When to Start Prototyping Your Product (It’s Later than You Think) [Startup School]

Tom Education, Startup School

If you’ve been following along so far, we’ve tightly defined your customer, what they need, and how they will use what you want to sell them – even though the actual details of the product are still a little unclear.

Some would argue that this step (of product development) is coming too late in the process. However, if you start by defining the product rather than solving a customer’s problem, your product will likely not connect with your customers’ needs. Subordinating product development to customer development allows you to tailor your product to the specific market where you will be able to gain traction, rather than a large, general market, where it might get lost.

Prototype Your Product

As you get clarity on the problem you’re solving, you should begin product development with a prototype or drawing. Create a visual representation of what your product will be when it is finally developed based on what you’ve learned so far through customer development. If the product is software or a website, storyboards should be made showing the user’s logical flow from one screen to another. If it is hardware or a widget of some kind, diagrams are useful. For physical products, it can be helpful to use a 3D printer to create a mockup. (If you need access to one, LEAP can help you out).

The key here is that you have something concrete and specific enough that your team understands thoroughly. Keep it high level and don’t get distracted at this point. Prototypes are fundamentally about communication. With this simple visual representation of your product now able to be shared with potential customers, you can start to gain better feedback about whether you really understand their problem.

Stay Customer-Focused, Not Feature-Focused

Finally, create a brochure using some of your high-level visualizations. This will help you see your product from the customer’s point of view and provide you with a concrete “straw man” to test with our customer. Often, when entrepreneurs begin to write down features, they become inwardly focused. Building a brochure helps to avoid that pitfall.


About Tom

Tom is a co-founder of The Center for New Enterprise Opportunity (NEO Center) - a small business incubator in Lansing. He believes that by helping entrepreneurs be more successful through education and investment, we enrich both the market itself and our community as a whole. You can follow him @TomforLansing

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