Designing and fabricating prototypes during the product development life cycle is a critical part of the product learning process. Successful prototypes will prove that the product idea is feasible, will help qualify the engineering design, and are needed to receive customer feedback prior to producing higher production volumes. The interesting thing about a prototype is that it is an extension of you, your company, and the values of your company. In other words, these prototypes give others a first impression of you and your efforts. Below are four questions investors, distributors, customers, and suppliers will immediately answer upon seeing your prototype:
(1) At what stage is the product in the product development life cycle? A prototype will portray the stage of your product in the product development life cycle. It is immediately apparent to an expert if your product is 5% complete or 95% complete after seeing the prototype. It is important to accurately describe how far along the product is in the product development process when speaking with experts, otherwise it will be very clear that you don’t know much about developing products.
(2) How well have you thought through your product idea? The prototype is a physical embodiment of your product idea. When people see your prototype, they will immediately know if you have thought through only the simple aspects of your product idea or if you have dug deep into the critical aspects of the product such as the user and human interface, the detailed design, the interactions with other products, and the manufacturing or assembly issues. Also, the prototype will show if you have a true innovation, an improvement on an existing product, or a trivial reinvention. If you show up to a meeting with a product prototype that only displays the external features of the product but doesn’t demonstrate the functionality, you will get many questions about how you intend to design the product so it functions properly. If you say “I’ll let the engineers handle that….”, then it will be apparent that you haven’t thought through the idea well.
(3) Do you understand the costs associated with developing a product? When an entrepreneur is in a meeting with a potential investor, the investor is typically looking very closely at the financial forecast and plan to determine if it is realistic. If an entrepreneur brings a mature production prototype to this meeting, the investor will expect that the financial plan has very detailed and accurate numbers. This production prototype allows the entrepreneur to get accurate quotes on the costs associated with taking the product to the next level. If the prototype is only at the proof-of-concept level, the financial plan will include rough estimates and the accuracy of the financial model will be scrutinized in detail.
(4) How prepared are you for the challenges ahead? Nobody ever said that product development is an easy endeavor. There are many roadblocks and potholes on the product development path that must be overcome. Producing prototypes is one of the first. Based on the quality, functionality, and overall look of the prototype, people can easily gauge how prepared you are to take on the challenges ahead. Show them that you are prepared for the future challenges of product qualification, production, and manufacturing scale-up by demonstrating your prototype is the best possible embodiment of your product idea.
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