Video is an incredibly powerful tool and an increasingly accessible one. Do you need a perfect works-like-looks-like prototype to create an effective video sell sheet? No, definitely not. Video is powerful in part because it’s so versatile. You can make your prototype look better on camera than it does in front of you, if you shoot it from the right angle. You can also easily obscure small defects. And, your prototype only needs to work right once on camera -- or even not at all. That’s the beauty of editing. I could go on and on. My point is, shooting your video sell sheet is an excellent opportunity to get creative -- and so is prototyping.
To bring simple product ideas to market today, I’m a big advocate of licensing. I don’t believe in spending a lot of money, or even much money at all, on prototyping until you’ve tested the market first. Fundamentally, licensing -- and by extension inventing -- is a numbers game. You can’t afford to create a works-like-looks-like prototype of all of your ideas. You need to be able to work on many different projects and to pivot quickly.
1. Your prototype is never what you’re selling, anyway.
How your concept looks will change throughout its development, usually many times over. But the benefits of your concept never will. The prototypes you create are only as useful as they express the benefits of your idea. Of course, some ideas require proof of concept. Getting crafty will still serve you well.
Back in the day, I built most of my prototypes out of paper. Paper is a forgiving, cheap medium. After studying sculpture at San Jose State and teaching myself how to design my own patterns, it was a natural fit. But that was then. So I have asked my team of inventRight coaches, who are in the trenches daily, actively trying to license their ideas. (Full disclosure: They were all my students first.)
2. See what's out there that takes you part of the way.
Their first piece of advice was: Look to existing products first. Can you stitch together components of different products to cannibalize, or, in the words of OXO president Alex Lee, to ‘Frankenstein’ a physical prototype?
When inventRight coach Amy Jo Brogan set out to invent a legitimately spill-proof coffee tumbler, she dug through “everything you can think of” that dispenses liquids at stores near her home, including TJ Maxx, her local grocer, the dollar store, and so on. She cut valves out of existing products and tested them at home on a rigid container, ultimately creating about five different prototypes before settling on the direction she wanted to go in. “I looked at everything. Valves vary in size, and size affects strength. It wasn’t just the valve I had to figure out,” Brogan added. “When I cut a hole in the lid, it would leak. So I had to test quite a few adhesive glues as well. It was a constant work in progress.” Brogan’s spill-proof coffee mug made its debut at the International Home + Housewares Show earlier this year.
Related: 5 Tips for Creating a Prototype
3. Conform to established standards, don't buck them.
InventRight coach David Fedewa used materials in his home to develop his prototype. When he set out to devise a way of keeping a can of beer colder for longer, he defined his parameters. “I wanted that last sip to taste just like the first,” he explained. The can needed to stay colder for about 20 to 30 minutes -- the amount of time most people take to down a beer. He knew he didn’t want to invent anything that would significantly increase the can’s circumference, because the product might not fit standard cup holders. So he took a cupcake tin, filled one cup partly with water, pushed a can of beer on top of it, and froze the water in place, creating a can-sized frozen disk. He used the disk to test his hypothesis. Would it keep a can colder longer? It did! To create his video sell sheet, he used two prototypes: A looks-like prototype and a works-like. Swapping shots in and out gave the impression of a finished product. In 2013, Corkcicle licensed his innovation, Artican, from him.
4. Prototyping materials and resources are endless.
But what if you’re not handy at all, like inventRight coach Howie Busch? When Howie decided to invent a new kind of travel pillow, he sought out help. After purchasing supplies at Michaels, Jo-Anns, and Walmart, he brought his materials and a 3D rendering of his concept to his tailor. A few days later, he had inexpensive samples in hand. Busch licensed his travel pillow innovation to SNI/Cloudz, the leading travel pillow and travel accessory company in 2014. To prototype other ideas that required more engineering, he’s hired freelancers online, usually for a few hundred dollars, he said.
Some of inventRight coach Terry O’Mara’s favorite materials to work with when he is fleshing out an idea for prototyping are Sculpey clay, a bake-able polymer clay, and prototyping plastic such as Thermoplastic Polyurethane pellets. Both give him a lot of flexibility in terms of malleability.
5. Computer rendering and video play well together.
As far as prototypes go, it’s hard to beat 3D computer renderings. They’ve just gotten so affordable. In several hours, you can hire someone to create a rendering that looks so lifelike people will wonder if they can order your product now. You can even insert your rendering into your video. Remember, there’s really no limit as to how far you can mix and match what’s real and what’s still theoretical, when it comes to video.
If you can build a prototype that looks like the real deal, should you? Sure. That’s always going to be a plus. But is doing so necessary? No. Prototyping should not cost you an arm and a leg. It’s not a valid excuse for procrastination, either. If you’re waiting to contact potential licensees because your prototype isn’t finished, don’t. You’re wasting valuable time. The market is always subject to change. You need to capitalize on opportunities as they present themselves. Don’t let yourself be hamstrung by fear.