I am frequently asked about prototypes — are they necessary? How good do they have to be? Do they have to work properly, or can they be fake?
Let’s start with the definition: Prototype (noun), one of the first units manufactured of a product, which is tested so that the design can be changed if necessary before the product is manufactured commercially.
I’d like to add that this is the actual THING (object) that you’ll be presenting in meetings when you’re pitching to license or sell the product.
Yes, there are times when your certainty and clarity on what you’re proposing can carry much weight in negotiations, even if you haven’t built the thing. But this is rare, and it isn’t a recommended route. Prototypes, in most situations, are necessary.
There are several different ‘types’ of prototypes — here’s the list as I see it. (I also give more detailed descriptions below.)
- Working Model
- Representational (non-working) Model
- Miniature / Scale Model
- Factory Sample
- Video or photo demonstration
- Faux Prototype
Ideally, you want to build the first type (a Working Model), and you want it to actually function so that people can get their hands on it and try it out. Also, you want to get the wrinkles ironed out before presenting the thing to industry — you might not get a second meeting if your prototype fizzles at a meeting.
But sometimes it isn’t possible to have a Working Model. In these cases, another kind of prototypes is used.
Typically this is an actual working model of the thing, as close as you can get it to what it might look and feel like when the consumer uses or experiences the thing. It doesn’t have to be a certain color, but size and functionality are important here.
My push-up stabilizing product, the CushUps™, is essentially a pair of foam blocks, 3” X 6” X 9, which are ” partially hollowed on one side where you can insert your fist, knuckle-down, for a cushioned pushup experience. For my prototype, I purchased two yoga blocks and hollowed them out with a drill press. Then I pasted together a retail-looking box, drove to Denver, Colorado (fourteen hours) and presented the product to the President Emeritus of Sports and Leisure Technology Corp. A few weeks later, the deal was agreed to, a licensing agreement was signed and the CushUp Blocks were sold in retail under the Everlast name.
When to use:
This is the most common type of prototype. It’s used for exercise equipment, toys, games, apps, kitchen gadgets, clothing, etc., etc., etc.
Representational Model (non-functional but demonstrable and descriptive):
This is a model that is built more or less to size. It has the APPEARANCE of the product, but has no actual functionality. With 3D computers (some are priced low enough so that you can buy for yourself), it has never been easier to make a representational prototype out of plastic. Just Google “simulated prototype” and you’ll find dozens of companies asking for your business. Or, you can go the old fashioned route and build a representational prototype out of wood, metal, etc.
Years ago, my gal, Suzette, and I had the opportunity to display new product ideas at the ‘New Product Pavilion’ as part of an infomercial industry convention, “Electronic Retailing Association” (ERA). I displayed a large-ish table top miniature golf game (which didn’t really belong at this sort of expo) and Suzette displayed ‘The Smart Oven’ – a product that certainly belonged an this sort of expo.
Her idea was essentially to have a counter-top unit that was both a refrigerator and an oven, a combo unit. You would be able to prepare your meal in the appropriate dish, place it in the Smart Oven where it would stay chilled until the time came for the refrigeration system to cut out and the oven feature to kick-in and cook your meal so it was ready to eat by the time you got home.
She gave me the sizes and the basic spec’s for functionality and I had the shell fabricated at a local sheet metal shop. I disassembled an old electrical meter and used the circuit board for the ‘electronic’ look and covered that with a transparent colored piece of plastic from a local plastic wholesaler, affixed a wired hand-held computer mouse to the board and voila, a non-functional demonstrable counter-top refrigerator/oven combo.
It was then very simple to explain what it did. Moreover, anyone interested wouldn’t have expected it to actually ‘fire-up’ at an event like this. The item generated lots of interest — it was and still is a great idea. I even think Breville (a small appliance manufacturer) manufactured a similar product, some years later, so the concept was solid.
By the way, this expo was held in Las Vegas, and we each paid $365 for our respective display spots —we each had a table on which to display our products. We set up our displays, and then we ran to Kinko’s to print our signs and literature. We had no idea what we were doing at the time, but it led to a long line of prototypes —some that became retail products, and some that didn’t.
When to use:
Non-working models are used when (a) it isn’t practical or necessary to build the circuit boards or internal mechanisms required for functionality, and (b) the technology already exists and is proven. For example,you can make a plastic prototype of a faucet and take it to a meeting. You don’t actually have to run water through it to show that it works. For example, you can make a plastic prototype of an heart-monitor gizmo you’ve invented. The prototype doesn’t actually have to work (heart monitor technology is widely available), but people do like to see what the gizmo would look like.
On the other hand, if you have invented a brand new KIND of technology, such as en engine that runs on air (wouldn’t that be great?), then you definitely need to build a working prototype because people will want to see it work.
Miniature / Scale Model:
Sometimes a product is too big to drag around to meetings, like a structure (house, apartment building, etc.) or a vehicle. In this case, a model is usually built to scale.
Most of my products have been something I could fit through a door and drive to a meeting. But when I built the monkey bar structure for The Biggest Loser set, I first build a miniature model. I went to Michael‘s, the arts and crafts store, and bought a bag of “project wood” in assorted sizes, and then I built a scale model.
