We spoke to Ben Kaufman, founder of Quirky, the invention platform, and Mophie, the Apple accessory company, about his experience as an entrepreneur. He talked to us about the opportunities and challenges facing inventors today and why he plays the long game when it comes to innovation.
How did Quirky help get consumer products into the market?
Quirky was an invention platform that helped inventors get their ideas out into the marketplace. People submitted their product ideas and a community of people all around the world voted on which was the best. Every single week, we took three brand-new consumer products to market.
The wonderful thing about the world we live in today is that it's gotten a lot easier to go from zero to one on a product idea. All sorts of new technologies, like 3D printing and electrical prototyping kits, allow you to really prove out an idea in a record amount of time. We're talking days instead of months. But at the same time, going from one to a million is just as hard as it used to be, because shipping and sourcing are still a pretty manual process.
There are marketplaces out there that are making it easier. But generally speaking, it's still really hard to make a successful consumer product.
“I think one of the big misconceptions for big companies is that innovation is something you do. And to me, innovation is just something you are.”
— Ben Kaufman, founder, Quirky
How does social media make marketing easier for inventors today?
Even three years ago you needed to get mass distribution and run a big national ad campaign. But on the sales side today, you can sell on social platforms and really granularly target the exact customer you want to reach. If I want to reach cat enthusiasts in Kansas, I can do that.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about innovation?
I think one of the big misconceptions for big companies is that innovation is something you do. And to me, innovation is just something you are. A company either has that engrained in their culture or they don’t.
The problem is that it's very easy to make an argument for an invention or an innovation that’s a good idea. But the lens that most of these big companies are seeing it through is, "Will I get my money back in two to three years?" The most significant inventions are a 10- or 15-year project to get the market built and reach full scale. Most big companies I've come across don't really have the stomach for that sort of waiting, because the publically traded ones have a mandate to return capital on a regular basis.
There are companies that are setting up full processes for being able to try an idea and then incrementally grow it. For instance, I’ve seen programs in large organizations that allow people to quickly try an idea without any permission or approvals and then, as the spend becomes significant enough, they slowly let it seep into the overall organization.
If you want innovation to spread throughout your entire culture, don't make it a solely a department initiative. Empower everyone to come up with ideas, yell at each other about their ideas, and debate ideas. And ultimately, give them a long enough leash to test things without having to worry about what their boss is going to think if it doesn't work.
What kind of cultural impact do you think Quirky made?
We set out with this crazy mission of making invention accessible. We knew that we would never be able to do exactly that, because invention and accessibility are constantly growing and changing. But that that was our North Star.
From a technology and implementation perspective, we thought that community would be really insightful in telling us which products to go after and which ideas were good. The more feedback you get, the better. We also realized that the quicker we got a first product out, the more data we were going to get about how to take that product and incrementally improve it over time. So that speed to the first launch was always really important, because the more input we got after that, the better the product would be.
But if you look at the long-term, I think the biggest impact Quirky had was empowering people to realize that speed and quality aren't dependent on one another. This was the thing I fought hardest for. There's this notion in the world that if you go slower, you make better.
But a lot of really huge leaps for invention happened in compressed periods of time. I'll give you an example. The first fighter jet was built in 143 days. Boeing spent 10 billion dollars and 30 years increasing efficiency by 3 percent, but that initial moment of genius happened in a very condensed period of time. To me, that's the biggest takeaway for most people from Quirky—that you can do incredible things and make incredible products and inventions by putting that time constraint into the picture.
What can you tell us about your experiences as an entrepreneur? What advice do you have for inventors and companies who want to build a culture of innovation?
It's kind of funny talking about my experience as an entrepreneur. Mophie is a huge success right now, but it wasn’t when I was running it. And Quirky changed a lot of people’s minds about the way products should be made, but ultimately it filed for bankruptcy.
So my experience as an entrepreneur isn't a stellar one from a financial perspective. But the wild thing about both companies is that they did what I set out for them to do. They made people's products a reality. They made inventors millionaires. Mophie's on almost everyone's iPhone around the world. At the same time, because of the way the world views consumer product companies and the invention process, they could also be viewed as short-term failures. But ultimately I think both are long-term successes, and I'll keep playing the long game.
What both companies represent is that ideas do matter, and they do have long-term value. But you can't really capture that long-term value in a short amount of time. So my biggest advice to companies and individuals is if you have a long-term mission and a long-term point of view, stick with it. It usually will seep into the world's culture, but it's not necessarily going to happen too quickly. You have to be willing to have a long-term view that this thing you started with is really going to make an impact down the road, and you need to keep on making it better and better and better.