Have an idea for a physical product? This post will show you how to quickly make a rough prototype for your physical product idea. I’ve included several case studies from my own products.
All of my most successful businesses began with a simple idea. The key to taking an idea further is to make a prototype. Basic prototypes help you to test solutions and refine your idea. Most importantly, they help you build momentum. They are the critical first step.
Like me, you probably have a bunch of ideas for products. I’ll show you how to take the first step with that idea. My hope is the prototype you make here is a foundation for a physical product business of your own.
This article is an updated and expanded chapter from my book ‘Inside The Box’. Download the book for free here.
An overview of my experience making physical products
I started out 8 years ago as a struggling entrepreneur, designing products in the kitchen of my apartment. Over the years, some of my prototypes have evolved into successful products. Those products grew into full-fledged brands.
I’ve made every mistake in the book, but I stuck with it. I’ve been fortunate enough to build several businesses from products I designed with my co-founder. I now make a healthy living off of them. A highlight reel of the physical products I’ve been involved with are below.
In 2012 my co-founder and I start a studio together called Need/Want for all of the physical product ideas we plan to build together.
Smart Bedding (Primary Goods)
I design a bedding line that helps cut down on the time it takes to make your bed. We launch on Kickstarter to raise money from pre-orders. The campaign is a success but we struggle with manufacturing. Eventually, we find success with it. We re-brand to Primary Goods to expand as a home goods brand and eventually sell a majority stake in the business.
The Original Super Thin iPhone Case
Yes there’s really a case on there.
My co-founder Jon invents the original super thin iPhone case design under the name Peel. We extend the product design to additional Apple and Android devices. Together we take it from a small 5-figure business to multiple 7-figures in annual sales. Later, we expand Peel into a full-fledged minimalist essentials brand. Additional complementary products are invented, including a super thin wireless charger, a magnetic notebook, wallet, and more (mentioned below).
Peel Magnetic Notebook
Under the Peel brand, we release a notebook with a unique magnetic closure system. Instead of using a typical bulky elastic band to keep the notebook closed, we removed everything and do it invisibly with magnets.
Peel Super Thin Wireless Charger
Under the Peel brand, we design a super thin wireless charger. Due to the electronics, it’s our most advanced product to develop. Note: I wouldn’t recommend starting out with something electronic unless you know what you’re doing.
In 2014 we create a novelty product for Halloween as a side project. Emoji usage is just starting to blow up, so we create Halloween masks to the likeness of popular emojis. The product goes viral for Halloween, getting coverage by Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, MTV, Seventeen Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and many more. It’s a big success for one season. It’s later copied many times over. Due to it being a side-project, we sell it to stay focused on our most successful brands.
My co-founder and I create a blended product/service – a premium paper notebook that comes with free digitization. The notebook is designed to contain a hidden envelope in the back cover. The envelope has pre-paid postage so once your notebook is finished, you could mail it to our scanning facility. The notebook is digitized and then uploaded to an accompanying app we build. The business is acquired 3 years later.
Many more products have been created for our brands including a premium glass screen protector, extra long iPhone charging cables, a layered foam mattress, a magnetic wallet, and a magnetized wood cable resting place for your desk.
How to make a rough prototype quickly
Once you have a basic idea for your product, it’s time to make a prototype. Depending on what kind of physical product you’re trying to make, below are three approaches for constructing a prototype quickly.
- Buy an existing product off the shelf and modify it
- Make the most basic version from scratch using craft materials
- Contact factories and suppliers to first find out what’s possible
1. Modify an existing product
My favorite way to make a prototype quickly is to modify an existing product. I often find a product that’s similar, then modify it to make it closer to the product I imagine. By buying an existing product, the intention isn’t to copy it, but to use it as a canvas to modify. Sometimes that means cutting it up, other times it means adding to it.
Either way, it’s a lot easier to start with something tangible that you can mess around with than having to start completely from scratch.
2. Make the most basic version from scratch using craft materials
It may be necessary to start with a blank slate. In that case, I prefer craft materials. Craft materials are great because they’re cheap, easy to use, and quick for making a low fidelity version of your idea.
