You Don’t Have To Be An Expert When Prototyping.

Sara can teach you how to SPANX the competition.

You may have heard of the brand Spanx. Spanx is now a multi-billion dollar business still largely built on the original product.

Spanx was started by Sara Blakely. She was 27 years old at the time, and selling fax machines door to door. Sara saw an opportunity to make an article of clothing better. She was not an expert clothing designer or product creator, but rather just someone that identified a need, and then prototyped the first product with a pair of pantyhose and scissors.

What was Sara’s secret to success? In addition to determination and identifying a need, Sara also had some experience in face-to-face sales. A background in sales can be a key ingredient when introducing a new product to the market place. As a sales person, she undoubtedly learned how to maneuver around the word “No”. That being said, you don’t have to have a background in retail to launch a new product.

Regardless of the product you are thinking about prototyping, if you have a functioning mind and the determination to succeed, very little can stand in the way of your success. You can get quite far building initial prototypes with material and tools commonly found lying around the house or that are easily found at the local hardware store.

While working at a top-notch product development company in San Diego, I observed and met with many individuals and teams that came to the table with complicated mechanical and electrical projects that were initially built out of cardboard or plastic bottles and lots of tape. These types of initial builds do several important things:

  1. They help the team get on the same page with design and engineering ideas
  2. They enable the developers to avoid spending copious amounts of time and money on initial designs that are destined for revisions and reworks
  3. In some cases, they can serve as functioning prototypes that enable a team to do some very early viability and usability studies

One exciting benefit of something like a simple cardboard prototype, whether functioning or not, is that it helps bring the idea to life. There is something deeply gratifying about holding a prototype that started out on paper in a 2D world as an idea, which now exists in a 3D world to explore from every angle. Three-dimensional prototypes help inspire thinking and also add a level of credibility to the project, as they often require more physical and mental effort to construct.

SoProto Tip: Don’t run out and buy a 3D printer thinking it will instantly spit out a product that will help raise money or go rapidly into production. A 3D printer is a great tool when used correctly. However, it can have a steep learning curve, can take your focus off your project, and occupy your time with the challenges of 3D modeling and printing rather than on the actual product development. I personally have thousands of hours of experience with 3D printers and they are still one of the last steps in my prototype development process due to the complex nature of the ever-changing technology.

How to build the first prototype

I have yet to see a first prototype go into production and make it to market. Often inexperienced folks have a misunderstanding of the process and think that their initial prototype will find its way onto store shelves. It’s a natural mistake to make if you haven’t been through the entire process before.


  1. Study the competition.

On several projects, I have tried to avoid reinventing the wheel by going out and looking at existing products. In many cases, I will purchase the existing products and disassemble them to see how they function. This helps with ideation as well as providing parts that you can use to get the basic functionality out of your own prototype. For example, with my portable bicycle foot pump. I purchased everything that might pop up next to my product in a search online or in a store. Then I tested the functionality of each item and made a note of what I liked and didn’t like about the performance, or lack thereof. Next I disassembled each unit and studied the seals, size, materials, and finally the price points. I surprised to see how simply and cheaply made many of the products were. For instance, several of the products used glue instead of screws, and plastic instead of metal, in certain critical areas. In a later post, we will discuss how using less expensive materials affects your chances of success as a small business vs. a large one. Just because a big company uses cost cutting measures does not mean it’s right for the entrepreneur trying to build a brand.

  1. Chart your competitions’ weaknesses and strengths

Thanks to sites like and other online retailers, discovering what your competition is not good at is not as hard as it once was. Read the user reviews of their products and takes notes on what people like or dislike about those products. Is it price, usability, quality, customer services? It’s never been easier to be better or worse than your competition with access to so much information online. Also remember that a good rule of thumb is that if you please someone with your product, they are more likely to tell another person, but if you piss them off, they will almost certainly tell several.

  1. Be realistic with you expectations

Now that you are armed with parts, information, and the time to get hacking, the most important thing to keep in mind is your expectations.

So now you have studied the competition and they may or may not have a solid solution to the problem you are trying to build a product to solve. The competition went through the prototyping process and their best solution is what you now hold in your hand. Do not be intimidated. Again set your expectations of your first prototype within reach. Do not try to conquer all of the major challenges in the first round. Pick the top set of problems to solve that you believe you can achieve with your available resources (e.g. funding, time, knowledge). Each prototype iteration will build on the experience gained by the previous iteration, so enjoy the process and get hacking. “A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.” – some smart person somewhere.

When to hire an expert.


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