FirstBuild’s strategy to turn unusual ideas into new products


Traditionally, new products are closely monitored before they are released to the market. Then, and only then, can the audience weigh in on their feedback. The drawbacks of this approach are obvious. How can anyone be sure that all that time and effort is worth it? That is not possible! Typically, companies hedge their bets by launching the least risky new products – products that aren’t all that unique or even completely new.

What if there was another way to do product development?

What if you could work with your co-inventors and consumers to help professional prototyping and manufacturing experts improve products you wish existed or worked better?

That’s part of the premise of FirstBuild, a makerspace in Louisville, Kentucky, backed by GE Appliances, a Haier company. FirstBuild’s team of industrial designers, engineers and artists have taken almost the opposite approach when developing new products (mostly for the home). The company strives to design new products for ill-defined, underserved and niche markets and relies on the power of openness, speed and audience involvement to come up with ideas.

The latest expensive device that FirstBuild has successfully crowdfunded is for fishing. SteadyScope is a fish finder stabilizer that can work on just about any boat, the company says. It came from the mind of an engineer at FirstBuild who loves to fish and came to life through FirstBuild’s platform for sharing ideas and collaborating on product development. More than 2,000 employees, including professional anglers, appliance experts and fishing influencers, were involved in testing early prototypes. Deliveries are expected for August, which seems optimistic given that no production lines exist yet.

Sean Stover, a captain of a local high school bass fishing team and one of the project’s first testers, appreciates that FirstBuild’s engineers are open to and follow up on community feedback.

“The great thing about being part of the community with FirstBuild is that many of us provide feedback on products, but really them listened on what I said,” he explains in a recent YouTube project update. “All those things that I had issues with on the first run were resolved when they came out with the second generation.”

Many inventors are hesitant to share their ideas with others for fear of them being stolen. FirstBuild’s perspective is that the benefits of disclosure are too strong to ignore.

“The most important rule for us is that we will be vulnerable and we will be transparent,” explained André Zdanow, Executive Director of FirstBuild, in a telephone interview. (Zdanow was an integral member of the team that launched and built out Quirky, the once-thriving, now-defunct open innovation platform for inventors.) That means sharing new ideas long before they’re fully fleshed out to see what kind of kind of signal they generate.

Is Zdanow afraid of being copied? Not really.

“We tend to show, but we do a lot of work to try and understand the patent landscape in the background,” he said. “And yes, we’ll pause to reveal if we think that’s relevant.”

The benefits of receiving organic feedback from potential customers — whom he generally describes as enthusiasts — outweigh the risk, he added. And while patentability is being considered, FirstBuild is ultimately concerned with identifying new markets, which requires exploring a wide range of ideas. To do so, anyone can sign up and submit a written description of their new product idea or comments on others’ ideas on FirstBuild’s online CoCreate platform.

The most interesting concepts are developed fast enough to be introduced to the public and tested for responsiveness using YouTube and Instagram. Concepts that receive the most positive engagement will continue to be developed and the public will be updated with prototype updates.

“We were told, ‘Go experiment and bring ideas out into the world and see if you can cover your costs,'” Zdanow said.

Which is great! In my experience, such environments – where freedom and curiosity are celebrated – are where truly innovative ideas can come to light.

People who contribute to a successful product are eligible for compensation, including royalties. Community members retain the rights to their original ideas and design submissions under a Creative Commons license, which requires Zdanow to negotiate the terms of the license agreement on a case-by-case basis.

Whether it’s an individual inventor or a group of people who came together on the platform, it’s up to FirstBuild to come to an agreement that they’re okay with it, or they can just walk away.

“All intellectual property is not created equal,” explains Zdanow. “We want this to be a safe place for creatives, and the only way to do that is to give them control over their idea or their IP until they’re sure they want to continue with us.”

So, is their strategy working? Kind of. FirstBuild’s big commercial success was the Opal Nugget Ice Maker, an expensive millennial cult favorite that has received mixed reviews and spawned a line of devices for the parent company. Other products it has developed include a smart sourdough starter, an aging chamber for charcuterie, and a muffler for the coffee grinder. Some concepts conceived and co-created by members of the FirstBuild community have become GE Appliances products, including Kitchen Hub, a 27-inch integrated smart-touch display and vent combination that fits above your range.

For now, Zdanow’s main goal is to grow the FirstBuild community with more passionate people, which will help him and his team identify unmet needs and ultimately push more ideas and innovative products into the world.

When I started making things with my hands it was purely for the excitement and fun of it. I wasn’t thinking about commercialization. I was absolutely not worried about protection. I was motivated by the sheer joy you get from creating something new, which is truly magical. The same sense of playfulness exists at FirstBuild, which is remarkable and refreshing.

It’s true: you never know where the next great idea will come from.