"Quirky.com has generated a lot of buzz," writes frequent contributor Bennett Haselton, "but it's hard to see how it could ever be more than a novelty unless they change two key features of their process. Fortunately, they already have all the infrastructure in place for bringing inventions to fruition, so that with these two changes, Quirky really could deliver on their early promise to change the way products get invented." Read on for Bennett's thoughts — which seem more sensible than quirky.
You've probably read about Quirky in one of many articles that read like valentines to the company and the concept. I do think the vision is brilliant — regular people who have smart ideas, but no experience with patents or marketing, partner with an invention company that manufacturers the product and splits the profits with them. But the hype seems oddly out of proportion to what Quirky actually makes — if you received a catalog in the mail with pictures of these products, would you remember the catalog a week later?
OK, I know, the hype is based not on the products, but on the process — regular people getting a shot at inventor stardom. Certainly the fairy tale has come true for some of the community inventors (who, not surprisingly, are spotlighted by Quirky quite a bit). But if you look at the overall numbers, the "About Quirky" page claims a community of "399,000 inventors" and "325 products developed," a pair of statistics that may reveal more than they intended — and indeed the odds are even worse than that, since only 74 of those products are being sold in their store and making the inventors any money, and only about half of those have made the inventor $10,000 or more. (For reasons explained here, some products selected by Quirky never actually get manufactured.) If you're tempted to think that it's a meritocracy and those 74 products really are the best ones anyone has ever submitted -- do you really think the Glide knife cleaner (12 units sold so far) is more useful than the nearly 400,000 other ideas people have sent in?
So if the products themselves are not changing the world, and from the "community inventor's" point of view it's a lottery that most of them have no chance of winning, then what is the big deal about Quirky?
Not surprisingly, there is an undercurrent of frustration that keeps bubbling to the surface on the Quirky message boards — frustration with the high odds against winning, and the lack of transparency about what products do make it. But I think the frustration can be traced back to two key problems with Quirky's process — both of which could be fixed (one of them quite easily), and which could take the arbitrariness and lack of transparency out of the selection process, and result in more inventions getting selected, all while making Quirky more money.
First, in the existing system, a user submitting a new idea probably doesn't realize that less than 1 in 1000 submissions goes on to be selected by Quirky as one of that week's "winners," and only about 1 in 10,000 ideas has ever gone on to make the inventor more than $10,000. On this page you can see a scrolling list of the most recent submissions; I wrote a script to poll that feed and count up the new submissions as they appeared, and the total averages about 1,500 per week. Of these, only two get selected by Quirky at their weekly staff meeting, and, as noted above, most of the selected winners do not end up in their store anyway.
Quirky also charges $10 for each idea submission, which comes to $15,000 per week, or about $150 per employee — hardly enough for each of them to live on, but not trivial. According to the text I copied from an old version of Quirky's FAQ: "We ask for $10 when submitting an idea for three simple reasons: to make sure you are serious about your submission, to be sure that you're an actual human, and most importantly: to assure that the quality of submissions remains high." Notably missing from that list was "To make Quirky some extra money." But from my experience when running a paid service that offered the first month at a reduced rate, asking for $1 and asking for $10 achieved about the same goal of filtering out the people who weren't serious.
Now, however, Quirky's FAQ answers that question by saying:
Well, you've got to ante up to give your idea the fair shot it deserves. Best case scenario? Your $10 investment takes your idea from a tiny sketch to a professionally manufactured product found on shelves worldwide, earning you a heckuva lot more. Worst case? That 10 bucks gets you extensive community feedback on who liked and didn't like your idea, which serves as focused consumer market research. You then have the option to resubmit your idea, or you can use the feedback you received to make it on your own.
That's not a trivial change, because that statement is actually wrong — the $10 doesn't "get you" any "community feedback". Which brings me to the next problem with Quirky's current system.
When I gave Quirky a test drive by submitting an idea for a standalone smartphone-battery recharger (something I wished for in my article about the usefulness of spare batteries), after I submitted the idea and my payment, I was left on a page without any information about what to do next. How, I wondered, was I supposed to get "votes" for my idea without spamming the message boards or other users? The FAQ didn't — and still doesn't — answer this question, odd for something that would be one of the first things on every submitter's mind. But it referred me to the forums, where I found a post by quirky user Matthew Fleming, whose invention was actually picked up by Quirky, summarizing advice from himself and other Quirky experts on how to get votes (and, presumably, how he himself did it):
"(1) Posting your idea is the designated Pimping Zone. [dead link]
(2) Getting your Facebook friends or Twitter followers to check out your idea.
