How to build a prototype for a start-up business

Get your business idea off the ground by building a prototype. Read our guide to planning, building and testing a prototype, and how to outsource the creation process to a manufacturer.

Building a physical or digital prototype can be a great way to attract investment, hone your product and bring your business idea to life. Learn how to create a prototype, the steps involved in making one, and how to use it.

 

Many of the world’s best-selling products went through a series of iterations and refinements before they launched. Quite often, the product you buy or use is very different from the initial idea. Businesses often test and improve new products before they settle on the final version that goes on sale using a process known as prototyping – and it’s a crucial part of innovation.

There are many famous examples of prototypes. The iPhone debuted in 2007, but Apple started working on it in 2004 and created dozens of prototypes – many wildly different from the iPhone we’re familiar with today. Social networking platform Twitter was originally a prototype called twttr and resulted from a brainstorming session at podcasting company Odeo.

One of the more famous examples is the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Sir James Dyson created 5,127 prototypes over five years before he perfected the bagless vacuum cleaner.
 
 

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Why create a prototype?

Prototyping allows you to test, refine and improve a product before it gets into the hands of customers. It helps perfect new inventions, spot potential problems and tests the manufacturing processes needed to make the final version. Done well, prototyping is a highly effective way to launch a start-up.

The dictionary definition of a prototype is: “The first example of something, such as a machine or other industrial product, from which all later forms are developed.”

Both physical and digital businesses can use prototyping. Prototypes can be in physical form, such as a working model, or in digital form, such as a video or animation.

For many businesses, the only way to know if an idea works is to prototype and test it. Prototyping allows you to evaluate your product and assess how it looks and functions.

You can use prototyping to check areas related to appearance, such as colour and surface texture, or function such as ensuring components work as they should. Based on that testing, prototypes can be refined and problems fixed before creating the final market-ready version.

In the early days of a start-up, you can give a prototype to a select group of users to test and provide you with feedback. You can also use prototypes to get your product ready for manufacturing and attract funding by allowing investors to see what you have in mind when they’re considering investing in your business.

 

Website designer drawing a prototype as a wireframe design

 

How to create a prototype

Prototypes come in many forms, such as:

  • sketches and diagrams
  • models made of cardboard or wood or 3D-printed in resins and plastics
  • working models that function exactly as you intend them to
  • animation or video
  • virtual or augmented reality demonstrations
  • wireframes for software and apps
  • websites, such as an online store

To create a prototype, you first need to decide how much time and money you want to spend and how sophisticated you want the prototype to be.

 

Creating a physical prototype

You can create prototypes such as 3D models using basic materials like cardboard, scrap metal, foam and wood. You can model products using computer-aided design (CAD) software on a PC and then output with a 3D printer. These use plastic resin to ‘print’ 3D replicas of your product, with entry-level 3D printers sufficient for a basic prototype. A basic physical model allows you to check the form and function before producing a more complex model.

 

Creating a digital prototype

A prototype doesn’t have to be a physical object. If you’re launching an online business or app, a simple web page with a ‘coming soon’ message, animation of the product and a box for interested people to submit their email addresses can act as a prototype. You could create a simple website or online store to see how people navigate and purchase from it before developing it further.

 

Outsourcing the creating of your prototype

Do-it-yourself prototyping can be useful for internal testing and showing to product designers. You may need a more complex prototype that’s closer to the finished product to demonstrate to investors, clients, customers and manufacturers as you progress. For more detailed prototypes, you may need to pay an external service.

Design skills are crucial, so look for a product designer who can manage the whole process, including project managing and working with a prototype manufacturer.

Costs vary from a few hundreds of pounds per day for a freelance product designer to thousands of pounds for a detailed physical prototype created by a specialist company.

To fund a prototype, a Start Up Loan is a great option. You can also apply for funding through government organisations such as Innovate UK, and you might be able to claim research and development tax relief.

If you outsource to a prototyping organisation, you must protect your intellectual property. Having a patent or protected design is ideal but if not, ask the organisation to sign confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements.

Make sure the prototype manufacturer can produce the level of complexity you need and, for physical prototypes, in the material you want. Plastic, metal, wood and textiles are some of the common materials used.

You’ll need to decide how complex you want the prototype to be. For example, do you want a visual prototype showing the overall shape and size, or a fully functioning pre-production prototype using processes that represent how the final product will be produced?

For digital businesses, prototypes could be sketches translated into wireframes for an app, animated videos that show the product in action, or virtual reality technology that allows the user to experience the digital product.

 

Close-up of designer's hands as they draw the design of the interface for a phone app

 

How to use a prototype

You can use prototypes in various ways, from testing and getting feedback to generating interest and raising funds so you can manufacture the final product.
 

Manufacturing processes

By creating a fully functioning prototype, you can test the production processes you intend to use before tooling up a production line to make the final product.

Crowdfunding

A prototype can be useful on crowdfunding platforms to validate your idea by encouraging people to invest. Crowdfunding websites allow you to raise money from the public in return for rewards such as the business’ final product or equity in your company. You can use the money raised to pay for manufacturing.

Presenting to investors

If you’re pitching to investors such as venture capitalists or angel investors in person, having a prototype can be a powerful way to convince them to back your idea. Rather than just presenting your concept in words and sketches, a working physical or digital prototype could get them to sign on the dotted line.

Getting customer feedback

Allowing potential customers to test your prototype can provide valuable feedback that will help you refine the final version. Get a group together and ask them for feedback such as what they like or dislike, whether they’d use it and how it compares to competitors’ products.

 

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Disclaimer: While we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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