Late Friday afternoon, the Chelsea offices of Quirky–past the High Line and across from the Porsche dealership–looked like they’d been abandoned in a hurry.
The front desk: unmanned. Tables in the spacious central meeting area: covered in papers but utterly empty. In search of our assigned guide, Betabeat wandered inside the startup, which marries the wisdom of the crowd with the technical expertise of a team of in-house engineers to create products sold in stores like Bed Bath and Beyond and Lowe’s. We made our way past a glass-enclosed workshop and conference rooms with brick artfully exposed, before finally stumbling upon signs of exhausted life among the open floor plan of the back office.
This wasn’t mere Friday flakiness. Most of Quirky’s 70-plus employees had been up all night, hacking away on an insane attempt to develop a line of accessories for the new iPhone 5 in the course of just 24 hours. Typically, would-be inventors must pay a small fee to have their ideas evaluated by Quirky’s community of creative and experts. However, as a special event to get the new vertical off the ground, submissions were temporarily free of charge and thrown into a special high-speed development process.
Community members submitted 1700 ideas all told, and the Quirky team had narrowed them down to just 15 ideas for development. Everything had to be done by Friday night, when CEO Ben Kaufman was scheduled to fly the prototypes to their manufacturers, so that the final products could go up for sale on Fab.com by Wednesday morning.
The number of visible coffee cups suggested it had been a long night.
Typically, Quirky releases two new products per week. Until very recently, those could’ve been almost anything from shower caddies to spatulas. But the rush to develop new iPhone accessories is part of Quirky’s new mission: to launch a series of new verticals on the site and for the company’s product line, starting with Apple (AAPL) accessories.
Ultimately, Quirky will roll out a new product each week in each of its new verticals, as well as the two “general” releases. The company just raised a $68 million Series C to help them along.
The entire office wraps around one glass-enclosed workshop composed of two connected spaces. The dirty room contains the power tools, and is typically covered in sawdust. Goggles and WPA posters urging workplace safety hung side by side on the way. Then, down a pair of stairs, is the clean room, which holds the 3D printers, sewing machines, and the like. As we descended, PR honcho Jaime Yandolino paused and, surveying the paper-littered tables, admitted, “The view from here just shows the aftermath.”
The larger of Quirky’s 3D printers–nicknamed “Bertha”–was originally installed when the company was based on Bleecker and Broadway. She got her name because she didn’t fit up the stairs, requiring Quirky to close down Broadway and “haul this big girl up the side of the building,” said Ms. Yandolino, like a piano in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
The night before, there’d been 200 people bustling about the office, for a special edition of Quirky’s standard Thursday night evaluation meetings. “Invention ambassador” Andrew Erlick–who, prior to Quirky, developed and sold a device for laser light shows to haunted houses–explained that each of the chosen ideas for Apple accessories had progressed through its own development process. Features and characteristics were hashed out. Then, once refined, concepts were handed over to a designer to execute.
Quirky’s standard development process is a little less hell-for-leather. Normally the rate of submissions is more like 1,500 per week. The most promising are upvoted and evaluated by members of the Quirky online community, then evaluated by the company’s in-house experts.
Mr. Erlick walked Betabeat through a massive wall of products, separated out by their various stages of development, from exploration (the very earliest stages of tire-kicking) to pricing (where the product is fleshed out and its marketability is evaluated) to production (where Quirky starts really investing resources). The production phase is when engineers “come together and start talking about what we could do with them, to the minute details, every little inch,” he explained. From those discussion, the team at Quirky builds a prototype in-house, which might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Once the prototype gets the sign off, it’s onto one of Quirky’s manufacturing partners and, ultimately, onto store shelves.
The bottleneck, it looked like, lay in the pricing section. “As we grow bigger and bigger and we sign on more retailers, those products will hopefully find a home,” Mr. Erlick noted.
Quirky is hoping that its new verticals-based approach will be a better way to connect experts with producs they actually give a crap about. “We’ll have professionals that have worked in that field before, you know–if you have a person who’s working in kitchen products, engineering and designing, you want that person to give their opinion and surface his best ideas.”
And, of course, the contest leaves Quirky with quite a backlog of invention ideas to feed the beast that is that new line of Apple accessories–especially considering that charger connector is now completely different, rendering many older items so much garbage. “All of those ideas and every idea that ever gets submitted to Quirky, we have in our ‘vault,’ our archive,” explained Mr. Erlick. “If a retailer comes to us and says, ‘Hey I really want this,’ we could look at our archive and see what’s out there.”