Three steps to build and test a prototype quickly

Microsoft Startups

Once you've landed on a viable startup idea and validated that idea for product market fit, it's time to tap into your creativity to quickly bring your solution from theory to reality.

A straightforward prototype can help you increase interest among early users and help you refine your working model before investing resources into building your product.

These three strategies from successful startup founders will help you simplify your prototyping process and avoid spending too much money, time, and effort upfront.

1. Start out with a simple model

Building an early prototype should not require a big investment or a heavy technical lift. A good prototype is simply one that can explain your product concept visually and that demonstrates how your solution will work.

In the initial states of building her business, Julia Regan, CEO of RxLightning, a healthcare technology platform that simplifies and automates the complex specialty medication enrollment process, utilized uncomplicated PowerPoint presentations as her prototyping tool of choice. "The simple slides communicated the features and benefits we wanted to build and how we planned to go to market with the product," she said. "It wasn't pretty, but it didn't need to be. Our simple mockups were enough for potential customers to understand the product and for our CTO to later build it."

Lindsey Goodchild, Co-Founder and CEO of Nudge, a communications platform that empowers deskless employees to drive better business outcomes, said she also made a PowerPoint presentation to communicate her vision to prospective customers. "I come from a non-technical background, so I focused my slides around showing the solution for the problem I was trying to solve," she said. "The prototype didn't need to work to get a customer reaction. I just needed to get the idea across, and my first presentation did just that."

Keep in mind that how you get feedback from users largely depends on the prototype you've built. In addition to presenting slides, you can think about using physical story boards or UX design tools to demonstrate how your product works and to encourage conversations with testers.

2. Release your prototype into the market

Once you've mocked up the basics, showing your wireframes to potential customers, colleagues, and investors will take it to the next level and get you thinking seriously about what to build first.

Regan said that getting customer feedback early on significantly reduced her engineering ROI because it stopped her from putting resources and time into an MVP before knowing what features would best resonate with users.

"Take your prototype quickly to the market once you have the story behind it. Then, you can ask the right questions, get the feedback you need, and fail fast – but then react and turn those learnings into improving the product for long term success," said Regan.

To craft the right questions to ask users, you should know exactly what you're testing. Even if you have a good idea about the problem that you're trying to solve, fully educating yourself on the market and your potential customers is crucial before you begin.

Goodchild recommends staying focused on willingness to pay in the initial sessions. "Ultimately your business exists because you're providing something that has a lot of value, and if it has a lot of value, people are willing to spend money on it," she said. "Finding out whether or not people will pay for your product and sign a contract while testing your prototype is the number one signal that your idea can work."

3. Budget before you move on

As you test and iterate on your prototype, you might find your MVP roadmap starting to grow. For this reason, it's a good idea to have a clear product development budget before you start promising features to prototype testers. By knowing your own limitations, you can set expectations for what potential customers can expect next .

"No matter what you do in the early days, your money should match your product roadmap," said Regan. "Overpromising and under-budgeting will only lead to disappointed customers."

Whether you decide to bootstrap or raise seed money to support your initial product development, planning you budget will ultimately prepare you for the next step of the journey - building your minimum viable product.