COMMENT: Quirky collaboration

I remember, a few years back, discovering CafePress, the print-on-demand service that allows users to set up an online shop, carry no inventory, and set their own margins on T-shirts, mugs, clocks, etc. I’d read about it in Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content, by Biz Stone, who would later go on to co-found Twitter.

This model of micro-retailing, I wrote at the time, made content the product; anyone with a striking graphic design or something clever to say could market that message. CafePress is, of course, still around, with 6.5 million shopkeepers worldwide producing 150 million products. Gotta consider that a success.

I got a similar eye-opener this week when I was pitched by a PR firm called Threat 27 on behalf of the Quirky community. The pitch itself was interesting, in a cute kind of way – a new camera mini-tripod called DigiDude, in the form factor of an R2D2-style robot with a screw-on head and key-ring clip – but not particularly compelling. What was fascinating, though, was the product development model.

Members of the 10,000-strong Quirky community (that’s an accomplishment in itself, since it only launched in June) who have a product idea pay $99 to submit it for the scrutiny of the rest of the community. Each week, the community votes on the product to be developed. Over the course of a week, product features, details and marketing are thrashed out by community input. What graphic designs should be offered? What should the product name and marketing tagline be? What, mechanically, works and doesn’t work? Heck, what colour should it be?

Those details ironed out, the product goes to pre-sale: advance orders are taken until a break-even threshold for tooling and production is reached. Then, it starts shipping. Of every retail dollar sold, 30 cents goes to the product’s “influencers”: the person with the original idea (who gets 40 per cent of that 30 per cent), those whose input was chosen by the community to help develop the industrial design and marketing, those who committed to the pre-sale, those who used social marketing links to gather pre-sale commitments from outside the community.

So far, one product – the Split Stick, a double-sided USB key – is in full production. Six others, including a melon slicing kit, a tofu press and a Sudoku-style board game for kids, are in pre-sale.

Quirky is the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Ben Kaufman. He dropped out of college to launch iPhone accessory company Mophie, whose designs were based on input from the audience at Apple Inc.’s Macworld conference. After selling Mophie, he launched Kluster, a group-decision-making portal, and partnered to create the aforementioned 27 Threats. It’s hard not to resent a 22-year-old who runs three businesses and, according to his bio, sleeps from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“This is pretty unique on a lot of levels,” Kaufman says. While there are other businesses that use something similar to a crowd-sourcing model – T-shirt company Threadless, for example, which allows community members to vote on submitted designs – none bring together collaborative design, branding and shared profit. Not to mention, I’m sure there’s not another company out there that has a plastic dinosaur (Tiny Dino) handling customer service.

The number of people who participate in any given project varies. “It’s usually between 1,500 and 2,700,” Kaufman says.

This isn’t a social network a la Facebook. Users can send messages to each other, but that communication is almost invariably clustered around the products.

But it’s definitely a product of the social media age. Just as CafePress is a reflection of, let’s say, the Web 1.5 age – interactive between the user and the network – Quirky is a manifestation of Web 2.0: not simply interactive, but collaborative among users.

After all, it takes a village to come up with something like the Ouch Pouch, a brightly coloured arm sling with built-in pocket.

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