It was just an idea tossed around the dinner table a few months ago.
So, throughout the evening, the group played armchair inventor and came up with the concept of an iPhone case with a built-in flash. And instead of letting the idea die after that night (as most do), Tyler logged in to Quirky.com.
The Web site, which calls itself a "social product development company," lets anyone propose or influence a product idea. The site's users then help refine the products, and they all have a chance to profit.
Each week, the site's registered users vote to greenlight one pitch for development and then continue to weigh in until a tangible, packaged product is ready for the marketplace.
When the product goes on sale, each person who played a role in its development earns a cut of the profit proportionate to his or her contribution.
The site charges a fee for users to propose products, but in turn the inventors gain access to creative and manufacturing resources that could otherwise be expensive.
Inventor: Quirky Product Could Be Primary Source of Income
Tyler, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, decided to give it a shot. She paid the $99 fee to submit a product proposal, spent a week lobbying and rallying support on the site and, ultimately, her idea was greenlighted.
Now, she said, the final product -- the "Beamer" -- is only a couple of weeks away from reaching consumers' hands and starting to make her money.
"People don't realize how much work it is to bring a product to market," said Tyler, founder and CEO of Innovative Air Quality, a company that sells a real-time environmental monitoring system that she invented.
Between raising enough capital and figuring out the production process and more, it took her 10 years of "sweat and tears" to get her first invention off the ground, she said. With Quirky, she invested just one week of work.
Now she expects profits from the Beamer to be her primary source of income.
Every time someone buys the $38 device, she'll pocket about $5. It's already reached about 1,000 orders in pre-sale, and given the buzz the product has generated in the blogosphere, she's hopeful it soon becomes a hot seller.
Entrepreneur Develops Group Decision-Making Software
Quirky, which launched six months ago, is the brainchild of 23-year-old entrepreneur Ben Kaufman.
In high school, Kaufman convinced his parents to remortgage their home to give him $185,000 to fund his first invention -- retractable lanyard earbuds for the the iPod shuffle. That single invention led the creation of Mophie, a popular brand of iPhone and iPod products and a new approach to innovation.
"I took a step back and noticed that the industry was over-crowded and decided to become a brand," said Kaufman. "We let customers design products."
At the 2007 MacWorld Expo, a giant conference for all things Apple, Mophie invited conference attendees to doodle ideas for the company's next product and then vote on them.
The conferees came up with a product called the Bevy, an iPod case that includes a keychain and bottle opener, which reportedly sold by the tens of thousands all around the world.
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."
Quirky Products Include Housewares, Toys, Computer Accessories
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.
Quirky Is Like 'Virtual Brainstorming Session'
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.
Quirky Founder: Getting Product to Market Is First Step
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.
Bozzone also said Quirky inventors are given a higher percentage of the profits than they would typically get if they licensed their rights to an existing manufacturer.
Kaufman said independent inventors might get a 3 or 4 percent royalty in a licensing agreement with a manufacturer, but Tyler, for example, gets a 12 percent royalty. In total, the company shares 30 percent of top line revenue generated by a product with the Quirky members who influenced its development.
"I'm all for protecting your intellectual property," he said. "But one of the problems with the world right now is this inherent perception [that] if I have an idea I need a patent. Sometimes you don't, sometimes it's not even patentable."
Getting a product in the market is the first step, Kaufman said. And for $99 his site either makes that possible or lets you know how potential customers might receive your idea.
"In a world of 6.7 billion people, how many people get to participate in the development of new products? … We're opening the flood gates and letting everyone feel what it feels like to develop your own product," he said. "At the very least, before you stake your whole life and career on it, you have a quick litmus test."