Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Importance of a Prototype

by Geraud Staton

There are steps that one must go through in order to get a product or service into the hands of your first customer. In fact, in the spirit of there being more than one way to skin a cat, let's say there may be quite a few ways of getting your product into your first customer's hand. In small business, the worst way to do it seems to be the most common. 

Josh Kaufman in The Personal MBA described it this way: "Develop the offering in private, make everyone involved sign non-disclosure agreements, raise millions of dollars in venture capital, spend years making it perfect, then unveil your creation to the astonishment of the world and the thunderous sound of ringing cash registers." Of course, Josh goes on to say that this is not the case. You are more likely to be in for some major disappointment if you operate this way. 

As president of my university Entrepreneur Club, I have seen it hundreds of times. We would have a meeting where we talked about out next project or business venture, and we would open the floor for questions. This is a time when people, who are working on their own businesses, could ask a room of like-minded entrepreneurs for their advice, discuss issues, or tell us about some resource that we may not know about. The Club is amazing for that sort of thing.

Often, I would get some student to approach me at the end of the meeting like he was about to sell me some stolen watches. He'd pull me aside and tell me he had a business idea and could he present it to the group. But, he wanted to make sure no one stole his idea, and he wanted to see if we had signed non-competes for all of the club members. And even then, he only wanted to talk to the most senior members of the group. 

This attitude is, unfortunately, not rare. There is a fear that people are just sitting around in the shadows waiting to nab your idea and make it theirs. I'm not saying there aren't some shady characters in the business world, but I do know this: starting a business is difficult work. And doing it alone makes it even harder. Doing it alone and doing it RIGHT is next to impossible. How do you know what your customers want if you don't ask a bunch of them? How do you find out information about distribution and the sales cycle and financial sources if you don't ask people who know? How do you start looking for partners or even employees if you don't let people know what you've got going on?  

And one of the best ways I know to show what you have to offer is through the creation of a prototype. Prototypes are not just for robotics! You can tell me a hundred times what your product is and what it does. Ask me to repeat it and you'll get a lot of confused looks from me. But, if you show me your product and how it's supposed to work, you will have my full attention.

There are four types of prototypes. 

1. Functional Prototype
This is a model of a product that works, even if it doesn't actually look quite like the finished product. If you're making a stapler that also shoots paper footballs, you may not have the actual football shooter part done. But you can show what the stapler is supposed to do by creating a crude electronic attachment, much larger than the finished product will be. 

You can show this to a client and now your client knows what you are working on and can see how much fun it would be, even if it's not as easy to hold yet. It gets people excited and they know what's coming and may even be able to help you refine the process.

2. The Mock Up
Unlike the functional prototype, this model may not work at all. But it will look identical to the finished product. This is often used for aesthetic products. If you want to create a pistol that looks like one you saw Buck Rogers use when you were a kid, you may not make the gun itself, but rather an actual model so that it feels and looks just like the one you plan to build. 

In some cases, it may not be the exact size of the intended product, but it should be to scale. Car manufacturers and home designs would fit into this category. 

3. The Design Prototype
Maybe you don't have access to a 3D Printer. Maybe you carving skills aren't up to snuff. Maybe you're allergic to moulding clay. That doesn't mean that you can't show the world what your product looks like. It just means you need to slip into the two dimensional world. This prototype, often called a spec. Unlike a true prototype, the design prototype would be used for complicated products.

Usually, the design prototype is used in conjunction with either a mock up or a functional prototype. But, in cases where you either don't have the ability or don't have the time for a 3D model, this is a fine alternative. Just be sure the design shows exactly how the product will look and what it will do. And then, make plans to create a 3D version as soon as you can.

This works better than just telling me about the suit.
Check out more at Gizmodo

4. Video Prototype
This is how one can show a service. One could describe the customer experience from beginning to end, either verbally or on paper, but it would most likely not spark the imagination or create the interest that a video prototype would. If you are offering a unique landscaping service, show us how it works. Show us what you do that makes you better than your competition. Show us the before and after images. Show us what we can expect from your service, beginning to end.

This doesn't have to be limited to the service industry. Particularly if you have a large product. If you're building hand-made, one-of-a-kind canoes, you may not be able to bring one to a presentation. But you can bring a video of the process of creating it. You can show us how well it floats or turns or flips or whatever canoes should be able to do. 

A prototype will make your product or service more memorable for your potential clients, potential investors and even your parents when you try to explain to them what it is you plan on doing for a living. Show and Tell is always better when there is something to look at. You remember the kid who forgot bring her Show and Tell assignment in and just stood up there telling the class about her "thing"? Do you remember what she was talking about?

No. Of course you don't. And no one will remember what you're talking about either.

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