Ask SmallBizLady: How Do I Develop a Prototype for an Invention?

lamp-432249_1280I love the questions I get from my network. They make me think, and the research I do to find the best answer makes me a sharper entrepreneur. Here’s a great one for those of you who are looking to develop a physical product.

Question: I’ve got a fantastic idea for a product, but don’t have the first clue how to turn it into a prototype to show investors, as well as to help me find the right manufacturer. Where do I begin?

Answer: You’re already one step ahead by understanding the importance of having a prototype, especially when it comes to attracting investors. They’ll be more keen to see your product in action than they would be to hear you talk about it.

That being said, don’t skimp over this step. I highly recommend you find an American company to build your prototype, for a few reasons:

  1. You won’t have the language barrier you’d have with an overseas manufacturer at this critically important step of product development
  2. You’ll be more likely to find a referral for a US-based company
  3. You’ll have more control over the process, giving you better results
  4. It’s easier for you to travel to visit the manufacturing facility to inspect it

Get Referred

Because it’s imperative that your prototype not only work but also be crafted with quality materials, you should start with your network to see if you can find the best company to help. If you know other business owners who sell manufactured products, start with them. Then open up the request for referrals on your social networks.

The United Inventors Association of America may also be a valuable resource in finding a company to produce your prototype.

Explore Your Options

You don’t have to hire a manufacturer for the prototype. Your product might be better suited for an engineer, or even a prototype developer. Start with the simplest solution, and then work yourself up from there.

Try a Handmade Version

Before you pay someone to design your prototype, first try to make it yourself. (This may or may not be possible, depending on your resources and skills) If you can at least create an idea of a prototype, it’ll do several things for you:

  1. Help you assess size, materials, and functionality
  2. Give you the tools to demonstrate to the manufacturer what you’re looking for
  3. Physically see your idea beginning to come to fruition

Once You’ve Got Your Prototype

Now comes the fun part. You can show off that prototype in investor meetings, and let VCs and angel investors touch and try your product. You’ll be amazed at the excitement a physical product can generate!

You are also ready, assuming you have the funds, to take your prototype to a manufacturer. While, again, working with a US-based manufacturer has benefits, it’s understandable that many entrepreneurs take their business overseas where they can negotiate a lower per-unit price. Either way:

  1. Ask for references from past and current clients
  2. Ask what materials and products they specialize in
  3. Ask to see samples of their work
  4. Ask what their lowest minimum order is

Make sure you manage the relationship you have with the manufacturer, and make all communications — especially if they’re overseas — clear to avoid issues.

Congratulations on taking that first step to turning your idea into reality!

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