All his life, he hated brushing his teeth. Getting toothpaste onto a toothbrush can be messy if your fine motor skills are still developing. And, of course, even though you know you’re supposed to replace a toothbrush every three months, who really keeps track of that? So, Houston Diaz decided to invent a solution. And several prototypes later, he designed a toothbrush that has the toothpaste dispenser integrated into the brush itself, allowing himself and others to have a more convenient solution. And when the toothpaste runs out? It’s a natural reminder that it’s time to buy a new brush.
Even though he’s only five years old, that product will one day be on the shelves of your local Bed Bath and Beyond, or Target. And, no, as precocious as this kid is, he is not an entrepreneur, and doesn’t need to raise VC money or write a business plan.
This five-year old is able to be the inventor without also creating a company because of a product innovation company called Quirky. What Quirky does is make invention accessible to anybody — and quite possibly everybody. In the Industrial Era, becoming an “inventor” meant you also had to create an organization that could produce, market, and sell your invention. Thus, it’s been a hard gig to crack. You not only had to be able to come up with great winning ideas, you also had to deal with the complexities of financing, engineering, distribution, recruiting staff, and legal liability — to name just a few. The intensity of the organizational demands narrowed the chances that new solutions would ever actually come to market. And, of course, this slowed innovation and restrained market outcomes.
Quirky has created an innovation engine more suited for the Social Era — in which work and jobs are no longer the same thing, and collaboration happens outside of organizations as much as within it — in three ways:
- It disaggregates the process of innovation from the innovator’s work itself.
- It aligns interests and economics so that all parties have a shared interest.
- It engages community to improve ideas and ultimately co-create the value.
To date, Quirky has allowed 590 inventors to bring their products to market. Anyone can submit an idea, or you can help another idea be improved, or you can collaborate in further design refinement. Over 407,000 community members (growing at a rate of about 1,000 members a day) help create the solution in a variety of ways (from voting on best ideas to iterating or actually prototyping the concept). Organizationally, this means that with 140 people on payroll, less than 1% of the people involved are “inside” the organization in the traditional sense. This is scale in the social era: scale happens not by having more people report to you, but by having people engaged with you. Interests are 100% aligned. Both the inventor and the larger community get compensated for their work.
By working with an extended community, Quirky can bring at least three new consumer products to market each week. And by “market” we mean 188 retail partners. Ben Kaufman, the founder and CEO, says there is no limit to what they can create. “Even cars?” I asked him, curious about how far his vision holds. “Yeah, sure,” he replied. Ben himself is 26 and has been on the Tonight Show to tell the Quirky story. Thus far, Quirky has brought nearly 500 products to market, since 2009 and the level of sophistication and quality continues to grow.
Back to Houston Diaz’s toothbrush. He started this project with help from his dad. When he was done, he uploaded video and watched as votes started to roll in for his “no mess toothbrush. He agitated for more support himself, even calling his dentist and asked his vote. “No one was exempt from his pitch,” says Houston’s mom, Nancy Lublin. (As CEO of Dosomething.org, she’s clearly raising someone who believes in action.) Then Quirky put it “under consideration” — a live debate takes place for vetting ideas, which entrepreneurs are encouraged to attend. Houston and his dad wore matching jackets and ties, and Houston made sure his mohawk was extra spiky. He listened as people debated his idea, and answered questions as they came up. And very shortly (in the next 3-4 weeks), they will put the product into production.
Now you may not want to be an inventor. And maybe your kid doesn’t want to either. But the Quirky business model embodies a set of ideas that every business ought to be considering, in light of the Social Era. Quirky builds on a fundamental truth of the social era: Ideas can come from anywhere, from anyone without first being vetted to see if that person is “allowed” to have that idea. And as we find our way into the Social Era, we’re going to grapple with what it means to be a leader like Ben Kauffman — more like a community organizer than a traditional head honcho. Show me a leader, goes the saying, and I’ll show you a bunch of followers. The challenges of our era don’t require more followers; they require the kind of leadership that encourages the community to build what’s needed so that anyone and quite possibly everyone can exercise initiative.
Today, a few smart people see this as “the future.” Even smarter ones see it as “the present.” Which one are you?
And, more importantly, what are you doing about it?
This post originally appeared at HBR, here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/05/why_you_should_let_a_5-year_ol.html. As is my traditional request, please post comments there so I can manage 1 conversation, which helps the personal sanity by a factor of 10.