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5 Tips for Creating a Prototype

A prototype is often the only way to know if your idea will fly, and if your startup is ready to launch.
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Ready to test your idea's real-world functionality and appeal? Creating a prototype is a must. Mark T. Reyland, a serial entrepreneur and executive director of the United Inventors Association of America (UIA), offers up some tips on working with a manufacturer to get your startup ready to launch.

What should a newbie entrepreneur do first?
Before you ever pick up the phone, make sure you know--and can explain--exactly what you want in as many specifics as possible. You also have to educate yourself on the process so you understand what the person on the other end of the phone is talking about. A virtual prototype is not the same as a prototype, but some manufacturers try to sell them as such. You need to know the terminology so you can be sure you're getting what you want.

Once you identify potential manufacturers, what should you ask them?
Ask for their portfolio to see what kind of work they've done and for whom they've done it. Make sure they have the experience and capability to do everything you need. A smoke alarm is not an overly complicated product, but it does have some complicated issues. You might find a prototyping shop that can easily do the outer case but doesn't know anything about electronics or how they interface with the case. You need someone with experience that covers everything. Also, look for someone with a design aesthetic that matches yours. You won't be happy with a futuristic designer if you're looking to design something around a retro brand.

How can you vet references for these shops?
You can check the references they provide, but also call the [Better Business Bureau] and clients in their portfolio to ask about things like responsiveness and timing. Research them online to see how long they've been in business, if they've been in the news and what others have to say. But keep in mind that internet information is just one data point, because you don't know its origin. Lastly, listen to your intuition: We all have an inner compass that guides us when we interact with others, and if something feels off, or feels right, that's an important variable.

What can one expect in terms of prototyping time and cost?
The structure of a deal is difficult to nail down because it's dependent on so many factors and how well-prepared you are. Prototyping companies typically set rates by the hour or by the project. The more complex the product and the more handholding you require, the more time it will take and the higher the cost will be. Communicating your needs thoroughly can save time and money. Because you provide all the information they need to design it, your flow and preparedness will typically dictate the pace of the project.

What if my invention just doesn't fly?
Millions of inventors have gone down this entrepreneurial path of prototyping only to end up with a very nice bookshelf piece. At some point, we all have to walk to the end of the board, jump off and hope there's water in the pool. If not, there are lots of resources that can help you revisit or decide if it's time to move on, including UIA, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and independent programs such as Inventor's Blueprint [in Portland, Ore.]. Whether you decide to carry on or move on, inventor education is the key to making sure you're pointed in the right direction.