Quirky Recap – S01 E02 – “Show Premier”

Andy Warhol may be the pop culture Nostradamus if he is right with his prediction that everyone will experience 15 minutes of fame.  Forget the Internet, reality TV has pipelined fame to the unknown masses faster than a political candidate can jump on a photo op.  The good news is that for product development geeks, we now have our own show…Quirky.

You may know Quirky as that ultimate symbol of open innovation and crowdsourcing, a small company that employs social media to take anyone’s BIG IDEA and turn it into a real, commercial product.  Quirky is maybe best known for Pivot Power, a college student’s idea for an outlet strip with multiple hinges so that the unit can bend around like a snake and allow those large block-like power sources to fit into the strip and not block access to the other holes.

In the great and Internet-time-honored tradition, I will be occasionally writing recaps of the weekly show.   Now you don’t have to watch it yourself!  Most people do this for shows like American Idol, Mad Men or True Blood, but this is much more in our “wheelhouse”.  I don’t know if this show is getting good ratings or if it will even stay on the air, but there are about 8 million shows like this on everything from antique hunting to hoarding, and they seem to have found audiences, so who knows?

Sundance Channel; Tuesdays 10pm

We pick up on Quirky in their second episode.  Why not the first one?  Well, I didn’t decide to do this until now and thought it better to start on the latest show, maybe we’ll get back to the first one, which featured the Pivot Power and an all in one pasta straining bowl.  This week’s show features a can opener and a dog leash.  Sexy, eh?  Part of this show’s appeal is to see how hotshot designers can turn these pedestrian objects into cool toys.

Although shows like this can be superficial in its editing, and let’s face it, the nuts and bolts of product development can be boring to those not invested in the product, the show does provide good overview of the Quirky process:  1) solicit ideas through their community via their website; 2) evaluate which ideas could be a winning commercial product; and 3) bring the inventor into Quirky and turn the idea into physical reality and get it onto store shelves.  This is very reminiscent of the concept known as “Democratizing Innovation,” the research work by MIT’s Eric von Hippel which studies user communities that would hack or augment existing products for specialized uses that can sometimes be commercialized very successfully.

Along the way we get glimpses into the heart of development, stuff like solid modeling and 3d printing, and insight into various design tradeoffs and business realities that often make the inventor cringe.  Cringing protagonists make good TV, ya know, and if a show doesn’t have drama, it must be manufactured (e.g. any show with a high concentration of New Jersey-ians – Jersey-ites?  Whatever).  What, fake drama on a reality TV show?  Oh, the horror.  They wouldn’t manipulate viewers like that, would they?  We’d see right through it and stop watching if they did that, right?  Right?  Oh goodness, you’ve stopped reading already.  I’ll move on.

Back to the show.  Here’s Ben Kaufman, the quirky (Quirky!  Get it?) founder/CEO of Quirky.  He does seem quite quirky.  He’s young looking (even for 24) and geeky hip — this kind of stuff ain’t for stodgy old folks, you know.  He seems likeable, a good thing for a show like this.  But I have the sense he could get annoying later, hopefully not, but we’ll see.  After all, quirky things can often be annoying, like when my TV remote decides not to work.  It’s quirky that way.  Anyways, Ben tells us how great it is to be him, to work with regular folks to make their really cool dreams come true, something big corporations can’t do…because they’re just not quirky enough.   Are you sick of THAT WORD yet?  Strangely, I’m not, maybe because it’s just so appropriately used on this show.  I’ll try not to overuse it, if I can help myself.

We jump right into what they call the “Eval” (wow, such clever code words), their weekly product evaluation meetings where the quirky team review submissions and vote on what product they want to make.  The website community gets 50% of the vote and the quirky team gets the other 50%.  The first product they look at is “Thunder Bubbles”, a hand crank machine that spews bubbles.  Nobody on the team likes it.  I don’t like it either.   I’m sure they threw this one in there just to show us all the awful stuff they have to sort through and so that the eventual winner has at least some weak competition, just like on shows like American Idol, they advance sure-losers over the more talented to make their favorites shine brighter.

Next up is someone’s idea for what looks like a new type of man-purse called the “bag to bag.”  It’s a messenger bag with a transforming strap that converts into a backpack.  His video shows his prototype with his convertible strap affixed to a box that has the word “bag” scrawled on it in black marker.  I can tell by the team’s faces what they are thinking:  “Next!”

Ok, well we read the show teaser on the Internet, so we already know what product was chosen, it’s a can opener.  So what is the idea?  The idea submission video shows the “inventor,” Jon, a copywriter from Kansas City.  He is in his garage with a can of tuna and a jar of peanut butter.  He says he wants the tuna can to be as easy to open as the jar and shows an unassembled concept piece made out of a jar lid that shows he has no idea how to make that idea work.  That’s his “invention.”

