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The Quirky way

Invention company offers inside look at what makes it tick

Sunday, April 6, 2014
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Product evaluation night at Quirky headquarters on West 28th Street in New York City on Thursday.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Product evaluation night at Quirky headquarters on West 28th Street in New York City on Thursday.

— On the first floor of a massive brick building on West 28th Street is an elevator and a sign for Quirky that directs “DELIVERIES & HUMANS” to the seventh floor and “SUITS” to “GO AWAY.”

The seven-story building was once a sewing factory, then a storage warehouse and finally the startup headquarters for an invention company called Quirky. It’s not hard to spot while wandering past Chelsea’s many art galleries — a giant pink billboard is tacked halfway up the building with the company’s name and a full-body portrait of employee of the month Bret Kovacs.

Many of the 160 employees who work on the seventh floor are millennials, inspired by founder and CEO

Ben Kaufman’s vision for a company that makes invention accessible. Anyone in the world can submit an idea for an invention, and if employees like the idea enough, Quirky will find a way to make it, put it on store shelves and share a cut of the revenue with the inventor and anyone who influenced the final product.

Quirky has developed 428 products since it was founded in 2009, and 150 of those have made it to stores. None of the inventions would have been made without beer, wine and a good old-fashioned hand vote every Thursday night.

I showed up Thursday just after 6 p.m. as the food was starting to arrive. Employees mingled, drinking wine or beer, eating pizza and pita sandwiches, laughing and chatting. A few minutes before 7, someone shouted “Eval” and employees and guests moved into a large meeting room filled with rows of metal folding chairs. They took their seats with plates of food on their laps and drinks at the ready. A guy in the back set up a video camera and dimmed the lights.

“Four, three, two, one — and we’re live,” Kaufman said.

He was seated at a table with six other panelists, a mix of employees and a Quirky inventor from Wisconsin, facing a crowd of 75 to 100. On the screen behind, a video for Aros, an app-enabled air conditioner that Quirky made with the help of new partner General Electric, played. After spirited applause for both the video and inventor, sitting in the back row, the room quieted, ready for the task at hand.

Quirky gets more than 4,000 ideas for inventions submitted to its website every week. Tonight, the people in this room and live-stream viewers at home would review seven of the most popular submissions from the past week and vote on which ones to move forward with and which ones to abandon.

Up first: an Astronaut Ice Cream Maker that makes homemade freeze-dried ice cream.

“What’s the point?” was the first comment.

Then: “It doesn’t taste very good.”

And: “I’d rather just have real ice cream.”

After a few minutes of discussion (anyone who has an opinion can request a microphone to voice it), a hand-raise vote made the verdict clear: Pass.

The group passed on a toolbox with a retractable power cord and outlets.

“I think it’s doable, I just don’t want to do it,” said Dan Turk, a Quirky design engineer on the panel.

They passed on a Chewy, Gooey, Bubble Gum Maker.

“It’s like an Easy-Bake Oven for gum,” shouted someone from the crowd.

“There’s a Willy Wonka aspect to it that makes it feel magical,” said Kate Vallon, an industrial designer on the panel.

“There’s a reason they put gum in the checkout lines and that’s because it’s an impulse buy and it’s cheap,” said an audience member. “This would be neither.”

The Quirky crowd was big on gardening tools Thursday night. If the submission promised to make gardening easier or less laborious, the room was all for it. One submission, a rake that pulls out weeds and turns soil at the same time, was popular in the room and with the people watching online. Dreamed up by Victor Talbot of Virginia, the rake would clamp on weeds as soil is loosened, eliminating the need to loosen the soil first, then bend over and pull the weeds. Talbot already came up with his own prototype and demonstrated the product in a video.

“I love it,” said Quirky President Doreen Lorenzo. “From someone who does a lot of gardening, I’m down on my knees a lot and I feel it the next morning.”

A poll showed 80 percent of online viewers in favor of Talbot’s invention and a scan of the room showed almost everyone with a hand up. The product was placed under “expert review,” meaning Quirky designers and engineers will look at Talbot’s prototype to see if it needs tweaking and can be mass-produced for market.

The other idea approved Thursday night was a garden tool bag with a clip-on sifter on the bottom. “Pop it off when needed, pop it back on when done!” read a description online.

The idea was almost too simple. Gardeners need to sift dirt now and then, but the sifters tend to take up a lot of space in the average garden bag.

“Who dislikes this? Any naysayers?” Kaufman asked.

There was one — a man who was unsure if the product would have mass appeal across different climates.

When Quirky arrives in Schenectady on May 1, it will occupy 22,000 square feet on the top two floors of Center City on State Street. It needs the space for both quality assurance and customer service. New employees will “stress test” the products Quirky manufactures in Hong Kong to ensure they hold up over time, and work with customers to keep them happy.

Rental space is easier and cheaper to come by upstate, where Quirky is getting nearly $1 million in state and local assistance to move and create 180 jobs over the next three years.

“We used to have a library here where no work was allowed, but we’ve just grown so much that IT is now in the library,” said Margaret Fiorio, an invention ambassador who gave me a tour of the Manhattan headquarters Thursday.

The seventh floor of 606 W. 28th St. has worn wooden floors and exposed rafters and brick walls, and glass-walled offices. Tables are made out of pallets, benches, giant industrial lights and old-school lockers turned on their sides. There’s a prototype room with at least four 3D printers, a clean lab and a dirty lab. The main office area is full of shiny Mac desktops and Quirky products pop up all over the place — a flexible power strip, an egg yolk separator, a citrus squeezer, a device for keeping cords organized.

Thursday’s meeting wrapped up early. In addition to the two gardening ideas, a concept for a beer mug that cools itself was given the go-ahead for exploration, meaning Quirky liked the idea but was not ready to commit to it.

A GE engineer took the mic to describe the technology needed for the product, but not before an audience member offered his advice on keeping drinks cool: “Just drink faster.”

 
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