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Prototype Pitfalls

A lot of things can wrong when you mail a licensee your prototype.

One of the single most exciting things an inventor can hear along his or her inventing journey is without a doubt, "Can you send me a prototype?"

For many, this is the first time their idea has received any level of validation. To a novice inventor, the request to send a prototype is simply monumental.

At inventRight, we have long taught our students to present a virtual prototype (VP) to potential licensees. And why wouldn't we? VPs can be made very inexpensively and the design is only limited to your imagination! A skilled graphics artist, such as those at inventRight's Design Studio can add texture and lighting to your VP to make it look nearly photorealistic.

While there are certainly times when sending a physical prototype is advisable, more often than not, sending a VP is going to be the most appropriate course of action. Unfortunately, I fear we have not done a satisfactory job over the years explaining why exactly a VP is the preferred method.

To illustrate how even the pros can stumble, I want to share a series of events (or major pitfalls, if you will) that occurred regarding the prototype of my current invention project with not one, but multiple interested parties, over the course of the past 18 months.

1) Breaking Upon Delivery

Potential Licensee A; Email: December 17, 2019, "Hi Ryan – I received the samples. Unfortunately, I think one came damaged."

The sample was returned to me, the necessary repairs were made, and it was sent back again. An additional three weeks were wasted by the time the fixed prototype was back in the licensee's hands. By then, the initial excitement and interest the licensee had for the product had cooled off. Always package your prototype extremely well.

2) User Error

Potential Licensee B; Email: January 20, 2020 - "Hi Ryan, I cannot get the samples to work."

Always send instructions with the prototype. When feasible, also include the instructions in an email as well. In this particular instance, I sent both printed and email instructions! We can't control what the recipient will and won't read.

3) Prototype Doesn't Meet Expectations

Sometimes the word "sample" gets used interchangeably with "prototype." Some believe a "sample" is a finished and market-ready product. Others might believe the sample is simply a proof of concept.

On this very same product, the licensee all but gave up on the idea until I rectified the situation several weeks after the fact.

Potential Licensee C; Email: September 20, 2020 – "It worked as indicated, so I was relieved, compared to my initial thought that it was completely 'non-active' home-made sample."

Always ensure the recipient knows exactly what they will be receiving.

4) Rarely Will You Get it Back

While I'd like to say the following is fiction, it unfortunately is not.

Potential Licensee D; Email: May 08, 2019 - "Hi Ryan, I am so sorry but we had a fire and lost everything, including those prototypes...."

While this is an extreme example, it did in-fact occur.

A more common scenario is that the licensee will send your product to China for sourcing, and may not be able to get it back.

Potential Licensee A; October 30, 2019 – "Hello Ryan, the samples were sent for sourcing to China for review, so I will request them to send back to US office so we can get them back to you."

In this particular case, they were ultimately unable to retrieve them back from China.

5) Missed or Late Delivery

On April 07, 2020 I wrote to Potential Licensee D - "I hope you are doing well. My sample was sent to you early last month. I have sent a couple emails to ensure it was received, but didn't hear back…."

Consider sending your prototype "signature required." It is the only way to ensure you know that the licensee actually received your prototype. This is especially important when the licensee is not particularly communicative via phone or email.

6) Prototype Has Been Disassembled

Naturally, a licensee will want to learn how your prototype works and what makes it tick.

Potential Licensee A; Email: September 18, 2020 - "PD disassembled the sample we had and now our souring department wants a sample for further review."

Always assume a licensee will want additional samples

7) Time and Money

I have made many prototypes for this particular product. This item isn't grossly expensive for me to make, maybe around $25 a piece, however it is still a cost I do not wish to incur. Additionally, each prototype takes a significant amount of time to produce. If you have read my previous articles for the inventRight blog, you know that I am not very handy. Meaning, each prototype requires that I reach out to others for help.

It's very important that you don't have the mindset of, "it won't happen to me," when reading this article. I did not heed these warnings, and I was bit. I never thought my prototypes would break. They did. It's such a simple product, never did I think the recipient wouldn't understand how to use it! They didn't.

Surely, I never thought the factory would burn down! It did!

The only way to absolutely avoid these pitfalls is to lean on a VP. By making it crystal clear that you only have a VP, the licensee can simply source their own samples based off of your specifications, all while retaining full control of the experience.

Lastly, I want you to look at the above dates. This project has been ongoing for well over a year as of time of this writing. There have been countless conversations with multiple potential licensees, numerous trips to the post office, and an abundance of heartbreaking rejections along the way.

Always be prepared to start over fresh with another interested party.

Will I ever send a physical prototype again? Possibly, but my perspective is much different now. If I do, I will do so knowing the many pitfalls I can and am likely to experience. 

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