Sooner or later, you will need a prototype. Hundreds of clients have come our way seeking just such a thing, so here we will attempt to pass along some of the key ingredients for making it happen right for you.
First, in the words of Guy Kawasaki, “This is a chicken and egg situation, but you'll get no sympathy from me.” That's right – we don't sympathize; we invest. Each and every person, entity, corporation, etc. that comes into contact with your effort will view the situation similarly. They all have a definite end purpose in mind – profit (however they define it) and exit – and so should you with regard to prototypes.
Start by asking the obvious and you will be miles ahead of most entrepreneurs. What, exactly, is the purpose of the prototype you seek? That's right, there is more than one level of prototyping, each with a specific end use in mind, each with an associated cost, each with a time and place to be right. The more sophisticated your product, the more levels you are likely to need until you get to market. Starting with the mechanical prototype (for ease of illustration), let’s assume that your idea is well defined and based on solid preliminary evidence of market need (which is an entirely different case to make, and well outside the scope of this article).
The first level of prototyping is putting the idea to paper – not what most people would consider prototyping, but excellent for its purposes of exercising the mind to manipulate the “thing” into workable form, to communicate and gain feedback. This feedback, if used with Quality Functional Deployment (QFD), or similar exercises, will focus your energies on the core quantifiable deliverables. That is the only possible way to avoid the time line and cost extensions known as the “engineering death spiral” that comes from shifting engineering targets.
The next level usually involves sketches, for the purpose of envisioning a physical thing. Every techie in the land wants to jump to a Computer Aided Design (CAD) package to bypass this stage, but don't do it… it can be waste of time with too much detail. If you absolutely can't draw, find someone who can. Drafters, graphic artist, and industrial designers may be useful, but not absolutely required at this point.
You might have gotten to this level with little or no capital. The next stage can be either CAD or garage-level (or shop- or lab- level if you're an established business already), where cost is also minimal in most cases. CAD would be for the purpose of adding detail and/or moving in the direction of rapid prototypes. If your fabrication skills are good, it might be better to skip the CAD and use it for documenting and cleaning up a design later, optimizing design via analysis, or whatever.
If you're still reading this, then you're likely saying that this is an oversimplification of a high-tech subject. Maybe, but follow this lead and your backers will hug you for it. It's cheap and results happen. The major automakers still use modeling clay and we've seen plywood, tape, and cardboard at major defense contractors.
Which brings us to the mock-up; it's a great tool for gaining attention. Mockups and virtuals are fantastic for presentation purposes where you need to get the message across. If you say you need money for a prototype, but nobody will give you any without having a functional prototype, you'll get no sympathy from us. Sell the team, sell the opportunity, sell, sell, sell. Get creative.
Ok, by now, if you're still here, you're likely saying something like, “My idea is too complex for this to work.” If that's the case, you likely also cannot explain it to anyone that might fund you. Simplify it and try again. You cannot build a complex project if you can't fund it.