On a recent Spring evening in Manhattan, roughly 200 people gathered in a waterfront warehouse to witness what could be called the Hunger Games of invention. Onstage, the master of ceremonies–a 28-year-old entrepreneur named Ben Kaufman–runs down a list of product concepts, all submitted by people online. Most of the ideas are dead on arrival. “It would make a good adult toy,” jokes one audience member of a pocket subwoofer. When a wearable Bluetooth tracker for kids is displayed, another audience member snipes, “Don’t they already have this for dogs?”
But suddenly, the mood shifts. Onscreen: a home candy dispenser that automatically orders refills when its contents get low. Crowd suggestions abound. What if the sensors could detect levels of other common kitchen dry goods, like rice or nuts? (Indeed they can, says an engineer.) Or what if it were tied to a subscription service that occasionally sent surprise treats? Could that service also let people make “playlist queues” of their favorite foods?
Kaufman calls for a vote, counts the tally and smiles. “Congratulations, Fluffy,” he says, addressing the user who submitted the original concept. “You’re a Quirky inventor!”
In other words, Fluffy (real name: Roy Johnson) has just become part of one of the most ambitious experiments in retail history. Put simply, Quirky is an invention-centric social network that also makes and sells general household products, all of which are dreamed up by its users. Every week, thousands of people–of all ages, nationalities and genders–submit ideas for stuff they think will improve lives, including detailed descriptions and visuals. Then the site’s 1 million–plus members offer feedback on everything from aesthetics to usefulness to whether or not a name sounds weird. The most popular pitches, like the smart candy dispenser, make it to live evaluation sessions. If a product is approved, Quirky’s engineers are given the official green light to start working on it, and if all goes well, it goes to market. “We’re for the people who have a great product idea and want to see it out in the world but don’t want to quit their job, live the entrepreneurial life and eat ramen every day,” says Kaufman, Quirky’s CEO. “We’re for the people who have a great idea and want to see if it’s viable.”
Since Quirky’s launch in 2009, that model has produced dozens of ingenious products, including a bendable power strip (Pivot Power) and a colorful desktop cable organizer (Cordie), both of which sold more than a million units and netted six-figure sums for their original creators. (Quirky shares a percentage of its revenue with them.) Quirky wares are now available at more than 20,000 retailers nationwide, including Walmart, Best Buy and Home Depot. Sales totaled almost $50 million last year, up 70% over 2013.
Now Quirky is looking to reinvent itself. In April, the firm announced it was teaming up with Mattel to solicit concepts for “the future of play,” the latest in a series of partnerships that encourage Quirky’s diverse mix of amateur inventors to pitch for major brands. Among them: Harman Audio and GE, whose elegant, energy-saving Aros air conditioner–with a concept from a Quirky user–was named one of TIME’s best inventions of 2014.
For consumers, the payoff could be bigger. Within large companies, “people have a tendency to hire people that think like them and act like them,” which can stifle creativity, says Kris Doering, an analyst at research firm Gartner. By partnering with Quirky, those companies get access to thousands of nimble new thinkers who may suggest more useful ways to make household products for the rest of us. Consider the English teacher pitching a diaper bag with a privacy flap for breast-feeding, or the 5-year-old suggesting a brush-tube hybrid to make it easier to brush his teeth. “That’s the beauty of Quirky,” says Michael Sullivan, a marketing director for Fisher-Price (which is owned by Mattel). “What will emerge is something we weren’t expecting.”
Kaufman first knew he wanted to help people develop their big ideas after struggling to realize his own. As a teenager in 2005, he persuaded his parents to remortgage their house to fund his first company, the iPod-accessory firm Mophie (now famous for its iPhone cases that double as battery packs). But all involved were initially overwhelmed by the logistical challenges of running a business: manufacturing, marketing, retail, cost of goods, engineering. “I started thinking that the best ideas in the world must actually not be in the world,” he says. “They must be in people’s heads, because this whole execution part is really hard.”
After Kaufman sold Mophie for an undisclosed sum in 2007, he decided to build a company that would streamline that process–“making invention accessible,” as he puts it, to anyone with a great idea. Two years later, Quirky was born.
In the beginning, its products matched its name. Kaufman oversaw the development of hit concepts like Pivot Power and Cordie, as well as a customizable pocket knife (Switch), a balance-tracking piggy bank (Porkfolio) and more. Unlike many products pitched on Kickstarter and Indiegogo–which leave inventors to their own devices after they get funded–all these ideas actually made it to market.
But as the builder-, backer- and brander-in-chief, Quirky also had a lot to lose. It spent millions in venture capital developing ideas, like a combination Bluetooth speaker and phone-charging station, that tanked with consumers. It struggled to compete for retail space against bigger home-goods companies. And in the spirit of appeasing its eager community, it also dabbled in sectors like security that were at odds with its colorful, fun-loving brand identity. “No one wants to buy a lock from a company called Quirky,” Kaufman says. “That’s just weird.”
Its new strategy aims to assuage those pain points. By “powering invention” for more-established companies, as Kaufman puts it, Quirky not only lowers its own financial risk but also gets to leverage decades of billion-dollar brand building. That means instant consumer trust (or at least awareness), large teams to test products and hundreds of patents at its disposal. “It just gives you a bigger pot to swim in,” says Michael Taylor, a Georgia-based business analyst who has invented several smart-home gadgets for GE through Quirky. By 2017, 60% of tech companies will crowdsource some part of their product development, Gartner estimates.
It’s a risky maneuver. In order to move forward with their new model, Kaufman and his team had to cut some of the company’s more popular policies, like sharing 10% of a product’s revenue with its original creator. (It’s now 5% or less in most cases.) New policies also make it harder in general for the quirkier ideas to become reality if there’s no interest from a corporate partner. “The fundamental culture around invention between huge companies like GE and what Quirky is trying to do, the sort of do-it-yourself-type model–they conflict heavily,” says Gordon Burtch, a decision-science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies crowdsourcing platforms.
Quirky says it isn’t wholly ceding its independence. Beyond the corporate partnerships, Kaufman plans to invest significantly in connected devices. Quirky already makes a variety of smart sensors, light switches and outlets. In March it launched its first original brand, Poppy, which offers high-end home appliances like a pet feeder that can be programmed from afar (originally pitched by a dog owner from West Bend, Wis.). The smart-home space is “still waiting for that killer app,” says Niall Jenkins, a smart-home analyst for research firm IHS. Quirky may well assist in developing it.
For now, however, Kaufman remains focused on his most important job at Quirky: cultivating a loyal, enthusiastic community of everyday geniuses. Throughout the company’s transition, he has worked to keep them in the loop about why and how Quirky is changing its model–there are sales figures posted publicly under every invention–and as a result, he says, the backlash has been minimal. Every Thursday night, he’s also at that waterfront warehouse (a.k.a. Quirky’s headquarters), cracking jokes, unveiling ideas and tallying votes for the Next Big Thing, even if it ultimately gets made by GE or Mattel. Before those sessions, Kaufman has only one hard rule: no peeking at pitches. “I like the element of surprise,” he says.
This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.