Having a great idea for a new product is the first step for teens hoping to become young entrepreneurs. The next step for those of you creating a physical product to sell (rather than a service to offer) is to make a prototype of that product, which we’ll call a widget.
A prototype is “the original or model on which something is based or formed.” In other words, a prototype is your test run or your rough draft. It’s the first physical version of your idea to see whether or not this is what you imagined.
Creating a prototype allows you to evaluate your product in real life. You can test out whether or not it works the way you intended. Does it have any structural flaws you need to address?
A prototype also gains you investors by showing them the physical representation of your idea. You can take photos and videos for your GoFundMe page, website, or bring it in person to expos and conferences.
When you hold your prototype in your hands, you may come to realize why nothing like this has been invented yet. Will this make life easier for your customers? Is it too clunky or difficult to use? More importantly: does it even work? A young entrepreneur such as yourself may have the best idea in the world, but if it’s not executable as a physical object, it’ll never sell.
As an example, let’s say your widget is a pen-highlighter-keychain combo. You decided to make this because you noticed you always lose pens and highlighters. You’ve also noticed the trend of students clipping hangers and keychains to their backpacks. Why not combine them so that you always have a pen on your backpack?
Let’s create a prototype of your widget!
*Step 1: Draw your idea or create a computer model
You don’t have to be an artist to create a basic drawing of your widget prototype. Just get it out there. The important thing to remember is that it’ll be a lot harder for you to develop a physical model if you have nothing to base it on.
This first step will help you see your widget for the first time. You have to think about where each piece goes and what the final product will and should look like.
Because this step is the easiest and cheapest, it’s a way to start making adjustments to your widget before you start the work of building a real-life model. As a result, this can save you valuable time and money.
*Step 2: Create a physical product
There’s nothing quite like holding your product in your hands for the first time! Look: you did it! Your dream is now very real.
So how do you make it?
Most young entrepreneurs lack Elon Musk’s money for creating a prototype. That’s fine. You don’t need a lot of money to make your widget. In fact, you may be able to create your prototype widget for free. And as for time? Depending on how complicated your widget is, and which method you use, you may be able to have a prototype in your hands within one day.
- 3D printing
If you have a 3D printer at home, great. If not, check your local library or your own school (or nearby school) to see if they have a 3D printer you can use. This method is both economical and practical: with the right 3D software, you can mold and form your prototype to your exact specifications. (This is where your early drawings or computer models come in handy.) At most, you may need to pay for 3D software or materials.
This bit is super cheap, if not free! For the widget we discussed above (your pen-highlighter-keychain combo item), you can easily put something together using pens and highlighters you have at home as well as any keyring. Rather than haphazardly taping it all together, maybe you buy a mini-pen and a mini-highlighter and use a hot glue gun. Easy peasy.
- CAD (computer-aided design)
There is plenty of free CAD software out there, making this option easily the most economical. This works great if 3D printing truly won’t work for you or your product requires more than a few recycled products. However, a CAD won’t let you hold your product in your hands – it stays virtual until you use it to either assemble your product IRL or 3D print it.
*Step 3: Don’t aim for perfection
Aiming for perfection is a great way to put an unobtainable goal in front of yourself and never get any work done. There’s a reason you are creating a prototype, and that’s to work out the flaws and kinks with a real model. Pretty soon, your idea of perfection becomes procrastination and fear of success, and before you know it someone else has taken your idea, created a prototype, and is already selling it on Etsy.
Which brings us to…
*Step 4: Protect yourself
As a young entrepreneur, you may worry that someone will take advantage of your youth and inexperience to steal your idea and make money off your hard work. At some point, you’re going to need to share your idea with others to raise funding or test the market. While there’s no fool-proof way to guarantee this will never happen, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself as much as possible.
- Keep a log. Take photos, mark dates, and document, document, document. SmartPhones automatically timestamp photos, which works in your favor. Remember to back up your logs.
- Have everyone to whom you show your widget sign an NDA, or non-disclosure agreement. This means they agree, in writing, not to steal or share your idea. Young entrepreneurs might not feel comfortable with something this formal, and that’s fine: just keep track of the names, dates, and times you share your product idea with.
- Trademark your idea. You know, this symbol: ™. “Common law” trademarks are free and don’t require registration. You simply put that symbol next to your widget’s name wherever you write it. This doesn’t mean no one will steal your idea and make a widget that’s a slightly different model, but it may deter some people from trying.
*Step 5: Refine
Test your product as much as humanly possible. Is it strong? Does it work? Is it easy to understand and use? Where are the potential issues?
Maybe your pen-highlighter-keychain falls off every time you have to shove your backpack into your locker. Maybe no one at school thinks they want to buy one. Whatever problems you have, your prototype is the chance to come up with creative solutions.
Prototypes also help you figure out how to price your product once you’ve worked out the kinks and bugs. You can now show potential customers exactly how your widget works and ask them how much they’d pay for it.
*Step 6: Sell!
Now you’ve created a prototype that works the way you intended, looks how you imagined, and which customers will happily pay for. Make some more and get selling!
If you are a high school student in Florida with a passion for entrepreneurship, click here to find out more about the Kantner Foundation’s college scholarship program.