Maybe too easy. Everything about it was wrapped in a gauzy post-recession romanticism. Remember, it was founded in 2009, when Etsy and Kickstarter were soaring, as lots of people were looking for alternative forms of income. (Remember how the word micropreneur became something that actual people actually said--earnestly?)

And Quirky was so nerdy it was cool. Who wouldn't love a scrappy New York City company that empowers a welder and grandfather from Larwill, Indiana, to dream up a step-on drinking fountain for dogs--and help him do the hard work of getting it designed, patented, and manufactured?

Kaufman, the founder, was lovable too. He was very young, super ambitious, podium-ready--and refreshingly far less concerned with his appearance than many of his California peers. He relentlessly championed the power of Quirky's community--and underscored that by reminding Inc.'s Josh Dean that "invention is this scary thing."

At a time when Silicon Valley started to look frothy with innumerable app companies, and companies making the technology that powers other tech companies, it was pretty refreshing to see a tech savvy young company actually making tangible things.

From a business perspective, the community of half-a-million people, logging on and helping with other people's inventions, seemed to have a significance of its own. And, predictably, the media swooned. From New York:

Quirky was catnip for the press: The Sundance Channel produced a short-lived reality show on the company in 2011. Kaufman appeared on Leno. This magazine featured it as a Boom Brand of 2013, noting, "It's a pretty rare company that's so hippieish--Let's have everyone get a say!--yet so purely free-market." The Times devoted several thousand words to a piece called "The Invention Mob, Brought to You by Quirky" just last February (by then its financially unsustainable business model had given way to a pivot--a smart-home subsidiary called Wink--that was too little too late).

Perhaps the problem was in the gauziness. Or, as plenty of people have speculated, was the crowd simply not a good decision maker when it comes to products? (Because, sure, a dog-watering fountain sounds lovely in all its whimsy, so, click! But endorsing something online is not the same as voting with your wallet.) Truth is, manufacturing anything out of plastic and metal quickly and cheaply is going to yield a product that's, well, cheap.

The story line added to any individual product certainly infused it with a little magic. (Imagine! A Navy veteran invented this!) But that wasn't enough to reliably draw in a profit on any given product. No amount of great storytelling was going to put an $80 app-enabled egg tray in my refrigerator.

Invention labs are, at least in the United States, a lot of smoke and mirrors, and very little sellable fog machines or looking glasses. The mythology of something like Bell Labs--which in another century sprung upon the world the transistor, stereo sound, and the laser--is still strong. So strong that even a decade ago, some 50,000 inventors reportedly would call monthly into InventionLand, a creation of Davison Design & Development, which promises to patent, prototype, and shop around a hobbyist's invention. It also happens to resemble a theme park, with a full pirate ship and moat, all tucked inside a Pittsburgh warehouse. (A judge has ruled that InventionLand misled such inventors, and ordered the company to repay some $26 million earned by charging them hefty fees of $800 to $12,000.) And former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures is seen by some as a wicked-smart innovation lab. Others see it as one of the country's biggest patent trolls.

Perhaps it was just a broken business model. A lot of money, Kaufman noted back in February at a company event, was being spent on developing really neat products that would never even make it to store shelves. The Verge wrote in August:

Kaufman highlighted a number of stranger inventions that the company had created: a set of wheels to turn any object into a remote control car and a bathroom mirror that eliminates the fog from shower steam. The company had spent over $800,000 developing the products, but neither one ever made it to store shelves.

These were not anomalies. Kaufman pointed to the Beat Booster, a wireless speaker and universal charging station that Quirky spent $388,000 to develop. At the time it had sold fewer than 30 units. And even when products did sell well, the margins were so bad the company often lost money. Quirky had paid out more than $9 million to the inventors who submitted ideas for new products, but it had lost more than $150 million in the process. "Are these great ideas?" Kaufman asked. "Yes. Can Quirky do them justice, sell them, and scale them profitably? No."

What he needed was a genius hobbyist bookkeeper to keep the financial house in order, and help Quirky avoid the fate that will envelop so many startups that exist today: dying for need of more venture capital, after having taken too much to begin with.

Invention is this scary thing, indeed.

 

Published on: Sep 15, 2015