Proof of concept vs prototype: which is right for you?
In this article, we’re looking at proof of concept vs prototype. What’s the difference between a prototype and proof of concept (or POCs for short), and how can they be used to help your startup grow?
When you’re creating a startup, especially one in the tech industry, it’s essential to check your product or service is a viable one and has no significant flaws. This is where a proof of concept or prototype can be extremely valuable.
90% of startups fail, with nearly 22% crashing and burning in their first year of operation. This means anything you can do to prevent your business from going under will be to your advantage.
In this article, we are going to look at what a proof of concept is and what a prototype is. We’ll review which is best for your business needs and if there are any other similar concepts you can apply to your startup.
- What is a proof of concept?
- How to create the perfect proof of concept
- What is a prototype?
- Top tips for creating a great prototype
- MVP vs POC vs prototype: how do they compare?
- Prototype and proof of concept: which one should your business use?
- Do I really need a proof of concept or prototype?
- In summary: prep those proof of concepts and prototypes
What is a proof of concept?
Before comparing proof of concept and prototype, let’s sort out what both mean. So, a proof of concept, also known as a ‘POC’ or ‘proof of principle’, is a quick check that is carried out to see if a startup idea is a feasible one.
Essentially a POC provides proof that your idea will be successful and most importantly, profitable. A proof of concept can also be helpful to show to potential investors, so you can get funding before you start building your product or service.
The primary benefit of a proof of concept is that it can save you time and money. If your product or service is a feasible one… that’s great! If not, no worries. You can decide whether your idea is worth salvaging, or you can go back to the drawing board and try again.
How to create the perfect proof of concept
The good news is that it doesn’t take too long to put a proof of concept together. In fact, sometimes the less time it takes, the better, as you are relying on gut instinct and aren’t overthinking things.
Here are the questions you need to ask yourself when creating your proof of concept:
- What features does my product or service have?
- Who is my competition, and what unique selling point does my product or service offer over them?
- Who is my target audience? What issues do they have that my product or service will solve?
- What is the market like? Are there any potential issues to be aware of, either now or in the future?
- How much money will I need to launch, and how will I get this money?
You can create a simple POC in Word or Google Docs. Alternatively, if you’re looking for something a little more showy to present to an investor, you can put together a presentation in PowerPoint or Google Slides.
What is a prototype?
If a proof of concept is stage one of your startup, then a prototype is stage two.
A prototype is a sample version of your product or service. You and your team can use this to get feedback and identify any potential issues before you launch to market.
(As a side note, if you want to see some cool prototypes from the past — check out this article on Wired. We love the Supersoaker!)
A prototype can help you iron out any issues in your product or service. You and your team will want to be as brutal as possible when identifying any potential faults. It’s better to spot them now than when you’ve officially launched.
How detailed does your prototype need to be? It depends. A prototype can be:
- Low fidelity — basic and easy to create, like a storyboard or flow chart;
- Medium fidelity — still simple but more refined than a low fidelity prototype, for example, a wireframe;
- High fidelity — extremely detailed and as close as you will get to the final product — such as a fully functioning website or app. As you would expect, these prototypes take more time to create and are more expensive.
You may cycle through all these prototypes. For example, you might start with a basic drawing of an app, graduate to wireframe and then partially build the app.
Top tips for creating a great prototype
A little while ago, we wrote an article about building a prototype for your startup, with some useful tips for creating one that works. Here are two additional pieces of guidance that will help you if you’re planning to make a prototype.
Do what works best for your business needs
There are no hard or fast rules to prototyping. As long as it brings results and helps you identify weak points, do what is right for your startup. You can even create your prototype using LEGO if you feel inclined!
Here’s another example of a business doing things a little differently. IBM wanted to launch a ‘listening typewriter’ in the 1980s. They invited participants to come and try their new prototype — a piece of software that would automatically transcribe whatever they said onto a screen.
However, IBM wasn’t using technology to do the transcribing. There was a person behind the scenes quickly typing to replicate what the participants were saying!
This is a strategy known as ‘Wizard of Oz prototyping’, where a human replicates the actions of technology. The point of this prototype (and IBM’s experiment) is not to show off the tech, but to get feedback from prospective customers. If feedback is positive, the business can then spend time and money investing in the technology.
Don’t be afraid to fail
‘I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure’– James Dyson.
Don’t be disheartened if your initial prototype isn’t right on the first try. Many of the businesses we know and love today experienced failed attempts before getting it right.
We included the quote above from James Dyson to show that if you learn from your mistakes, you’ll see improvement as you go along.
Here’s an interesting fact for you. Have you ever wondered where WD40 got its name? It’s because it took the business 40 attempts to get the formula right!
Now we’ve looked at proof of concepts and prototypes, which is the right option for your business? Let’s compare and contrast, and throw another option into the mix…
MVP vs Proof of Concept vs Prototype: how do they compare?
At You Are Launched, we talk about MVPs, or minimum viable products a lot!
A critical part of the lean startup methodology, an MVP is a basic version of your product or service, launched with a minimal number of features.
An MVP has two critical advantages in the marketplace. The first is that you can launch your product or service more quickly. Nearly half of all features in a product are never used by customers, which means by cutting them out, you can save a lot of time and money.
The second is that you can use your MVP to gather valuable feedback from your customers, which will help drive your product or service moving forward.
You may think there are similarities between prototypes, proof of concepts, and MVPs — however, they are all distinctly different.
Here’s a table that breaks things down a little more:
Prototype and proof of concept: which one should your business use?
If you’re building your startup and want to improve its chances of success, we advise using both a prototype and proof of concept.
This is especially relevant if you’re building a piece of software or a mobile application. Given that it can cost upwards of $120,000 to create an app, you want to make sure that it’s right the first time when it launches.
Let’s go back to the POC vs MVP vs prototype and imagine you’re developing an app. It may be that you use all three concepts when working on your startup idea.
- You put together a proof of concept to check the idea you have is viable and will not fail — as well as pitch for investment;
- You put together a prototype so you can see how your app will work and identify any bugs before you launch;
- Finally, you build your MVP and launch your app to market.
Do I really need a proof of concept or prototype?
If time is of the essence, you don’t necessarily need a proof of concept or POC, but we’d definitely recommend them.
If you’re confident that your product or service is viable, or you have a lot of successful competitors that you can analyze, then you could skip the POC stage. However, given most people can pull a proof of concept together in a couple of hours, we think it’s worth the time.
The prototype stage is trickier to gauge as a prototype takes longer to create. If you want to get to market as quickly as possible, then you could skip this stage and go straight into launching an MVP.
However, bear in mind that if your MVP is launched with any critical errors, this could mean time and money wasted trying to fix them, as well as negative publicity.
Remember that your prototype doesn’t necessarily have to be drawn-out and expensive. Depending on your product or service, a low-fidelity prototype like a sketch could be sufficient. As long as you can use it to identify any potential issues, that’s what matters.
In summary: prep those proof of concepts and prototypes
Abraham Lincoln famously said that if he had six hours to chop down a tree, he’d spend four of those hours sharpening his axe. How does this quote apply to the startup world? It means that by doing your preparation beforehand, you’re more likely to see better results.
Both a POC and a prototype will help you identify any potential issues with your startup idea, meaning you can get to market more quickly and have less chance of anything going wrong.
Let’s come back to our original question of ‘proof of concept vs prototype’ and which is the best option for your business. To be honest, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Both are worthwhile, and as they are used at different stages of the startup process, there’s nothing to say that you can’t use both.
So before you start planning those marketing campaigns and pitching for funding, get those POCs and prototypes underway first!