Inventor takes ‘Quirky’ path: Web site transforms ideas into products

New York Post Aug 28, 2011 Back to press

The world’s great inventors, always trying to figure out new ways to solve everyday problems, tend to ask one of the following questions: Wouldn’t it be great if...? Or, doesn’t it suck that....?

Melville, Long Island native Ben Kaufman, 24, has answered those questions by creating a new kind of social network for inventors, Quirky.com, and the brick-and-mortar production company that goes with it, Quirky.

Kaufman’s idea, subject of a six-part series, “Quirky,” on the Sundance Channel, was to harness the best Internet ideas from across the planet, produce workable prototypes, get the online community to vote yea or nay, and then transform those ideas into merchandise for stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond and television markets such as the Home Shopping Network.

What has Quirky come up with? Well, two years and 165 products later, its best-seller so far has been “Pivot Power,” a flexible power strip that solves the problem of having big “brick” electrical plugs or plugs of uneven size that block adjacent outlets.

“The mission,” says Kaufman, “is to make invention accessible. We want to make it possible for average people with way above average ideas to execute their visions.”

Quirky is not free. For the price of $10, anyone can submit an idea online. Each week, the two ideas that get the most votes are taken to the next level. Once accepted, the idea itself, including the product license and copyright, become the property of Quirky, which employs a staff of 55 for design, sales and marketing. Products are manufactured here and in Asia; it takes between three-to-six months to transform an idea into a shippable product.

Then, out of every dollar in sales, Kaufman and his team keep $0.70 cents; the rest, or $0.30 is split between the inventor and any number of online commenters who help build it. The person who submitted the original idea gets a minimum of $0.12 of that $0.30.

The inventor of “Pivot Power,” says Kaufman, “will clear $150K this year. It’s in every Bed, Bath & Beyond in the country.”

But nothing this company comes up with may be as interesting as Kaufman himself. As a senior at Long Island’s Portledge prep school, he wanted to design a retractable lanyard headphone for his iPod “that the math teacher wouldn’t notice.” Having no money, he convinced his father, a lawyer, and his mother, an accountant, to refinance their $185,000 home.

“To this day, getting my parents to remortgage their house was my hardest pitch, ever,” says Kaufman.

Kaufman took the money and went -- to China -- to make the prototype. Six weeks into his college career at Vermont’s Champlain College, his iPod accessory won MacWorld’s Best of Show, and Kaufman, flush with cash from venture capitalists, dropped out.  

Has he repaid the loan? “Yes,” says Kaufman, laughing. “My parents are very happy.”  

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