So you think you’ve got the next brilliant, industry-changing business idea? It’s certainly an exciting time, but the next step after that lightbulb moment is often a little more difficult, even for the most seasoned entrepreneur: the prototype.
For ESCP Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy Martin Kupp, the key to implementing a successful prototype isn’t what, it’s why. “There are thousands of good ideas in the world, but they don’t all have a value proposition. In the same vein, anyone with a business idea can begin working on a prototype – but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right one.”
It’s time to take a step back and remember that your prototype is a tool to illustrate your idea – nothing more, nothing less. Continue on for five must-read tips to help get your idea off the ground!
Anything that you create that enables you to get feedback from customers or partners – Powerpoint deck, a video, a physical model, a visual representation of an app – can be classed as a prototype.Prof. Martin Kupp
Tip #1: The early prototype catches the worm
Investing time – but not too much! – into your prototype is essential to help take your idea to the next level. So, when should you begin prototyping? To help optimise resources while gaining valuable insight, Prof. Martin Kupp recommends getting started as early as possible – as long as you know why.
Similar to how data is at its best when used to answer a specific question, a prototype needs to address the main hook of your idea. Kupp notes:
“We tend to push people towards prototyping and experimenting, but sometimes I see people prototyping for the sake of it. A business model has several different elements – and each of these elements should have its own prototype.
“The important thing is to begin prototyping as early as possible – and therefore as cheaply as possible. At the outset, focus your resources on two key areas that usually need refining: value proposition and target audience.”
Tip #2 – Be practical
When launching your prototype, it’s important to not lose sight of the ‘why’, ‘when’ or ‘what’ – in other words, the question driving your prototype. As Maëva Tordo, the director of ESCP’s European incubator, the Blue Factory, notes: “Ask yourself in which ways you can start solving a problem at your scale, right now, and pull the thread from there.”
Keeping problem-solving top of mind is essential to avoid the risk of an overly-embellished prototype. Kupp confirms: “A prototype doesn’t need to be complicated at all, but it does need to be launched relatively early on. Anything that you create that enables you to get feedback from customers or partners – Powerpoint deck, a video, a physical model, a visual representation of an app – can be classed as a prototype.”
Moral of the story: keep your eyes on the prize, and don’t get caught up in appearances. Prototypes aren’t supposed to look good – they’re a practical resource.
Tip #3 – Refine and reuse
The next step: deploying your prototype effectively. Similar in principle to a decision tree, prototypes are supposed to remove uncertainty about a key aspect of your idea, whittling down potential options to enable you to better direct your available resources – a principle known as the law of least effort vs. highest insight. Each successive prototype should be more advanced than the one before it – the important thing is to keep moving.
Kupp adds: “It’s important not to confuse the concept of a prototype with that of an MVP (minimum viable product). While an MVP aims to provide a no-frills or rudimentary version of the user experience, a prototype needs to focus on the main ‘hook’ of your business idea. For example, an MVP of an application selling secondhand clothes is likely to focus on the layout or the transaction process. Meanwhile, a prototype might target another key question, such as how to build awareness and encourage people to download the app. Keep refining your prototype until you have a solid answer to your question.”
The important thing is to begin prototyping as early as possible – and therefore as cheaply as possible.
Tip #4 – Get feedback from your peers
Studies have shown that prioritizing feedback from your community has a huge influence on startup longevity – and the same goes for your prototype. Seeking input from peers and potential customers is essential. Kupp confirms:
“The best prototypes are ones that are driven by the target audience. I recently had a student who had decided to pitch the concept of a wine bar. She built a simple cardboard layout of how she and her friends tended to circulate in classic wine bars, which is often an awkward experience, and then a second prototype addressing these concerns. It sounds simple, but it offered extremely relevant insights that helped her to demonstrably advance her idea.”
Tip #5 – Quantify your success – but be open to change
Before you begin, remember the golden rule: a prototype should have a purpose. One question = one prototype. As two entrepreneurs from ESCP’s European incubator, the Blue Factory, told us, the secret to an effective prototype is twofold. The right prototype will allow you to test hypotheses that will drive your business, which will in turn allow you to onboard key actors and customers – but the best prototypes are continually refined after insights and (often unexpected) feedback from your peers.
In short, let your idea lead you, not your business plan, and then let the prototype take over! Who knows, you might be surprised.
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