From the basement to the big time

Photo courtesy of Quirky.

Choosing to become an entrepreneur may be the most challenging career move a young professional could make, said Ben Kaufman, the 24-year-old chief operating officer of Quirky, a New York City-based social product development company.

“You have to devote your entire life to a cause that you believe in,” Kaufman told more than 75 students, faculty and staff in West Village F last Thursday for a lecture on the power of entrepreneurship. “Executing an idea is huge, but it all starts with the idea itself.”

The event — sponsored by the WilmerHale Venture Group — was held in celebration of the new Center for Research Innovation (CRI), which aims to support and foster innovation and entrepreneurship among students, faculty and alumni at Northeastern University. It was also among the series of Northeastern activities marking Global Entrepreneurship Week.

“You are in an environment where there are people who want you to succeed,” CRI director Tracey Dodenhoff told students in the audience. “We will connect you with the best resources no matter what stage of development you are in.”

For his part, Kaufman recapped his entrepreneurial journey. In high school, he founded an iPod accessory company called Mophie, which he named in honor of his two golden retrievers.

It began in his basement with ribbon and gift-wrap. “In class, I wanted to listen to my iPod shuffle in secrecy, so I created a lanyard that concealed the wire,” he explained.

His parents helped finance Mophie by taking out a second mortgage on their home. As Kaufman put it, “They gave me $185,000 and said, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ ”

Mophie won “Best in Show” at Macworld 2006. In 2007, Inc. Magazine named Kaufman the top entrepreneur in the country under the age of 30. He was 20.

One day, he noticed a woman on the New York City subway wearing an iPod case designed by Mophie. “It was the best feeling in the world,” he recalled. “That moment changed everything.”

In 2009, he founded Quirky. The company solicits new product ideas via its website, asks readers to vote on the best ones and then designs, manufactures and markets the winners.

As one example, more than 700 people had a hand in creating the pivot power flexible power strip, an adjustable power strip that holds large adapters in every outlet. “Ideas developed in the living room are more intriguing than those developed in the boardroom,” Kaufman explained. “We share revenue with each and every one of these people on a daily basis.”

He gave honest advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, whom he encouraged to refrain from thinking so hard about the next big thing. “The best ideas come when you’re not trying to think about ideas,” Kaufman said.

“Find great critics,” he added. “You need people to tell you that you have horrible ideas.”