In the land of product launches, there is a young entrepreneur named Tom. Tom wants to create a working model of his product (aka functional prototype) but he doesn't know where to begin. As much as Google offers us by way of vast knowledge, albeit at times useless, this is different. There are articles about how much you need a prototype, and there are articles about how much you don't need a prototype. And Tom is willing and wants to do whatever it takes to have a successful product launch. This combination of potentially bankrupting advice and the eagerness to succeed is what drops many entrepreneurs out of the game before the first whistle blows. So I put together, from my 25-years of experience, everything you need to know about prototyping and modeling.

Understanding Prototype Options

  • Working Prototype: A product sample that looks, feels, and works like the actual product.
  • Appearance Model: Non-functional, but adheres to actual products physical appearance, and dimensions.
  • Functional Prototype: A crude model with limited functionality, often used to present the function of a product under concept development for product presentation

There are a range of factors to consider, from budget constraints, product liabilities, to meeting deadlines- but the key to selling your product lies in having in-depth customer knowledge so you can manage the expectations of your potential consumers, investors, and future retail buyers. All this coupled with awareness of the circumstances that surround your product presentation, so you choose and create the right type of prototype to make your presentation a success, and get your product or idea sold.

First: You Need A Sample

If you are planning to work with a factory or vendor, you need to get a sample of material or manufacturing quality. A sample can be an actual production product (see if you can get it for free) from your factory, your trading company or your vendor, or it might be handmade in a sample shop. Make sure you are clear on which one you receive. Ask yourself, does it do exactly what the factory or the vendor says it's going to do? Does it meet the specifications? Is it the level of quality you expect? Do not buy product in large quantities, or any quantity for that matter, without checking it out or sampling it first.

Next: Think About Tooling

This is where prototypes come into play. If you're making something completely original, that's never existed before or at least a portion of a product that's never existed before, you are jumping into "me only" territory. In addition to being unique, you are also looking at higher margins, less of a race to the bottom of the pricing barrel, and something more difficult for others to duplicate if you've had the tooling done. However, your prototype is even more important if you will be tooling something new, because depending on the price of your tooling (some of our chairs had tooling that ranged upwards of $75,000), it isn't realistic to do this until you have secured funding or orders.

Finally: Settle on the Prototype That's Right for You

  • Working Prototype: Looks, feels, and works like the actual product. Usually the most expensive to make.
  • Appearance Model: Non-functional, adheres to actual products physical appearance, and dimensions. Look but don't touch samples. Less expensive with functionality left out for the sample.
  • Functional Prototype: Crude model, limited functionality, great for proof of concept. I'm going to caution you to think carefully about making a functional prototype that does not look and feel like the actual product is going to feel. I say this because everyone else in the room might not share in your vision, and might equate what they see with what they'll get.

Do Your Research When Choosing

Know your audience, know the buyer at the store or the investor you're going to be presenting to. Are they very visual people or they're very technical people? Costco, for example, has higher quality standards, than any other mass retailer that I've experienced. Costco requires a standard of testing that is 30% above the entire rest of the retail industry. So when I go and show them a new chair design, I take two prototypes; one functional and one for appearance. This way they can experience the chair safely, and also see it in it's less crude, more finished form.

CAUTION AHEAD!                                  

I caution you with doing two models or choosing between appearance prototypes versus functional prototypes. If at all possible, as long as there's not a financial barrier to it, I would always make a prototype that both looks and functions properly like the real thing because first impressions can kill your chances, even if what they are seeing is not an accurate representation of what you will sell in production.                                                                   

Bottom Line: It takes making samples and making prototypes in order to get sales. The better you get at that and the more systems you put in place to do that well, the better sales you're going to get. For a lot of people seeing is believing. Prototypes and samples are a necessary step in product development, especially when you're creating 'me only' or original product. Go ahead and add 'managing expectations' to your list of entrepreneurial duties, as you work towards bringing your vision to life, and getting those that matter to see it clearly.

Published on: May 22, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.