I’m not sure I have the same definition of “inventor” as Quirky does.  I was always taught that an idea, at best, is about 10% of a solution, and that the real value of innovation comes in the ability to successfully execute that idea.  I get that the guy has a vision, but I have a problem with people taking more credit for having the idea than for doing all the work to make it happen.  Maybe the rest of the show and this guy’s story will change my mind. During the debate to select this idea, Ben argues the same point with the designers about feasibility being their job, not the inventors.  This is a thing that makes me go “hmmmm” and not completely in the good way.  I’m not the only one that thinks this.

Gaz, the company’s lead designer is shown cringing at the can opener idea.  “That’s not a solution,” he says.  He seems to have the role of “cranky naysayer” on this show, and certainly lives up to it.  He is uber-cranky.    I have my own questions not related to the product.  Why do so many design teams have an accented foreigner with funky names like “Gaz”?  It has almost become cliché, really.  And why are foreigners always cast as the “heavy” on American shows?  Ben at one point even tells Gaz to “F— off.”  I can’t tell what kind of Caucasian foreigner Gaz is.  His accent is odd.  Is he English or Australian?  Maybe he’s from New Zealand.  New Zealanders are great product designers, maybe you didn’t know that?  I didn’t know that.  I’m really just guessing and hoping nobody knows enough to contradict me.  I should be a producer on these shows.  I sense you reaching for your mouse.  I will move on.

Gaz questions the physical reality of making this product.  He says pragmatic stuff like “nobody has the strength to make such a thing work.”  He is like a certain science fiction engineer from a different show.  That’s it, maybe he’s Scottish!

By a narrow margin of raised hands, the quirky staff advances the can opener and they immediately video chat (look how cool we are!) with the winning “inventor” and tell him to start making plans for all the money they’re going to make (really).  Never mind that it doesn’t have buy in from a key stakeholder, start buying lots of expensive toys, Jon, do it right now!

Now the show switches to another product, but skips the whole Eval this time and we jump in during the mid-production phase.  This one is a dog leash named the “Kosoku,” which is to fake Japanese as Haagen-Dazs is to, ahh, you get it.  The inventor is Sarah Carpenter, an unemployed single-mom and former police officer with a passion for animal restraint systems (you can’t make this stuff up).  Her vision is for a retractable leash that’s more comfortable to use and is reflective.

That’s just a teaser as we shift back to the quirky office where we get to meet the team that will do the heavy lifting for Jon, the guy who keeps his peanut butter and tuna fish in his garage.  We are informed that $25 million  worth of openers are sold every year and they would be happy just to get 1% ($250K) of that market.  Ben has assigned two of his top engineers to solve this mechanical challenge.  One of them immediately pooh pooh’s Jon’s concept of blades sticking out of a jar lid.  Honestly, it was not a prototype, he just took a bunch of circular things and held them in his hands as if “voila” here’s the solution.  We’re being too harsh though, practicality is Quirky’s role, as Ben himself declared at the Eval. The bloodletting honesty continues, however, as  Gaz calls Jon’s video a “fail that we will turn into a success.”  Ouch.  Gaz is kind of a jerk, but I like him more and more.

Now it’s Jon’s time to come meet the team.  Jon knows Gaz hates the product concept and admits to being nervous.  “I don’t hate the idea,” says Gaz, “I just know it won’t work.”  I now have a man-crush on Gaz, I don’t care anymore if he’s from Slovakia.  Jon isn’t giving up, he wants to know WHY the idea is impossible.  I am a bit concerned he needs that explained.  But Ben is still behind him, so let’s all get used to the idea because this is happening.  The boss says so.  Does that ring a bell for you?  No?  Your pants are on fire.

So Jon sits down with the team to explain his vision.  That’ll solve everything, right?  He makes some napkin sketches, and twists an imaginary device in his empty hands.  The engineers pull out their knowledge guns and make swiss cheese out of his limburger, trying to get Jon to understand the complicated physical principle known as “leverage.”  Jon folds the can opener out of a pocket knife and does a “what about this” exercise, then makes the mistake of asking Gaz what he thought.  “I think you’re tripping,” he says bluntly.  Jon looks depressed and a little embarrassed.

I didn’t expect this show to deliver the schadenfreude quite like this.  Delicious, delicious schadenfreude.

Despite the Gaz negativity vibes, Ben still thinks if they can solve the mechanical issues, it has a great upside that is worth the development risk.  So now we move on to the ethnography phase, where they shoot photos of Jon using all different kinds of competing devices to get at the root of product use in real world context and ergonomics.  Since his idea was based on how jars are opened, they shoot him opening lots of jars.  The photographer admits to Jon he didn’t vote for this at the Eval either (bandwagon jumping…really?).