When making a prototype from scratch, some of the best materials to get started with are below.
3. Contact suppliers and factories to find out what’s possible
Finally, sometimes the big unknown is figuring out what’s actually possible. For this, I recommend starting a dialogue with a factory or supplier in the area of what you’re looking to make.
One of the fastest ways to get in touch with a factory that makes something similar to what you’re trying to do is to utilize the “Supplier Search” feature of Alibaba.com
Make sure to search for “Suppliers” not “Products”
In the search field on the homepage, change the dropdown to only search suppliers. Then begin searching for manufacturers that make something similar to what you’re looking to do. For example, if you want to make a specialized notebook, search paper notebook factories. Browse their products and capabilities, and then reach out to them.
Remember, at this stage stay scrappy and keep making progress.
I’ve used all three of these approaches when designing my products. Let’s dive into some specific examples from my own products. Seeing how I approached the early prototypes should help you to understand when to use each approach.
Examples of my own prototypes for phyiscal products – putting it into practice
So what do these three approaches look like in practice? Below are three case studies from my own physical products. I’ll show you each method, and how it applied to my own physical product prototypes.
Showing you how I took the first step to make a prototype should help you to figure out your own. Every product prototype requires a slightly different approach.
Note: please don’t copy my designs. The below examples are to show you potential approaches to designing a prototype for your own ideas.
Making the Smart Bedding prototype
As a recap, Smart Bedding (now re-branded to Primary Goods) was a bedding line designed to cut down the time it takes to make your bed.
I defined making your bed as fixing bunching sheets, tucking in your top sheet, and realigning your duvet. To fix this, my final product was a bedding line that used a snap system along the left and right edge of the top sheet and duvet cover. This solved the problem of bunching sheets, tucking in sheets, and having to re-align the two pieces.
The simple problem / solution explanation for Smart Bedding’s Kickstarter campaign
When I first had the idea for Smart Bedding, I was frustrated with everything involved with making a bed. It seemed like a problem that tons of people also probably had. I wasn’t sure how to solve it yet, so I started tinkering with potential solutions.
The distinction here is I focused on solving a problem. I wasn’t married to a particular solution. My aim was to figure out the simplest way of solving the problem, and then productize that solution.
- My first solution was to pin together the duvet cover and top sheet at the 4 corners.
- After sleeping with that solution for 1 night, I realized it didn’t do enough to stay together. Some of the corners came undone. My next idea was to add more safety pins. This made it stronger, but then I realized it now just felt like 1 piece. So I removed the pins from the end where my head and arms went. This made everything flow freely. I was happy with this scrappy solution and now wanted a more elegant attachment system.
- From here I took it to a local seamstress and showed her my idea. I asked if she could sew on snaps in the same places I had the safety pins. This solution worked! Next, we needed to refine the distance between the snaps.
- During all of this, I came up with the idea to match the sizing of the top sheet to the duvet cover. The majority of bedding had the top sheet cut to be wider and longer than the duvet. This made the top sheet stick out, forcing you to tuck it in when you made your bed. I reasoned this was just stupid and cut them to be the same size. As long as the duvet hung far enough over the edge, there was no need to also tuck in the top sheet below the mattress.
- I was happy with the snaps, but before I went to market I wanted to make sure I tried all conceivable connection systems. We made versions with zippers, magnets, and various metal and plastic snaps. I thought magnets were the most elegant idea in theory – but instead, the magnets would connect to the wrong points and cause a bunched mess. I scrapped it and went with the best snap system.
For this prototype, I used a mix of buying existing bedding to cut up, and craft materials (safety pins).
The product is now available under Primary Goods. Here’s there little video ad to show how. it works.
Making the Peel Notebook prototype
Peel’s brand is all about simplicity and minimalism. When we set out to design a notebook for the brand, our aim was to simplify the notebook elastic band system. Most notebooks use an elastic to keep the notebook closed. When you’re not using it, it’s ugly and in the way. Not elegant.
We had the idea of using magnets in the corners of the notebook cover. To test our idea, we bought a few generic notebooks to begin cutting up.
We glued strong magnets to the corners. We wanted to see if they could be strong enough to pull together through the paper. Many magnet strengths and sizes were tested.
