Entrepreneurs

Council Post: Five Prototype Methods For Developing An Invention Idea As A Startup

By Kevin Mako, founder of Mako Design, the original product design firm providing world-class end-to-end product development tailored to hardware startups.

Utilizing prototypes in physical product development is the key part of the product development process. Strategic, quality and methodical prototyping is the primary differentiator between a high-quality, successful product and a flop.

Prototypes are used to build, test, refine, finance, market and sell a new physical consumer product — and all of those elements are vitally important. To ensure a successful new invention launch for a product startup, prototyping must be done in the correct order and the right way, especially given the importance of user reviews today.

1. Home-Built Prototype: This is a crude first physical version of a new product. This type of prototype is usually roughed together by the inventor. It is generally built with materials from stores and/or pieces from other products.

Pro Tip: This is a good way for an inventor to help conceptualize the product if they are not yet clear on how it will work or what their vision for the invention is. This is also by far the cheapest prototyping method, so if time is not critical, it is worth spending a little effort hacking something together to help think through the idea — even if you’re just borrowing some Legos from your kid!

2. Early Prototype: This is a rough prototype that is built from a simple or non-professional CAD (computer-aided design) model. This can be made by an inventor who learned some CAD basics or who got help from a junior CAD designer.

Pro Tip: Although this stage may feel like progress is being made, it is usually not the most efficient use of both time and money (and both elements can be critical for a hardware startup). Generally, the prototype here won’t be useful or relevant for any formal product engineering or marketing, nor will help much in the development of the CAD design, as great CAD needs to be designed from the ground up, not patched over a rough CAD foundation.

3. Rough Professional Prototype: This is a rough prototype that is built from professionally designed three-dimensional (3D) CAD. It is generally built using 3D printing or other relatively cheap, quick, but professional prototype methods. The goal here is to build the first quasi-functional prototype.

Pro Tip: This prototype is critical and is not to be confused with the early prototype above (which is not critical). A rough professional prototype works to flush out the mechanical engineering challenges and opportunities. This prototype is built from professional industrial design and mechanical engineering CAD files from seasoned experts. Essentially this prototype is a relatively inexpensive way for engineers to test and refine the difficult or experimental parts of an invention. If this step is skipped, it will be far more expensive down the development road.

4. Cosmetic Prototype: This is a nonfunctional but very cosmetically appealing prototype using advanced materials prototyping methods. Essentially the exterior of the product will look like an off-the-shelf product; however, the internals will only be rough or relatively crude.

Pro Tip: Although this is an exciting phase given that the invention is now beautiful in real physical form, this is an optional prototype in development. Despite the 1,000-plus products we have developing for hardware startups, only a few folks elect to build a cosmetic prototype. They often built one only because they were in such a critical rush for marketing or promotion materials that they could not wait another couple of months for the completed final prototype. As an added tip, if you are going to do a cosmetic prototype, do it in tandem with the final version of your rough prototype to minimize the time delays.

5. Professional-Grade Final Prototype: This is a final prototype that is both professionally designed and fully functional, both cosmetically and mechanically. This is a prototype that nearly identically mimics a production unit.

Pro Tip: This prototype is the most exciting one as it is the first working version of the invention idea. It is great for marketing, pre-selling, raising financing, etc.; however, its best value is in product testing. This is so that all the kinks (and opportunities) can be ironed out before going into production. If the product is more complex, revisions of parts or the whole of this prototype may need to be redone to ensure the end result is a rock-star product that is ready for manufacturing. The quality and performance of the prototype should be at a very high caliber to ensure that almost zero decision-making is being done by the manufacturer. The manufacturer simply needs to follow the build instructions to make each of the parts and assemble the product at volume.

In conclusion, great products are derived from great prototypes, which are derived from great design. As a startup in modern times, where user reviews are front-row-center in buyers’ purchase habits, it is paramount that a new invention is released as a high-quality product. Given that budget and time are almost always restricted for startups, the simplest way to ensure great quality is to follow the above prototype best practices and keep your product features as limited and simple as possible. This allows you to focus on a key feature or benefit so that you can ensure that one (or maybe two) key features of your product are done right the first time you go to market.

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