When to use:
As I said, you build a miniature model when it’s a construction-type project or when the item is too big to take to a meeting.
When you are going to manufacture the product yourself, or when you’re going to partner with a manufacturer to manufacture a product, you usually need a factory sample that you can use to shop around for distribution. Why? Because Retail outlets and chain stores usually want to see the “real thing,” not a prototype.
I had an idea for a massage glove a few years ago and put together a rough looking but working set of gloves. I went to Home Depot and purchased a five dollar pair of gardening gloves, the type with rubber-dipped coating. I went to Michael’s, the arts and craft store, and bought a tub of decorative glass beads and super glued those beads to the finger tips and palm area of the gloves.
I took this rough looking (but working) pair of gloves to Bob, my manufacturer at the time. He sent the samples to Taiwan with instructions for the actual final product, a few weeks later the factory samples arrived with logo screened printed on them, just what I needed so I could start selling. Bob also gave me the lead times for any orders I got, so off I went to Broomfield, Colorado, a fourteen hour drive, for a thirty minute meeting with Gaiam (the health and wellness leader).
Bob and I agreed that he could have the retail distribution rights. After all, he felt good enough about the product and saw that I had already had interest from a major player in the wellness arena, Gaiam, so he funded the manufacturing, shipping and fulfillment.
When to use:
As mentioned, if you are manufacturing the product yourself, or partnering with a manufacturer, you will need a factory sample to show distributors.
Video or photo demonstration:
Sometimes, a video of the product working is helpful. This could be in additional to your prototype, where you also show the product in use by real, live people. Or, it could be in place of your prototype, if you can’t bring the prototype to a meeting for some reason.
Or maybe nothing has been built yet, and it’s just an idea. A slideshow or animation of how the product is supposed to work is helpful to communicate the idea/product to other people.
My gal once invented a fly trap product. The product itself wasn’t much to look at, but it worked. She conducted a series of side-by-side tests, where she compared her invention to existing fly-paper products. She took very graphic, close-up photographs of the number of flies caught and turned this into a PowerPoint presentation on her laptop. We drove to Las Vegas, where a representative of a pesticide company just so happened to be attending a convention, and showed him the PowerPoint presentation. He was impressed by the photos and the concept. As it turned out, we didn’t get the deal, but someday we might exhume the product and pitch it elsewhere.
Another example is exercise equipment. I have pitched a lot of exercise equipment, my own inventions and those of others whom I have helped, and I always try to capture some video of the product in use. This has helped me sell/license several products. A photo, and especially a video, is worth a thousand words.
Sometimes, all you have is….. well…. nothing.
Just after the huge inspirational movie, The Secret, came out, touting the virtue of ‘thinking’ success and money into your life, I partnered with a guy from San Diego, California to make an unofficial “sequel” to The Secret to set the record straight — you can’t just THINK your way into success, you have to take some action.
However, 1) It is really difficult to make a movie of any kind, and 2) it’s even more difficult to get distribution. And in any business, distribution is everything.
The idea for the movie was this, we would ask successful friends and friends of friends to talk about their ‘action-steps’ as it related their respective success and ‘perceived‘ life of abundance in four areas – Wealth, Inspiration, Success and Happiness. These are the four basic areas of life and study that draw people to seminar rooms, book stores and to search for ‘guru’s’ to follow for enlightenment.
My partner and I agreed, by way of our own successes, that merely ‘intending and visualizing’ alone wasn’t enough, you had to actually take Action. And that is what we set out to do —create and produce a movie that laid out the Action steps necessary for success.
My partner started rounding up his friends, several of whom were in The Secret, I went about rounding up the likes of syndicated radio personality Dennis Prager, filmmaker David Evans (my brother), and my friend, Greg Smithey, creator of The Buns of Steel.
During this process I had a trip in mind. A trip that would result in Warner Home Video being our retail distribution partner. A trip three hours north of Los Angels to the wonderful town of San Luis Obispo, California to visit Video Action Sports (VAS). It may have been a stretch to think an extreme sports video distribution company would be interested in a motivational/inspirational movie but I figured I pay a visit.
It turns out that VAS had just acquired a midwest video production and distribution company, Better Living Media (BLM), and that turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. They needed a new title for their newly acquired company, and although I had no knowledge of this acquisition before I set the meeting – I figured that ‘Pass It On’ was the title, and it was.
We didn’t have a script, and we had yet to film a single frame of the movie, and yet here I was, setting off to get a distribution deal in place. I gathered twenty to thirty books, written by the people that had already agreed to be in the movie, and written agreements from those who hadn’t written a book, but were celebrities.
I arrived for my meeting with a medium-sized cardboard box from Home Depot filled with the books, was ushered into the conference room. I proceeded to toss the books onto the conference table, explaining that these authors, gurus and celebrities had agreed to appear in our movie — a movie called Pass It On, where successful people ‘Pass On’ their successful actions to people wanting help finding their own success.
I got the deal. And when the movie was completed, VAS mastered our DVD, designed the retail packaging and sent it out. The DVD displayed right next to The Secret in Barnes & Noble, Border’s Books, Books-A-Million and found its way to many online stores.
I was so sure of what we were creating that it was simple to stand there and ask them to agree to distribute something that had not yet been created.
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So there you have it. Prototypes 101.