The last time I spoke with Ben Kaufman he told me he was happy to have left Mophie, the mobile device battery case maker, to focus on “reinventing the process of invention” with his new company, Quirky, because he “didn’t want to spend [his] life making iPhone condoms.” Yet here we are five years later, and the first project Quirky has undertaken fresh after raising $60 million in venture capital is more iPhone condoms — this time in partnership with online retailer Fab, another rising New York-based startup.
The partnership will bring Quirky-built Apple accessories, such as an iPhone case that double as a wallet, an iPhone bike mount, and, yes, a battery case, to Fab’s storefront. Kaufman said that the idea for the partnership came about last Monday, and on Thursday his team gathered, voted on, and prototyped product ideas from the Quirky community. A live broadcast allowed the community to help decide which products would be developed over 24 hours – a speed that few, if any, companies could match. Startups can spend months conceptualizing and planning a product. Quirky gave itself a day.
It’s no surprise then that Kaufman chose to partner with a startup that could match Quirky’s speed. Fab, called a “flash retailer” for a reason, joins a partnership that spawns a series of seeming contradictions. First you have a man that swore off iPhone cases just a week before devoting his time (and money) to their development; an ecommerce company that has branded itself as a content company but is now embracing its storefront status; and two New York startups partnering to develop new hardware faster than Silicon Valley and the rest of the iPhone accessory-making masses.
Don’t underestimate Fab and Quirky’s one-two punch. Quirky counts over 260,000 community members and expects to bring in over $20 million in revenue this year – not bad for a three-year-old company. Fab, which pivoted from being a gay-man’s everysite (they had daily deals, a Foursquare-like feature, and a general social network) in 2011, had amassed 1.5 million members at the end of last year. Those customers, who have proven to be willing to buy anything from clothing to furniture and artwork, are the kind of customers that appreciate Quirky’s attention to detail and the pseudo-hippie “we’re in this together” history of each product.
Like any good relationship, the Fab-Quirky partnership is based on a foundation of similarities – being based in New York, “healthy” venture funding (they’ve collectively raised $247 million, according to CrunchBase) and attention to quality – as well as differences. Fab is, for the most part, content to sell other company’s products, and Quirky is willing to leave the commerce aspect of its business to its retail partners.
I think it’s safe to say that Quirky is making good on its promise to contribute products that look at home on Fab. They seem well-designed and many serve dual functions. The Powerloop, for example, looks, well awful, but it hides a charger cable in its bright (presumably) rubber form. I’m not the biggest fan of all of the products – the Corner Guard Case (probably not the final name) in particular strikes me as a bit off-putting – but it isn’t hard to imagine a use case for each product. (Sarah in particular may appreciate the variety of cases, as she tends to break iPhones like it’s her job.)
There may have been one missed opportunity, however. The Quirky crowd disapproved of a vibrator-iPhone combination, with one woman saying “I like my iPhone and I like my vibrator, but I don’t like them together.” Considering that Jimmy Jane vibrators are one of Fab’s best-selling products, according to cofounder Bradford Shellhammer, the combo may have been a smash hit.
All told, watching two New York startups challenge the idea that “hard” tech can’t come from the East Coast has been exciting. The companies could crash and burn – the products may have a fatal flaw, Fab’s customers may not like them as much as one may expect, etc. – but both companies’ commitment to quality and their founders’ ability to act (an react) quickly make that seem unlikely. Pivots away from iPhone condoms and Facebook/Foursquare social networks – but for gay men! – have led to one of New York’s hottest hookups. Now we’ll just have to see if this is a one-night stand or a lasting relationship.
[Illustrations by Hallie Bateman]