Prototyping: Just Get It Out There

by Stirling Cox

The idea of a product that would enable commuters in a given city to access information on the location of their buses, has been occupying my thoughts since the summer of last year. With a background in Banking and Consulting, what had been bashed into my head through various training programs and countless deals and projects is that you need to be 100% sure of your facts before opening your mouth. As such I was convinced that it was only through significant primary research and presentation that I would ever be able to prove the viability of my idea and start a business.

I spent much time during the end of the summer and fall term of EC year researching number of commuters, their habits, Smartphone proliferation, looking at different markets that product could be applied to, producing possible revenue models in Excel, preparing financial statements and fancy PowerPoint slides explaining the business. Years of “bad” entrepreneurial practice had me convinced that I needed to have all research completely covered before even approaching possible users or potential funders.

By Christmas time, whilst I had actually spent hours on this idea, I still actually had nothing to show for it. Everytime I discussed the idea with someone and showed them my swanky PowerPoint deck, they loved it, but this was no different from 5 months prior when I voiced over the idea in 30 seconds.

Getting to grasps with the concepts of “just get it out there” or “just get on and do it” was new to me. It seemed irrational that I should start off with a half baked product, a product that wasn’t perfect, a product that may not work in its first version. But countless tales and case examples of Millionaire entrepreneurs taking this approach made me think there was a faint chance that I may be round. After much internal kicking and screaming to stick to what I knew how to do, I decided to give it a go, and developed what I viewed as a first iteration of the product.

Not having any development skills, I built with some assistance (and a tool called SWiSH) a flash live video demonstration of the product. Whilst this was not a formal website or application, nor was it plugged in to any data, this demo now allowed me to showcase to whoever I was discussing the concept with, really what the product would look like, what it would feel like, and demonstrate various capabilities through playing with the video.

Whilst this first step was definitely a step in the right direction, I now realize this was barely a prototype. People saw this and said: “Awesome, can I use it?” This was not a product, merely an enhanced graphical representation of what I was imagining.

My next step is to actually build the first real live version of the prototype. Having learned that I actually really needed to have something usable, I scraped the initial inclination to get a developer to build an application that was not plugged in to any real time data. Whilst this would be a real product, it would not be something that users could use and give feedback on. I also scraped my next idea which was endless discussions with London to open up their data so that I could build the product on their systems.

Instead, after what is now seeming like a no brainer, and a 1 year after the initial idea, I have finally found what may be a useful direction to take the business forward: leverage what is already available. As it turns out, the MBTA in Boston opened up at the start of 2011 all their data on bus positioning to the development community. This provides the perfect testing ground for the product. I am presently in talks with a developer, who has built similar geopositioning applications, about finally getting the first real prototype up and running for Boston. Whilst there are other players out there in the market, Boston provides a perfect testing ground for the first prototype. We are hoping within the next month or so to have an application out there that customers can really play with, try, and critique; an application upon which we can iterate and draw conclusions as to the viability of the idea.

Talking with people who have not taking the course, I realize that most people face this same problem. Lots of people have business ideas, and 90% of them don’t do anything at all with them; they just horde the idea. Of the remaining 10%, the most ambitious 9% spend time researching a market, preparing fancy documents and excel models, but never really get the business launched. The 1% that launch a product are not afraid of it failing, are not afraid of getting it wrong, are not afraid of criticism. They have realized that their business will never get off the ground sat in front of their computer researching the internet or pulling together fancy presentations. Ex-Consultants and Bankers who want to be entrepreneurs… you are going to have to undo a lot of bad practices.

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