The professionals now get their turn and sketch their own interpretations of the concept.  But the big question is, will it still twist like a jar, or is that going to have to be abandoned?  Jon is letting go of that part a little bit, and says the goal is so that the “smallest common denominator person can open the can more easily and faster than ever.”  Gaz’s sour face is front and center, I am thinking of not calling him “Gaz” anymore, no, his name is now Eeyore.

Back to Kosoku.  Sarah visits quirky and gets some unexpected bad news.  The factory isn’t giving them what they want and the pre-production units are missing key features, including reflective material and changed the design to feature a large, ugly zipper.  This is a real problem because we learn that not having a production sample may hurt sales as retail companies are insisting to see this leash before pre-ordering.  Sarah is in dire straits, if this doesn’t work out, she may lose her house!  The Quirky staffers must try harder!

While the can-jar thingamajiggy team is in the workshop making physical concept units of their ideas, a new leash arrives from the factory, and it is much, much better, solving all the issues and giving the sales team confidence in sending it to retailers.  There is some strong interest from Frontgate catalogs.

The website community now gets a crack at the can opener ideas and the Quirky team uploads their sketches for feedback.  Two of them are too much like the same old say some users, and the one drawing of the original twist like a jar idea gets one person to reiterate that while it’s cool, he thinks it’s physically impossible.  Eeyore 1, Jon 0, and it’s not really even as close as that.  The engineers have tried everything and can’t get it to work.  They tell Jon that they want to go in the direction of one of their alternate designs.  Jon doesn’t like it, it’s too much like a traditional opener, and then Eeyore pulls out the rug and says to him, “time for you to leave.”  What a blow! How will this tragedy end?  I must find out.

It’s going to work out, I just know it.  After all, Quirky worked out the issues with the Kosoku and Sarah goes out to the dogpark with the new prototypes to test them out in public.  The public reaction is great, people like it!  They really like it!  How can Frontgate not sell this?  They will sell it.  Sarah has mortgage payments, I’m sure they’ll take that into consideration.

In the Frontgate offices, the Quirky team is given some mild encouragement.  They like the product, but mention their demanding customers a lot and how many ideas submitted to them don’t get picked up.  They seem to like the design and features and will get a decision to Quirky on Monday.  Not a slam dunk or a slammed door, it’s something in between.

Much later, Sarah returns to quirky and told that Frontgate had some design concerns such as better stitching and different color schemes for catalog photogenics, but despite how tough a sell it was, they agreed to carry it in their holiday catalog!  Slam dunk for Sarah who now knows she can keep her house.  Before she leaves, Ben tells her she made $4000 just that day and possibly up to $25 K in the first year.  Is that math right?  How much does Quirky take?  Sarah doesn’t care, she’s super grateful.

The Quirky guys are really determined now to make a prototype Jon will like.  Except Eeyore.  But the rest of them really seem to care.  To make up for the non-jarness of the new solution, they will focus on “design quality.”  Is that a bait and switch?  Nah, of course not.  They make a foam model, which is more like a traditional opener in a new type of form factor with a handle they liken to a computer mouse.  They show Ben and he agrees it’s cool, even though it’s not really Jon’s vision.  Is Jon now still the “inventor”?  Was he before?  It really doesn’t matter anymore.  Ben doesn’t care either, as long as it sells.  See, he’s pragmatic, plus he pushed this one through, so he wants it to see light.  He and Eeyore think the “coolness” of its design will win Jon over.

After being shown new sketches over video conference, Jon still seems iffy on the new direction until Ben tells him Eeyore was coming around to the idea.  That’s all the endorsement Jon needed and he jumps with both feet onto the non-jar-like-opener bandwagon.  Smiles all around.

Ben does the show’s “surprise” technique and shows up in KC with a functional prototype that we find out doesn’t open cans.  It needs tweaking, but it now has a name, it’s called the “Nonjartsu,” no, of course it isn’t, Ben tells him it’s called the “Apri.”  Isn’t that so much better than “Nonjartsu”?  Maybe.  Again, it doesn’t matter, because Jon is ecstatic, what was his sketch is now a real product!  It isn’t anywhere close to what he invented, but it’s his now, the prototype at least, although it doesn’t open cans, but it has parts that move!  A graphic ends the show that says they are still working on the Apri.  Will we see it for sale?  Hmmmm.

Here are the pull quotes from the metacritic page for this show, which earned an aggregate review rating of 65/100.  That’s not bad.

“Fascinating documentary–and extremely effective commercial.” – Newsday

“Meant to celebrate innovation and entrepreneurial can-do spirit, Quirky instead eerily reflects the vapidity of the American economy and employment picture, where ideas trump labor and success is measured by top-level paydays instead of actual toil.” – Washington Post

“A lot like Shark tank but without the drama or the competitive spirit.” – Entertainment Weekly



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