How to catapult an idea to success

Siege Toys is one of many tiny start-ups using a pledge marketplace to raise funding and collect pre-orders.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
4 min read

This weapon won't build itself. Siege Toys

I had an interesting but frustrating discussion recently with Matt Crowe, the founder of Ahhha, a site for "social ideation," as he calls it. It's where people can float ideas for products and either seek help from the people who can actually help make the ideas real or just "claim" the ideas and let others run with them. Everyone who contributes is supposed to get a piece of an idea's financial success.

Crowe hopes that Ahhha will become a place where anyone with the germ of an invention will plant it, and that the community will select and grow the best ideas. A comparison voting system is supposed to help the good ideas bubble up, but currently non-serious and joke ideas flood the site, burying the few good ones on it.

Crowe says, "Nobody has a clue where to go if they have an idea," and that's very true, but I don't think a pure ideas market like this is the way to solve the problem. We already have systems for the registration and protection of intellectual property: Patents, trademarks, copyright, trade secrets, and counterfeit laws are all designed to protect the originators of creative work. Each of these systems may be criticized as being some combination of cumbersome, unfair, or expensive, but I would still submit that the last thing we need is yet another registration system, one where individuals can claim rights to an idea without putting any legal heft or real work behind their claims. Ideas markets are one thing, but helping people actually create products is more valuable. And several sites are doing just that.

One of the many pointless ideas on Ahhha. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Ahhha has some similarities to the gadget manufacturer Quirky, which puts an inventor community in front of its development calendar. Quirky has the smallest of filters to idea submission, but it makes the biggest difference: you have to pony up $10 to submit an idea. Quirky itself builds and sells those concepts that make it through the community voting process. Inventors get a cut of sales. Quirky appears to work only in plastics, so the ideas it can act on are limited.

Other services enable inventors and creators to fund all kinds of projects and find customers for them. For example, see Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where artists and inventors can collect monetary pledges for their projects. Funds pledged are held in escrow until thresholds are reached; then the money gets released to the projects. The people running the projects generally agree to send those who pledged their work output-- music tracks or theater tickets for artistic works; toys or gadgets for hardware projects.

Since pledge-based projects are expected to deliver actual output, the budding entrepreneurs on these services have to do more than have an idea: they have to be able to pitch successfully to the sites' communities. This filter leads to ideas sites filled with workable ideas that need, primarily, money and moral support (pre-orders are very effective in that regard). Pledge sites don't pretend to tell inventors that there's a shortcut to success, but they do add efficiency to part of the financial process.

A Medieval weapon, made with lasers
I recently met some inventors working a fun project through the Kickstarter system: Michael Woods and Evan Murphy. They were students together at Caltech a few years ago, and recently realized their post-graduation startup, which made legal discovery software, wasn't going to work out. They dropped back to what they both love: Building stuff. In particular, toy trebuchets. The trebuchet was a siege weapon in Middle Ages. It has a special appeal to geeks, because it blends really interesting physics with a Lord of the Rings aesthetic.

Watch this: Siege Toys' Trebuchette

Woods and Murphy wanted to build a quick-to-assemble desktop trebuchet, or "Trebuchette." Existing kits have to be glued together, but since "It's no fun watching glue dry," as Woods told me, they wanted to create a snap-together version. The started Siege Toys to do it.

Using the Epilog laser cutters and other equipment at the TechShop in Mountain View, Calif., and the free, open-source Inkscape vector editor, they started to design a kit to sell to geeks and high-school physics teachers. You can't cost-effectively run a manufacturing business out of the TechShop, so they're raising funds to buy their own cutter and incur other start-up expenses. As of this writing, they've raised about 30% of the $48,000 they need to get started. They may not make it all the way to their goal, but it won't be for lack of effort.

Woods and Evans show that there's more to bringing an idea to fruition than just having the idea. In addition to continuing to work on the kit's design--they've had to teach themselves how plywood expands in humid environments, for example, which can affect their very tight manufacturing tolerances--the duo has some hustle. When I tweeted about putting in a $30 pledge for my own Trebuchette, Evan Murphy sent me an e-mail asking if he could come show me a demo. The team came to CNET and had me snap together a prototype model under their instruction. (The video is of co-founder Michael Woods.)

And that is how inventions make the transition between idea and reality. Random people throwing barely formed thoughts up on a community site aren't going to achieve much. People willing to work can do anything. But even the best sites that help entrepreneurs find markets and raise funding are not magic bullets.