How To Build Your Startup’s Prototype

By Darrell Jones

If a picture says a thousand words, just imagine how a great prototype speaks volumes for your startup.

What is a prototype? It’s a rough working model of your product, giving people (and yourself) a better idea of its potential, functionality, features, size, color and more. It’s not fully-functioning (that will come later), but by creating a rough prototype of your vision you’ll have a much easier time explaining the concept to potential investors, clients, folks at meetups and anyone you encounter when evangelizing the potential of your startup.

However, when you’re just getting started, it can be prohibitively expensive to gather all of the talent needed to bring a prototype from concept to reality. This is why it’s a great idea to hire online freelancers to help breathe life into your working model. You’ll make something tangible and exciting in much less time than building it yourself.

Naturally, the type of assistance you’ll need will vary depending on whether you want a 3D designer to create a robotic cat feeder or an iOS programmer to mock-up a shell of your mobile phone video game. But here are some things to consider when creating a prototype.

1. Your prototype doesn’t have to be perfect.

The goal of your prototype is to prove that your concept works, in the easiest, quickest and most-affordable way you possibly can. As a startup you know that getting you product to market fast is key, and your prototype is the shell that makes the first step towards full functionality.

2. Start by taking apart other company’s products.

If you’re making a physical product, purchase the competition’s product and take a screw driver to it. Look for how it’s been assembled, what materials are used and any insights that can save you time and money when building your model. If you’re creating an online product such as a mobile app or ecommerce site, take a look at the flow of those in your space. Check out what works and what you can improve upon in your prototype.

3. Consider a video prototype or wireframe first.

Before you start shaping molds, consider creating an inexpensive 3D video. An animation may be sufficient on its own to express the idea, or it may help outline what’s needed in a more detailed physical prototype. If you’re building a prototype for software or a phone app, consider beginning by creating wireframes that shows the flow of each page and how each page is interrelated.

4. Make a miniature prototype initially.

Again, if you’re prototype is for a physical product don’t get an online team working around the clock until you’ve scooped out the general parameters. With some clay and a trip to the hardware store or plastics store make a mini prototype. This will help yourself better understand the parameters, as well as making it easier to explain your startup’s product to people who will take it to the next level. If needed, re-iterate again and again to work out bugs you notice.

5. Looking good? Move onto a full-scale prototype.

Now that the major holes have been worked out of your design, it’s time to take the next step and get a more concrete prototype developed. You’ll find great industrial designers on Elance who already have the tools ready to get your prototype ramped-up quickly. This is an important stage in getting a patent too, as you can use this prototype to demonstrate how you were the first to invent this new product or service. Consider making more than one copies, as the cost per unit drops considerably when you’re create 10 vs. 1. If you need to have multiple prototypes floating around, now is the chance to get a handful made. Similarly, this is when you’ll want an expert programmer to start building out the shell of a website or mobile app. Remember it doesn’t have to have all of the bells & whistles – you can explain those in person – just enough to show how the software will work.

6. Communicate thoroughly with your prototyper.

Make sure you’re on the same page with the freelancer who will be working with you. Leave no details to chance, as you want the job done right the first time. The secure and shared Elance work room you and your freelancer will use to communicate has many collaboration tools. Also rest assured that your ideas are safe when working with Elance freelancers, including non-disclosure agreements people agree to. See a related article on How Elance Protects Your Intellectual Property

With your great ideas and the right team of freelancers lending a hand, your prototype should come to fruition in no time at all (and at no huge cost). From there, you’ll be amazed at how quickly others will grasp what your startup is all about. From there the sky’s the limit on how quickly you’ll take off and get into full production.

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