(3) Promoting to all other people off site (including Google Adwords, Facebook Ads, Reddit, emailing, texting & calling your friends, finding relevant forums elsewhere online).
(4) Putting links to your idea in your profile, then being active in other areas of the site, such as helping other people's. People may check out your profile and look at your ideas.
(5) When adding a link to your submission in # 1 or 4, make sure your link is clickable typing in the html code (OR you can use this handy link generator to generate the HTML code to then paste directly into your post).
(6) Promote in other Quirky hangouts, like:
Quirky Inventors on Facebook
As Seen On Facebook [dead link]
Quirky Products on Facebook"
My heart sank like a rock when I read those words. Here I had really believed that — despite the considerable odds against any given submission making it into the production stage — Quirky at least had a system in place for identifying the best ones. But it turned out that those who had played the game successfully were basically admitting that the only way to win was to act as an unpaid Quirky promoter to your friends. And more to the point, it meant that the winners would not be the best inventions, but rather just the inventions that met the minimum requirement of not being embarrasingly stupid, whose inventors were the best at playing the promotion game.
So it is in fact misleading to say that the $10 entry fee "gets you" any community feedback. The only way to get community feedback is to try bringing up your idea in forum threads (which risks pissing people off if you violate some rules that are never clearly explained), to post it in designated areas where idea flooding is encouraged (which are clogged to the point of uselessness from everybody else doing the same thing), or to recruit new people under you in the Quirky pyramid.
I didn't do any of those things, so my idea got a grand total of 8 views and 3 votes, before expiring at the end of the 30-day vote-gathering window. Far from being surprised that I got so few views, on the contrary I don't even have any idea where those 8 views came from, since I didn't rope in any of my friends to sign up and vote for me.
If Quirky wants to essentially limit the winners to people who agree to promote Quirky to their friends, that's their right, but then they shouldn't claim that their system actually identifies the best new ideas, or even what "the community" thinks are the best new ideas.
Meanwhile, the products that do make it into production, seem to bear out the prediction above — they're good, but not great, and many of them look like they made it as a result of a combination of luck and playing the promotion game. The $13 "Pluck" egg yolk separator looks cool, but do you really need it when the grocery store sells an egg separator for $1.59? Well, I don't cook much, so maybe I'm more qualified to evaluate electronics accessories. I actually did just order one of Quirky's "Cordies" for holding cord extensions on your desktop (if it works out, I can let you know in a follow-up to my much-beloved article about low-tech hacks!), but there are gizmos on Amazon that do the same thing. The Pivot Power Strip also looks cool, but it seems simpler to me just to use power strip liberators, which are cheaper per-plug, can be divided across multiple rooms, and light up to show when the power is running.
And the truth is that of all the gadgets I saw in the Quirky store, there's nothing I would choose over having a portable charger for spare cell phone batteries. I may be biased, but what would you rather have — effectively unlimited phone battery life, or an egg yolk separator that happens to look like an egg?
What's frustrating about all of this is that there are two simple changes that Quirky could make to their selection system, which would immediately make the "promotion game" obsolete, and almost by definition would select the inventions that the greatest number of people would actually buy. The first change is the same basic system that I've advocated for reforming the White House "We The People" website, for halting cheating on news aggregator sites, for detecting abusive content on Facebook, and multiple other problems: random-sample voting. In other words, when you submit a new idea to Quirky, the idea would also be presented to, say, 20 other users selected at random. Each user votes on whether they would buy the product if it went into production. (Quirky could simply require that, as a condition of keeping your account active, you have to vote when they ask you to.) The ideas that get the most "yes" votes out of those 20 randomly selected users, are judged to be the most marketable. (Well, 20 is a small enough sample that some would get high ratings just as a statistical fluke, but an invention that cleared the first hurdle could then be sent to a voting panel of 100 users.)
Of course, users who have expertise in particular fields, could weigh in at any time to point out that an invention would be impractical, illegal, in violation of someone else's patent, or redundant given another product already on the market. But to answer the basic question of how many people would buy a product if it cleared all those other hurdles, asking a random sample of users is a rather more valid research method than "texting & calling your friends".
Unusually for one of my "random-sample-voting" lobbying efforts, someone has already made essentially the same point on the Quirky message boards — community inventor Clinton Fleenor wrote a post making essentially the same argument. I would quibble with him in a couple of points (there's no reason to bring in "a million+ impartial, non-submitting voters" per day, since a smaller sample size is good enough), but he got the key point exactly right:
"What happens if the system is distributing the submissions to voters one at a time instead of allowing voters to self-select?
