Kickstarter vs. Quirky: Startups Provide New Routes for Invention

You don't have to have lots of cash to make a gadget anymore.

August 12, 2012 — -- It's one thing to buy a fun new gadget or accessory, another to think up an idea for one, and a whole other thing to bring it to market.

Even as actual production is increasingly outsourced, the companies that create your products are creation machines: design, research, engineering, marketing, testing, branding, legal, distribution.

However, two New York companies – Kickstater and Quirky -- have begun to help those who need help bringing gadgets to market. Their approaches offer very different paths to market.

Kickstarter: Crowdfunding for Entrepreneurs

Kickstarter focuses on crowdsourcing. The site has sections devoted to the arts: music, photography, fashion, film, theater. There's also a technology section, but it tends to focus on hobbyist endeavors such as MaKey, which allows you to activate actions on a PC by tapping on such non-digital items as a glob of Play-Doh or a banana. The real home for consumer gadgets is in the Design section, under Products.

Kickstarter projects, which must be approved by the site before being listed, are usually offered for about four to six weeks. During that time, the creators must reach a certain funding goal. If they don't, they get nothing. Some projects ask for a couple of thousand dollars, others $100,000 or more. Recently, the Pebble smartwatch, which can communicate with an iPhone or an Android device, raised a record $10 million.

Kickstarter projects offer a number of rewards for project backers, based on how much they pledge. In the Product Design section, this often includes a preorder of the product being developed. Payments are made via Amazon Payments, which, like Kickstarter itself, takes a percentage of the money raised.

Quirky: From Start to Finish

Like Kickstarter, Quirky, which describes its business as reinventing inventing, generates its product ideas from Website visitors. It also cooks up some internally and has trotted out a couple of tech-related devices. But while most of Kickstarter's projects are about the creative arts, most of Quirky's veer toward household items.

The major difference, though, lies in the level of expertise required. Kickstarter project creators are responsible for what they need to bring products to market. Kickstarter simply facilitates the raising of cash to fund those efforts.

In Quirky's case, all you really need to get going is an idea, perhaps enough drawing skill to visualize it, and $10 for Quirky's filing fee. If an idea is lucky enough to be picked by the community and pass Quirky's approval process, Quirky not only puts its in-house team of designers and engineers to work, but tries to get placement for it on the shelves of retailers who are Quirky partners. These include Bed, Bath and Beyond; Target;; and The Container Store.

For all this assistance, Quirky assumes the patents on the product, but pays a perpetual royalty to the inventor. Its biggest success story to date has been Pivot Power, a snaking power strip that avoids the problem of not being able to accommodate bulky wall wart AC adapters. Jake Zien, the developer and recent Rhode Island School of Design graduate, has been paid more than $285,000 by Quirky. Quirky also awards "influence points" to community members for voting on products, suggesting names and participating in pricing polls.

Buyer Beware

In either case, be prepared to wait as products often get iteratively redesigned and refined before they are put into final production. After receiving Kickstarter funding or the green light from Quirky, products can take weeks or months to be ready. In at least one Kickstarter case, a product that had attracted many pre-orders was abandoned and the inventor said he could not return the money, leaving backers out in the cold. Kickstarter, like eBay in its early days, takes no responsibility for enforcing delivery of pre-orders even after credit cards are charged.

On the other hand, many small companies and well-funded startups are turning to Kickstarter to help ease the financing burden and generate pre-orders for products that they would have created anyway. Quirky, in contrast, has abandoned pre-orders after trying them in the site's early days, but still has a long backlog of products to create. But it, like most Kickstarter project creators, works to keep customers up-to-date via posts and videos.

Because Quirky is generally reaching for a customer base with critical mass, the appeal of its products must generally be a lot broader and often more affordable than many of the more niche-oriented devices on Kickstarter.

But both companies open doors to a wide range of products that otherwise might have floated aimlessly, perhaps in the head of someone like you.

Ross Rubin is a tech industry veteran and technology analyst. He also writes a column for Engadget.