Kaufman realized the collaborative approach to innovation was powerful, but believed it needed a technological platform to really give it legs. He got to work developing Kluster, an online group decision-making tool, and then, using similar software, launched Quirky in June 2009.
"Everyone has a product idea. It's hard to sit at dinner and not have someone make known their brilliant product idea," Kaufman said. "[Quirky] is really to enable everyone to come together and realize those ideas."
The Quirky community, which is now about 13,000 members strong, has so far developed 30 products and launched about six commercially.
Though the first crop of products focused on gadgets and computer accessories, Kaufman said the range has expanded to include housewares and toys.
The $14.99 PowerCurl, for example, is a cord wrap for Apple users that helps keep laptop power cords from getting tangled up. The Snow Shredder is a $67 sled with a headlight for night sledding and a retractable handle to make it easier to carry. Yogurt by You, which sells for $46.50, makes it easier to make yogurt at home.
Though the community votes for one product each week and then continues to influence its development each step of the way -- from industrial design to naming to marketing strategy to packaging -- Quirky doesn't start manufacturing the product until a pre-sale threshold (that varies from 300 to 750, depending on the item) has been reached.
Once the items hit the market and the money starts coming in, each person who contributed to the final product starts to receive his or her share of the profit.
Stephen Bozzone, an engineer and product developer who lives near Hillsborough, N.C., said that none of his product ideas have won any of Quirky's weekly contests, but he's already earned about $40.
He acknowledges it's not a huge sum of money but said all he's done so far is refer a few friends to the site (who have contributed winning ideas) and taken part in a process he already enjoys.
"It's really fun and it really fills a niche not being addressed by others avenues," said Bazzone, 44. "It's like a virtual brainstorming session to be able to work with people around the world and collaborate. The end product is usually better than if you'd done it on your own."
Bozzone, who holds six U.S. patents, has submitted four ideas to Quirky and has influenced 17 products. (Though the first proposal costs $99, subsequent submissions cost only $10 and just participating in the voting and development process is free.)
Though he's an active user of the site, Bozzone says people thinking about joining should consider the trade-offs.
"Don't submit your idea unless you want to give it away," he said. "If you have a really good idea and you want to hold on to it, I would suggest filing a provisional patent first. Then you have some protection."
If your idea wins the weekly contest, Quirky retains all rights to the product. And even if it doesn't win, the idea is out in the public for others to potentially copy, Bozzone said.
But still, he said, for the average inventor, distributing a product is the hardest part. Quirky takes on that responsibility and does most of the legwork required to get new products into the market place.