Answer: No submissions are buried."
(Clinton's posts since that date have expressed an increasing disgust with the process, most recently calling Quirky "glaze-eyed lazy asses" — and this was from someone who actually won at their game. You can imagine how the people feel who don't win.)
In fact, you could even use the random sampling method to ask people not just whether they would buy a product, but to give them the option to pre-order it, Kickstarter-style, with the money to be returned if the product doesn't get enough pre-orders to justify production. Which leads to the second change that could revolutionize how Quirky works: Rather than picking two "winning" products every week, put every product into production that receives enough votes and/or pre-orders to indicate that it would be profitable.
For example, suppose you have an idea that can be made and sold for $10 per unit, but only if the product sells 10,000 units or more. Assume there are 100,000 Quirky users who can be polled to ask if they are potential buyers. Quirky takes your idea and presents it to 100 randomly selected users, and asks them to pre-order it for $10 if they're interested. If 20 of those 100 users do in fact pre-order, then Quirky presents the idea to all of their 100,000 product-buying user base. Assuming that the original sample of 100 was representative of the population of 100,000, then they would expect that 20,000 users would also pre-order. Now you've exceeded the minimum required order of 10,000 and the product can go into production. On the other hand, suppose only 5 people pre-order out of that sample of 100. Then Quirky could expect that out of their total population of 100,000, only about 5,000 would pre-order the product — not enough to justify production, so they never push the pre-order to the rest of their customers, and the original 5 who placed their pre-order would get their money back.
More realistically, suppose Quirky makes most of their sales through retail and not to their own users, but they also know that sales to their own users are a good predictor of retail sales — for example, that they sell 3 times as many of a product through retailers as they do to their own built-in user base. Then if a product has to sell 10,000 units to be profitable, they put it into production if they determine, via random sampling, that they would sell at least 2,500 units to their own users, and count on roughly 7,500 more orders from retail shoppers.
This system has several desirable features:
- If an idea doesn't appeal to a high enough percentage of the user base (as determined by asking the random sample that are asked to pre-order), then the vast majority of users never get bothered with the pre-order request, since it dies after not making it past the hurdle of the initial 100.
- On the other hand, if there are enough potential buyers among the user population, then barring any statistical flukes, the initial sample of 100 randomly selected users will reveal that. Thus almost all of the time, any idea that does get pushed to the entire user population, will get enough pre-orders at that point to go into production.
- The system can't be "gamed" by promotional shenanigans like "texting & calling your friends".
- It's scalable — any product that receives enough pre-orders to guarantee the desired profit, can go into production, no matter how many such products clear that threshold in any given week.
(If Quirky's patent lawyers are in danger of getting overwhelmed from all the ideas that clear the pre-order hurdle every week, the idea is still scalable for any invention where there's enough profit to pay for the lawyers. Suppose it takes $2,000 worth of lawyer-time to clear all the patents and other paperwork to market an invention. Then any invention that gets enough pre-orders to pay for the production cost, plus $2,000 for the lawyer, can still go to manufacturing. That process can be repeated as many times per week if you want, as long as there are lawyers who want the work.)
Kickstarter doesn't use random-sample-voting to identify the best ideas on their site, but they do use pre-orders to solve the scalability problem -- if enough people make a pre-order pledge on Kickstarter to meet the project's minimum funding requirements, the project goes ahead (and if the fundraising goal is not met, everyone who pledged gets their money back). Kickstarter doesn't pick "winners"; if you meet your funding requirement, you "win," and there's no limit on how many projects can be successfully funded in a given week. So I wasn't surprised to see that Kickstarter has funded over 39,000 projects successfully compared to Quirky's 326. (Yes, that's apples and oranges, since many Kickstarter projects are easier to complete than putting a Quirky invention into production — but still, given the buzz that both companies are receiving these days, would you have guessed that one of them has funded over 100 times more projects successfully than the other one?)
So those are my suggestions to Quirky: Use random-sample voting to get an initial reading for the merits of an idea (very easy), and then use Kickstarter-style pre-orders to secure funding for any marketable invention, not just a limited number of weekly "winners" (a much bigger overhaul, but a good long-term goal). If they appropriate my suggestions, I promise not to organize any protest demonstrations outside their headquarters demanding credit. In fact, given how unfair their current system is to the inventors ponying up $10 each to play their lottery, we should probably stage a protest outside their office if they don't take these ideas.