The second feature we. were testing was to make sure. the polarity of the magnets could be arranged to both 1.) keep the notebook closed when not in use and 2.) pull 2 notebooks together to stay aligned when standing by themselves.
Below are photos from our prototypes and early design illustrations.
The above illustrations were what we started with. The red dots show where we imagined the magnets being embedded. Notice how rough these are. Don’t overthink it.
From there we had notebooks cut up and magnets embedded. Our idea was to also paint the paper edges to color match the cover design.
The prototypes showed we didn’t actually need to embed 4 magnets in each cover for a total of 8. Instead, we only needed to add 2 magnets on the opposite edge of the binding on each side.
A few screenshots from our final tech pack to illustrate the design and how the magnet are embedded in the cover.
Below is gif to illustrate how the final product functioned.
Making The Emoji Masks Prototype
When we had the idea for Emoji Masks, we weren’t sure how feasible the project would be. After all, this project was just a side-project for us. We also weren’t sure what was possible.
For this reason, we started by contacting Halloween mask factories to ask questions. We wanted to know how hard it would be to design a mask of our own. We described our idea and learned if we sent them dimensions and an image file of the masks, they could produce a simple mask for us. All we’d need to do is specify where holes and depth would need to be added.
Our first prototypes were cardboard cutouts to test how large they would need to be to cover your face.
From there we hired a designer to make large PNG files of emojis. We then sent those files with the dimensions to the factory. Since Emojis are 2D, we worked with the factory to help design the clay molds to give depth to our designs.
The first prototype the factory sent us showed the masks were too large. The material they were made from got too flimsy. The solution was to make them smaller, but we still neede them to cover your face.
We figured the Poop emoji was the most oddly shaped (triangle) compared to the others being circles. So we started there with how small we could make it while still covering your face.
Once we were happy with the size, we went forward with clay molds for all 5 of the designs we intended to make.
Below are photos of the finished results from much later down the line.
We later redesigned the masks and released 15 designs
Sadly, the new owner we sold Emoji Masks to sold it again years later to a cheap Indian knockoff product company… so I won’t be linking it.
Principles for getting started
- Your prototype will be rough (and should be at this stage). Don’t worry about polish. I see too many people getting hung up on it not being perfect yet. Just make it functional and then refine later.
- Move quickly. Momentum is easy to lose. Mulling over ideas for too long can be a death sentence to your progress.
- Please just GET STARTED. So many wanna-be entrepreneurs forever say things like “I had the idea for that!” or “I have a million dollar idea but no idea where to start.” You probably have an idea, or maybe even a bunch of ideas. The key is to get started and take one step towards bringing your ideas to life.
Test & refine your prototype
Once you have a basic version of your idea, the question becomes how do you know if it’s any good.
The purpose of a prototype is to test and refine the concept. Ask yourself these questions to help you refine your product.
- Does it function how I imagined? Does this ultimately solve the problem you set out to solve or is it too cumbersome?
- Are there any points of failure? Our first Emoji Masks prototypes were too big, causing them to be too flimsy. Making prototypes allowed us to figure that out early on and adjust.
- Could I do something different to solve the problem in a more elegant way? Remember how I thought magnets would be more elegant for Smart Bedding? In my case magnets turned out to be horrible. Make sure you try everything.
Be prepared to give concessions here and there. For example, let’s say you know your final product will be wood but your prototype is cardboard. You know wood is much stronger than cardboard. Because of this, any failures in your prototype’s rigidity and strength can be forgiven until you test with wood.
This is the stage when you should try new ideas. Can you imagine alternate designs that would still solve the same problem? Try them, and then see which is your favorite. The further along you get in your design and manufacturing phase, the more difficult it becomes to make any changes.
By now you should have a basic prototype for your idea, or at least a game plan for making it. What you do from here to take it to market will be covered in future articles.
If you don’t want to wait, get my book for free below.
This article is a modified and expanded chapter from my book ‘Inside The Box’. The book will give you an introduction to inventing and manufacturing physical products from start to finish. To get the full book for free and join my newsletter, enter your email below.