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Product launch plan - How to prepare your prototype

Woman sketches out ideas in upscale public setting

You have a great idea; a product you can market and create a business around. Now, you want to bring that idea to life. And that usually involves creating a prototype.

The prototype will be the basis for your final product. It allows potential customers to interact with your product, and it allows you to look for opportunities to optimize it and evaluate its market potential. In many cases, your product's success will be determined in part by market exposure; a working prototype helps you prove the product's functionality, opening the door to potential media coverage and investors.

While every product has unique needs and challenges, a basic five-step plan can help you develop a successful prototype for your big idea.

Step 1: Give purpose to your prototype

When creating your design concept, be sure you're familiar with the competitive landscape, and identify opportunities to improve existing products. If you're developing a watch, go out and take a look at existing watches. Hold them, analyze them. Ask yourself what your favorite watches have in common. What about your watch will be different? Write down everything to reference later.

Focus on the purpose of your prototype, and put that objective at the forefront of your brainstorming. Keep an open mind to change, and keep it simple: begin by using pen and paper to design your product. The key is to easily go from an idea to a physical creation.

Now, choose a design; it's time for your next step.

Step 2: Create a representational prototype

Representational prototypes include "works like" prototypes, in which the model has functionality without the design aesthetics or "looks like" prototypes, in which the developer sacrifices function for design.

Think of your prototype as the rough draft of your product launch plan. Use this time to revise your prototype as necessary before you fully commit to production. During this step, repairs can be efficient and inexpensive.

Your prototype may depend greatly on your budget, although creating a homemade prototype first can help keep production costs down. Consider using common household items with your initial venture. Moldable plastic is a strong, reusable compound that is ideal for prototyping and readily available. By creating the initial prototype yourself, you can learn firsthand the manufacturing details to help create a production cost report.

Step 3: Build a working prototype

Generally, several prototypes are built and examined before going to market. Once you have created your representational prototype, it is time to determine the product specs to create a working prototype.

Think of your prototype as a main course you would like to serve your guests (or customers). If it is your first time making this meal, an obvious first step is to use a recipe. For your prototype, you'll create a bill of materials (BOM), which will serve as a shopping list for your prototype. Determine the specific components that make up your product and include a projected production cost report. That way, when you are shopping, you'll know what "ingredients" you will need and if you may be overpaying.

While injection models can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, a 3D printer can provide a sample mold for your prototype models for as little as a few hundred dollars, often in only a day or so. In this stage, you have a working, tangible prototype and can determine necessary edits before you go into production.

Step 4: Hire professionals

Once you have a working prototype, it is time to call in the professionals. There are many directions you can go in during this stage of your product launch plan.

What type of professional help is best suited for your prototype? Depending on the type of product and its complexity, you may need to find engineers, designers, web developers or other trades professionals to help you with certain aspects. When determining the aesthetics of your product, you might also consider hiring a professional prototype developer as a part of your product launch checklist.

Do your due diligence when it comes to researching manufacturers for your product. Referrals are a great way of finding the right domestic and overseas manufacturers.

Step 5: Create a product distribution plan

Factors to consider when creating your product distribution plan include speed to market, product sourcing and production cost.

Help increase your speed to market by shortening your supply chain. Start small. Your flexibility in making changes to your product will give you the upper hand. Keep your order quantity low until you have available overhead to produce and store your products.

When it becomes time to source your product, don't get discouraged. Although it is not always easy to find a supplier, it is possible, and you will be rewarded if you put in the effort.

For product sourcing, determine whether you'll be using a manufacturer to make your own product, purchasing wholesale from a supplier, or using a drop-shipper to produce and fulfill orders from existing components. Alibaba is one of the world's largest ecommerce sites and provides a database of professionals (including prototype developers) to help get you to your finished product.

Also, be informed on your product cost while researching distributors. When starting a business, due diligence will save you time and money in the long run. Understanding the product cost associated with your design helps you go into production informed and can give you the upper hand during negotiations with potential distributors.

Before you begin your research, be sure you have determined the following:

  • Your bill of materials (BOM). Create a bill of materials that includes a cost breakdown for your product specs. For a new product launch, time is an important factor for your product launch formula. For physical products, make sure you know how long it takes to manufacture the different pieces of your product.
  • Your minimum order quantity (MOQ). Do not fixate on the lowest per-unit cost. For physical prototypes, make a small batch, first. Ensure you have the market demand for your product before ordering large quantities. Consider stockpiling components of your product that are consistent and take the most time to procure.
  • Storing your product. Unless you are storing your products at your home, you will need to find a fulfillment center.
  • The deposit of filling a purchase order. Factories generally ask for 30 to 50 percent of the total costs up front. You pay the rest of the total cost before they ship your product.
  • Packaging required. Developing adequate packaging may be just as important as your product, so you should include packaging in your prototyping process. Your packaging can both protect your product and serve as a marketing tool.
  • Shipping costs. Will you ship over land, sea or air? International or domestic? Determine your shipping budget and choose the method that meets your financial and time requirements.

The research and preparation you undertake before you commit to a distributor will pay off in the long run for your product launch.

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