Where Does Product Design Go After Quirky?

We’ve all grown accustomed to the idea that a tiny startup can come along and within a few years change how we experience the world. The now-behemoths like Uber and Airbnb have kindled the idea that equal measures of transparency and accessibility mixed in with a little bit of technological magic can pave the way for the disruption of entire industries.

It’s that same recipe that led massive products companies like GE, Harman and Mattel to take a chance on Quirky, the crowdsourced products company which took the manufacturing world by storm in 2009. Anyone with an idea could join Quirky’s community and turn out like Garthen Leslie, the IT consultant who, using Quirky’s platform, conceived of GE’s Aros smart air-conditioner and was estimated to receive close to $500k in royalties for his concept.

After six years and $185 million in funding raised, Quirky announced its intent to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What could this pioneer in crowdsourced industrial design have done differently? What can the product and manufacturing industries take away from their journey toward democratized industrial design?

Here are a few of the things that we’ve learned as a startup within the manufacturing ecosystem so far at Red Clay.

Don’t Be All Things
From product design to manufacturing to distribution to retail partnerships, Quirky tried to manage and evolve the entire supply chain. That’s the equivalent of trying to take on 3–4 industries all at the same time and on top of that you’re building a company from scratch. It’s simply too much to try to be everything and make a significant impact. Instead, it’s far more practical for both your company’s growth and your clients if you focus on innovating on one link in the supply chain like product design, prototyping or something further along the chain like logistics and retail distribution.

Connecting The Chain Is Critical

It’s up to the companies who are innovating on the supply chain to work collaboratively, find opportunities to partner and most importantly, to establish a standard that supports future integrations. There are dozens of new companies cropping up in the manufacturing ecosystem, each with the mission to fix their one link on the outdated supply chain. We rely on the expertise and experience of companies that focus on other links of the chain like Fictiv, whose team is making it easier than ever to prototype using 3D printing and Platform88, who is innovating on the manufacturing phase.

Crowdsource Carefully

Crowdsourcing can be a brilliant solution to a host of problems in the manufacturing ecosystem. But, it’s important that your crowd community serves a greater purpose. The most successful examples of crowdsourcing are the ones that leverage a group of people’s specialized skill sets to solve specific problems within your category, like Gigster has done with software development or Minted for printed stationery. Quirky used the crowd itself as its greatest common denominator. Its community lacked a purpose other than to come up with creative products and as a result, while Quirky’s products were innovative they weren’t always practical enough to appeal to the masses, a major problem for a company that identified as a products company. The crowd itself didn’t have skin in the game, so to speak, as they weren’t actually required to financially back the projects they supported. Perhaps crowdfunding could have offered a stronger indicator of the crowd’s level of support.

I reached out to our friends at Indiegogo to find out what they believe the larger community, or “the crowd” could offer as its most valuable contribution to the product development process and how Quirky could have better leveraged the crowd.

“Regardless of their size or lifespan, companies always struggle to decide which new products to invest in. Crowdfunding provides an interactive way for companies to market test their ideas on a much broader scale than is possible with expensive focus groups,” said Elena Ginebreda-Frendel, a communications associate at Indiegogo. “The resulting consumer insights are invaluable in deciding whether to mass produce a product.” That being said, she also warned that, “good design doesn’t necessarily mean that people will purchase a product.”

So the question is, where can product development and manufacturing innovators go from here? Collectively, these lessons still point toward an optimistic future. There are dozens of new companies entering the space, each with their own mission to innovate on some of the rustiest links of the supply chain. Legacy companies in the space should take note of these new companies, not as competition, but as alternatives to the “way we’ve always done it” and begin to think about how newcomers and legacy players can cooperate in an effort to bring well-designed goods to consumers faster than ever before.

About Abby

Abby Kiefer is driven by bringing people together and the belief that more people are better than one when it comes to solving problems. This belief was a prime driver for her pilgrimage to San Francisco in 2011 to co-found Red Clay, a platform for on-demand industrial design with a community of over 500 top industrial designers. When she’s not championing the democratization of design, she’s hanging out with her dog, Bucky, and husband Kurt while honing her cheesemaking skills.

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