One of the first steps to making money from your product/idea is to make sure it works, and you prove your idea works by creating a prototype. In the business world, it's called "proof of concept".
A "proof of concept" prototype is different than a production model prototype. Proof of concept prototypes are usually simple and somewhat crude. It's important not to skip this step. Why? Because it will show you where you need to tweak your design and reveal aspects of your idea you might have not considered.
Production value prototypes (which look like something you would see on store shelves) are needed when you want to show your product idea at trade shows, get a purchase order from local stores, or to up the ante when seeking licensing deals etc. You can make this prototype after your proof of concept. However, it's not always needed (it depends on your unique journey to market).
Here are 5 (of the many) ways to prototype your product idea...
1. Modify with off the shelf parts: My first prototype of the self-marking tape measure (QuickDraw), started with a standard tape measure, a glass cutting tool, a paper clip, nail polish, epoxy, sandpaper, and paint... The result was a working prototype that proved the concept. The model I made was good enough to test out in the work environment and discover what I needed to improve about the design. *Remember, it’s important to be realistic about the feel and function of your idea. I've seen people show ideas that were actually more problem causing than problem-solving.
2. 3D modeling: It has never been easier and cheaper to prototype production quality parts, then it is today. That’s because unless you’ve been living in a cave, deep in the Himalayas, you’ve heard of 3D printing. First things first, before you can print a 3D part, you will need a 3D drawing of your part.
There are lots of really easy to use CAD software out there such as Tinkercad, Google SketchUp, and FreeCad. Don’t be intimidated if you have no experience with 3D drafting. When you try it, you might surprise yourself! If you discover that it's not your cup of tea, ask your friends or find someone local online to help. I always recommend finding someone local for this because it's easier to explain the details of your project in person.
3. 3D Printing: Once you have your 3D drawings, it’s time to print them. You should know, there're lots of different types of 3D printing, so if you’re going to order parts from a 3D job shop (there are tons online), you need to know your options. Any good 3D job shop will look at your parts and quote you. If your project has a lot of parts or you plan to make lots of prototypes, it may be wise to buy a 3D printer which will cost you between $300 - $3000+. PRO TIP: You can buy a 3D printer, use it, and sell it when you’re done with the project. The 3D printers are like iPhones... new upgraded models are built every year.
4. Clickable Prototype: For digital products, like an app, you’ll need to create artwork that shows what the look and feel of the app will be. Basically, you’re making PDF’s of each window, so you can click from window to window, to figure out if it’s user-friendly, and what might be missing, or needed. Note: This approach is great for presentations, especially if you’re raising capital to get it made. You can walk your potential investors through the user experience.
5. Wood, clay, plaster, paper, wire, epoxy, etc.: I think you get the idea from the intro here... basically, anything goes. Anyone who’s gone to kindergarten knows how to make an ashtray out of clay (I’m dating myself here, but you get the point). Whatever material you’re comfortable working with, just go for it, get your hands dirty. This is as raw as it gets, and this approach will clearly only work with certain types of projects, but if it’s right for yours, then get to it, and have some fun.
Again, after you have your proof of concept prototype, your next step is to raise the bar, and make the design improvements for the fit and feel of your product, so that you can make a production model prototype. This means a prototype that looks like you bought it at the store. The purpose of this kind of prototype is to have a physical product that you show at trade shows or take to a local store and get them to write you a purchase order. If you're wondering WTH is a purchase order, check out my article coming out next Tuesday titled, How Purchase Orders Can Fund the Launch of your Invention.