Do you have an idea for a new gizmo that will take the world by storm? Are you about to create a what-cha-ma-call-it that will finally enable you to launch your own small business?
Hold on. Before you invest your life savings or launch a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, you need to create a prototype.
A prototype is a pre-production model or sample of a potential product that helps you work out the kinks before you start producing large quantities for sale. A prototype demonstrates to potential customers, suppliers and investors what you envision your product to be. Most important, it helps you figure out ways to save money and make your product more appealing to customers.
Let’s say you’ve got an idea for a new specialty food item — a new gluten-free peanut sauce. You’ve been playing around with recipes for months and are sure you now have a killer sauce. Before you buy hundreds of bottles and line up a commercial kitchen and a bottling plant, take time to test your complete product: not just the sauce, but the bottle, label and other packaging.
In prototyping your product, examine how well it will do when made in quantity. How long will your sauce stay fresh — and attractive — in the bottles you chose? Do the bottles have to be refrigerated or are they shelf-stable?
Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea, told me how surprised he was at the amount of sediment found in the company’s tea when made in large quantities and how cloudy the tea was. The company had to change its production process to deal with that.
Developing a prototype helps you figure all costs, not just for ingredients but for every part of the process, including sales and shipping. For example, when choosing bottles for your peanut sauce, consider not only the cost of the bottles, but how many will fit in a case and how much they’ll weigh when shipped. Choosing labels? Find out the sizes that standard label-affixing machines can handle. And consider how the shape and size of the bottles fit on retailers’ shelves.
As you develop your prototype, focus on these issues:
• Will the product work? Does the product actually function as you’ve envisioned? If you’re building a mechanical, electrical or electronic product, it must be perfectly functional from an engineering standpoint.
• Can it be produced in sufficient quantities? If you will be manufacturing the product in bulk, judge whether you can ensure consistent quality of both components and the final product when made in large quantities.
• Can you make a profit? Can it be made efficiently and cost-effectively? Can you use standard, easily available ingredients or components that will reduce costs? Can you command a price that results in a profit?
• Will you need to manufacture the product on your own? Will you need to build your own costly facility or can you use contract manufacturers, lowering your costs and increasing the speed with which you can get to market?
Having a prototype — especially of an appealing product — also helps you raise money. It’s far easier for potential investors to understand and appreciate what you’re trying to achieve when they can see, touch or taste it.
Moreover, a lot of small businesses are raising money for new products on crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, IndieGoGo or Fundable. Some of these sites require you to have a prototype, but for all, having attractive visuals and a video of a working prototype helps you be far more effective in getting attention and raising money.
Don’t worry. Developing a prototype doesn’t mean you can’t change or refine your product later. But the process should help move you to market faster by forcing you to get your idea off the drawing table and into reality.
So start building a working prototype of the gizmo of your dreams. As you do, remember Google‘s product-development motto: “Experiment, expedite, iterate.”
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2015
This article originally ran in USA Today on April 3, 2015