Bringing Your Product to Market 4.6. Prototyping and Beta Testing

4.6. Prototyping and Beta Testing

By the time you actually begin considering building your product, you’ve accomplished quite a lot. You’ve created the idea, screened it, developed it into a concept, tested the concept, and performed some very good business planning by setting the price, forecasting your sales, estimating your costs, and determining your breakeven. Now, after all that work, you’re ready to actually get down and dirty with the product.

First, the product needs to be designed. Not just drawn or blueprinted. Someone has to determine the raw materials that go into the product (materials engineering), someone has to engineer the product so that it works to specifications (product engineering), and someone has to design the look and feel of the product (product design). Then you need to get your hands on a mock-up or partially functional product (a rapid prototype). Why? You need a prototype to build a full working model. Then you need to build that full working model. You need to pull the darn thing out of its box and make sure it works. And if you’re smart, you’ll give the product to a few consumers so they can do what they normally would do with it.

4.6.1. Prototyping

No matter how you plan to monetize your product―by outsourcing, licensing, or making it yourself―none of this will happen until you convert it from a gleam in your eye to a real, solid thing. Once you have that product, you can test it, work out the bugs, and even present it to possible companies to license. But how do you get the prototype in the first place?

  • Make it yourself—this is cheapest and most common way entrepreneurs build their prototype. If your product is relatively simple in design and materials, this is the way to go.
  • Hire someone to build the prototype—at the end of this section we provide a list of online resources that will help you find someone to build your prototype. If it’s relatively complex in materials or design, you may need to hire a pretty complex service that offers materials engineering, product engineering, and design. Or you can go to a local welder, auto body shop, or construction contractor. The benefit of finding small local shops is that you may talk them into taking a piece of your future profits as payment instead of cash up front. Yes, this will cost you more in the long run if your product hits, but it at least keeps your start-up budget from taking too big of a hit in the prototyping stage.
  • Plastic mock-up—you may not need a full working prototype to prove your product. If you’re seeking a licensing deal, it may behoove you to fabricate a near-approximation of your product. Any plastics factory could convert a computer-generated 3D or CAD model into a plastic version of your product.
  • Solicit industrial designers—you could hire materials or product engineers in your local community to help you out. Again, they may be willing to take a share of future profits in lieu of cash up front for their advice and help.

Whenever you hire anyone to do your prototype or mock-up, you need them to sign a non-disclosure agreement, even if you have intellectual property protection like a copyright or patent. It isn’t that people are going to cheat you necessarily. But all you have at the prototyping stage is an idea, not a business. If that idea gets out, it might turn into someone else’s business. CFA Design

CFA Design is a Phoenix-based prototyping firm that specializes in three-dimensional machining. CFA will build a plastic prototype from CAD (computer-aided design) files. In the prototyping business, this is called rapid prototyping, because the goal is to produce something between a mock-up and a prototype. It may not actually work, but it’s enough to prove the concept.

They provide engineering and drafting services, marketing assistance, plus their clients are represented by Attorneys and Agents licensed by the United States Patent Office. The Harshaw Research Group

The Harshaw Research Group specializes in prototypes. They will help you with alpha prototypes (scaled-down, non-functioning versions of your product) as well as fully operational beta prototypes. You must contact them by phone for services and pricing. San-Tech

San-Tech is another rapid prototyper, creating plastic models from CAD files. Rapid Prototyping significantly shortens the time needed to develop actual working models from weeks to days — or even minutes — depending on the geometry of the part and the technology used. RP parts help to verify form, fit and function, and to evaluate fixture design and tool choices before expensive metal parts are manufactured. San-Tech specializes in rapid prototyping through stereolithography, 3D printing, and selective laser sintering.

In addition to rapid prototyping, San-Tech will also produce tools, dies, and the final full-sized, fully-functioning product. Services also include engineering and designing your product. McLellan Engineering

McLellan Engineering specializes in new product development, engineering, and design. Part of their goal is to keep your costs down, so they try to complement your abilities rather than offer you a full turnkey solution.

Services include engineering, design, developing CAD models, virtual prototypes, rapid prototypes, to full-working prototypes. Slingshot Product Development Group

Slingshot is an integrated product development firm that specializes in the entire product development process from idea generation to beta product manufacturing. Services include prototyping, engineering and manufacturing, and product launch support. Slingshot primarily specializes in consumer goods, medical devices, and military/security equipment. The firm serves established companies, start-ups, and inventors.

4.6.2. Beta Testing

The alpha prototype stands as the first real version of your product; the beta, however, is the full working version you intend to eventually put on the market. While an alpha prototype may be fully functional, the beta has to represent the product in its final state. The beta goes into some kind of limited distribution, either by handing it out to a focus group, handing it out to random consumers, giving it to your friends, or actually selling it on the Web or at a select store. You want the beta to generate feedback―lots of it. You want feedback on how useful it is, how easy it is to use, and how breakable it is. You want to know everything that’s wrong with the product. It’s easier to fix problems at this stage than when you have thousands of items sitting on store shelves. Since beta testing is about feedback, you’ll probably rely on Web surveys as you did in the concept testing stage.

There are no rules for beta testing. A beta test could last a couple weeks, or could go on for almost a year. It depends on how complex the product is. And it’s very common for one beta test to be followed by another after the first sets of problems have been fixed.

While there are really no rules, beta testing usually follows a very particular process:

  • Formulating the beta test plan designed for only those features that are actually present in the beta product
  • Recruiting testers and having them sign various agreements
  • Distributing the beta product to the testers
  • Following up with the testers on a regular basis to ensure they’re using the product
  • Generating regular feedback from the testers
  • Having testers fill out a final survey at the end
  • Analyzing the results and improving the product based on those results

You can find beta testers in many ways. You can solicit beta testers through an online survey site or online classifieds like Craig’s List. You can ask your friends. Or you can give the product away for free on your Web site. No matter how you get beta testers, you should follow two rules:

  • They should be very similar to the consumers who are eventually going to buy your product. If you have a great dishwashing product, makes sure it gets into the hands of people who wash dishes.
  • They should sign some sort of agreement with you. This agreement should include non-disclosure, limited liability (you don’t want to be sued if your product goes kaflooey), and feedback requirements.

What kind of feedback do you need from your testers? What should your regular feedback instrument (Web, telephone interview, email) be soliciting? What should your final survey focus on?

  • Function—does the product actually function as it should?
  • Use—what uses do the testers put the product to? How often do they use it?
  • Quality—does the product break? Where are the bugs or problems?
  • Usability—how easy is the product to use?
  • Aesthetics—do the users like the product? Do they like the way it looks?
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