As any entrepreneur will tell you, holding your first prototype is one of the most exciting moments in your business journey. Many people come to me eager to get to this step, but confused about how to successfully translate their ideas into the physical form. To help shed some light on this topic, here are answers to the five most commonly asked questions about prototypes. (For the purpose of this discussion, we’re defining prototype as ‘the first or preliminary model of your product’.)
1. Who makes my prototype?
There are two main options. You can search for a technical designer who specializes in your product category, or you can search for a factory that offers in-house development services. These all-in-one production houses usually include a list of design services (like pattern making or sample making) clearly on their website.
2. Does a homemade sample count as an ‘official prototype’?
Yep! According to our definition above, a prototype is simply a working model of your product. Ideally your homemade sample looks and functions similarly to the finished design, but it does not need to be perfect, nor does it need to use “final” materials. Technical designers and factories can help you create a more evolved version if needed, but having a rough prototype to show potential partners can be helpful in securing preliminary quotes and minimums.
3. How much does it cost to make a prototype?
Sorry, no easy answer here. This will depend on how flushed out your idea is, the cost of the materials (and any molds needed), the complexity of the design, and who is making it. We often estimate $1,500-$5,000 to cover the development of a new product (so everything from sketches to final samples), but it can vary widely.
4. Where do I source the materials for my prototype?
If you are DIY-ing your first prototype, feel free to get creative. Take apart other products, go to a fabric or craft store, search on Ebay…the goal is to test different options in order to figure out what materials look and function best. After that you can use sourcing platforms like Maker’s Row and Alibaba to find vendors who sell exactly what you are looking for.
If you are making your prototypes with a factory or technical designer, they may have go-to sources for specific materials (or know where to look), however they will likely charge you a sourcing fee for this information. Alternately, they may ask that you provide all the materials. This is a question you should ask early on in your discussion with design partners.
5. Should I show a potential buyer my prototype in order to start generating buzz/sales?
Usually my answer is no. It can be tempting to race ahead and start marketing your idea, however it may be quite some time until you have sellable product in-hand. Based on my experience with hundreds of first-time product makers, the typical lead time between starting work on your idea and successfully producing your first order is 9-12 months. Premature marketing can create a “hurry up and wait” scenario.
However, the main reason that you should share your prototype is if you’re asking for feedback about how to make the design appealing and cost-friendly. Doing so with the person who will ultimately be saying yes or no to buying it can be extremely helpful.
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