In December 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, Sebastian Fixson and Tucker Marion attempted to figure out what went wrong with Quirky, a collaborative-invention platform that connects creative individuals with consumer product companies. Launched in 2009 and hailed as a new frontier in product development, Quirky later flew into zone of turbulence and went bankrupt in 2015. It reopened operations in May 2016.
Fixson and Marion outlined four major reasons of Quirky’s downfall, of which I wholeheartedly agree with three. First, they argued that there was a split between the flow of new product ideas and the company’s execution capabilities. For example, in 2014 Quirky was selling products in over 26 different product categories, which made quality control almost impossible.
Second, and connected with the first, Quirky offered products across a broad range of categories with a high product turnover. This made it difficult to establish a Quirky brand, which in turn complicated selling Quirky’s products to large retailers, such as Target and Walmart.
Third, by fostering close relationship with its user community, Quirky has dramatically democratized its decision-making process. While not necessarily bad when it comes to product development, such a decision-by-committee turned to be too cumbersome when the company needed to comply with demanding requirements of one of its major partner, GE Appliances.
Fourth, the authors argued that Quirky had produced a lot of good products, but few exceptional (“breakthrough”). Also, again, I agree with this particular statement, I’d nevertheless challenge their assertion that the absence of radically new products was due to the fact that the members of the Quirky community had no prior product development experience – and therefore had to restrict themselves to mere incremental improvements of existing consumer products.
I beg to disagree. When it comes to open innovation – and crowdsourcing in particular – the members of the “crowd” deliver only what they were asked to deliver. It’s the scope of the question that defines the scope of the answer. By making its product development process totally dependent on a free flow of incoming ideas and not pressing its community for more, Quirky never asked its users to deliver anything approaching a breakthrough. What reason then did the community have to deliver a breakthrough?
For the same reason, I don’t like the article’s title: “A case of crowdsourcing gone wrong.” Crowdsourcing (and open innovation in general) is not a business model, as Fixson and Marion are tacitly implying; it’s a tool. Quirky has been using this tool at the front end of its innovation process, but has committed a number of mistakes, mostly downstream the process and completely unrelated to crowdsourcing itself. It is not crowdsourcing that has gone wrong; Quirky has. Let’s thus not blame crowdsourcing for Quirky’s downfall.