Wesley Chang

February 14, 2017

Build a Hardware Prototype That Your Startup Can Actually Sell

Cheap Broken Product

Developing a hardware prototype is one of the most valuable stages for hardware startups.

Well, for any startup really.

And that’s for a couple reasons.

#1 – you see your product come to life.

#2 – you learn extremely valuable insight about how your product could be used, how it holds up through wear and tear, and how it can be improved.

But maybe your hardware startup is still in the early prototype stages.

Prototype with Display

Maybe you’re pressed for cash and you don’t have the time and resources to ship out a final product.

So instead of trying to raise investor funds or talking to ma and pop about loaning you some money, how about selling your functional prototype.

Prepping your hardware prototype to sell

Don’t get me wrong, selling your hardware prototype will likely be a difficult task.

But the majority of those who tackle this, are those who are able to speed up their Learn, Measure, Build Feedback Loops.

On top of that, they’re able to make a few hundred bucks in the process.

Hell, maybe even a couple thousand.

But let’s talk about this.

Why sell your prototype..

Most startups are able to make a few hardware prototypes at most.

There’s at least 2, however.

One for the lab and one for the customer.

Now, for example, let’s say you only have one prototype, and you’re jamming away at make it super beautiful and super high tech.

Hardware prototype collaboration

But for what reason?

You don’t know if your customer agrees with your changes.

You don’t know if those new features you added are even what your customer needs or wants.

And that’s because that one prototype is in your lab.

When in fact, it should be in the hands of your customer.


Don’t take it from me though.

Here’s what Eric Ries has to say about it during a talk with Brady Forrest.

“Unlike most jobs that most people have in this world, in entrepreneurship if you don’t know who the customer is, you literally don’t know what quality means. So you say you’re making the product better. But I beg to differ.”

And this makes sense, right?

You should be nodding (-;

So other than understanding your customer and their idea of quality, you’re able to manage expectations of both your startup and your customers.

Set expectation goals accordingly..

And what I mean by that is this:

If you plan on selling your hardware prototype that has been iterated a hundred times over and has seen every possible upgrade then your beta testers are going to have high expectations.

This can actually put you at a standstill because you didn’t leave enough room for improvement.

Rather than doing that, why not sell a new hardware prototype at each major iteration?

Start at the beginning and work your way up.

Doing so, you’re 10x more likely to gather honest feedback, after all, people are paying you.

That’s because your buyers are people who spent their hard earned cash to test out your product.

If it doesn’t solve their problems, meet their expectations or just doesn’t work, then they’re going to tell you!

By selling at each major iteration, you’re able to do the following:

  1. Control expectation
  2. Gather honest feedback in a reasonable sized chunk
  3. Collect small payments
  4. Iterate over feedback loops with real data

But listen.

Not everyone wants to buy a product that isn’t complete yet.


So right off the bat, the people who do buy your product are those who probably know your brand, and trust you.

On top of this, you know that you’re heading in the right direction.

Put your ego in the ground

Okay, that sounded a little rude.

But look, a lot of people are afraid that customers won’t perceive their product the way they do.

And that means that once they’re faced with rejection they fuel their ego by making every design tweak and every feature upgrade they can possibly make.

Because they think that’s what the customer wants.

Put all that in the ground.

Listen to your customer.

Your product isn’t for your ego.

It’s for your customer.

Make the changes that they want. Not the changes that you think they will want.

Now, to wrap up short, I want to leave you guys with my all time favorite quote by Syed Balkhi, the guy behind WP Beginner, and OptinMonster.

“Never start a business just to make money. Start a business to make a difference.”



  • Steve K. says:

    Selling a prototype sounds like a good idea to test the waters and save a few bucks. There’s just three little problems with this:


    You can’t legally sell any product in the US that is subject to FCC Part 15. Anyone in the hardware business should knows that this applies to damn near everything that has any form of electronic capability. If you’re selling LED-illuminated toilet seats then maybe you’re exempt, but if you’re making an ARM-enabled toilet seat then you’re looking at several grand for emissions testing. If you’re making a Bluetooth-connected toilet seat, you’re looking at 10’s of thousands.

    This is a real dilemma… most of us starting up don’t have the cash to blow on certification, especially if we don’t know if the product will sell. Kind of a chicken-and-egg situation. IMHO, you have a few options:

    1) Give away or loan your protos to beta testers
    2) Make your best effort, cough up the cash to get your first product certified, then sell it
    3) Start a crowdfund campaign. If you’re successful, you’ll have money in the bank to get certified before you ship to your backers. If you fail, then no money wasted on compliance.

    Notice “sell it without FCC certification” was not on the list. Hopefully, that is not what this article is advocating. Would like to hear your views on this, Wesley.

    FCC certification is not just a good idea, it’s the law. I’d like to hear some ideas on how to creatively address it rather than turn a blind eye.

    • Wesley Chang says:

      Thanks for the great thought provoking comment!

      For anyone who isn’t sure if the product would sell, well that’s what MVPs are for! Always, always, always get your product validated before you start investing more time and money.

      Loaning your prototypes is a great way to bring in that super valuable customer feedback, which is really what prototyping should be all about. Gathering feedback, that is. And since there are cases where you would want to sell your prototype, it should only be to make a few extra bucks. Feedback should always come first at this stage.

      But in the case of selling your prototype I would suggest, instead of starting a crowdfunding campaign, raise the funds for certification through investors since crowdfunding is more about shipping a final product rather than putting your prototype in front of your audience.

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