The Value of Prototyping
We've all had ideas for new products and services. They come to us in the middle of the night, and we frantically try to find some paper and a pencil to jot it all down, usually stubbing our toe on the dresser in the process. It's the next big thing, or so we think. However it's a long way from the back of the envelope sketch or description to actually delivering the product or service to a real market with paying customers. The first step in this process is to refine your idea and then to prototype it - to see if the thing actually works.
The dictionary defines a prototype as: an original type, form or instance serving as a basis or standard for stages, an early typical example. It may resemble your 8th grade science project, held together by some #2 pencils, a paper clip and a roll of duct tape. In the software world, it usually involves some flashy graphics and a mailto form as the back end. While it may not be the most sophisticated or aesthetically pleasing product, it serves an invaluable purpose because it translates your idea and vision into something real, something tangible. In this way, good prototypes allow their creators to share their ideas and visions with potential customers and investors. Then the light bulb lights up above their head just as it did for you when you first thought of the idea.
Good prototypes also minimize the time and money needed for development while maximizing the return. Over the past 18 months, we saw startups invest millions of dollars in technology before they validated their ideas in the market, resulting in companies with great technology and no one to buy it. With this in mind, a good prototype must be adaptive. Chances are, either your target customer or your business model is going to change, forcing you to re-think your idea. Good prototypes allow you to leverage your existing technology and change directions as needed.
The most important function of a prototype is to validate. Even good ideas fail. A prototype allows you to test your idea, to find out if people will actually pay for it. It may be a great idea; however, the value of the idea is irrelevant if the product or service cannot be actualized for a price people will pay for it. Good prototypes generate feedback from the market for better or for worse. It's better to kill a bad idea before you take the finished product to market then to waste valuable time and money in developing a full version no one will buy.
I recently attended the Garage Boot Camp for startups, and one of the key points Guy Kawasaki made was "don't worry be crappy." The point is that time to market is everything; you need to get your idea out there and tested as soon as possible. The market will actually test and research your product for you. Oftentimes, it will provide the specifications for the next version, indicating what potential customers do and do not like and what features should be included the next time around. In addition to validation, a prototype gives you something to sell. It provides a demo when you're pitching your idea to venture capitalists and customers. Especially in today's market, you need proven validation to receive venture funding. In addition, you may find that you can pre-sell your product or service to customers that will actually fund the full development of your product or service.
The market has validated your idea, now the real challenge comes. Chances are, there are dozens of people out there working on a better version or a competing product. Your challenge now is to adapt and evolve quicker than the competition. When the prototyping is over, it's time to build and sustain a business.
Nathan Laurell is the co-founder of TECHnacity, LLC, a technology development firm specializing in early-stage development for startups and established companies.