How to start a social startup: prototyping

When you’ve defined your problem, have a short description of your solution and you’ve started getting positive feedback from real people, it can be helpful to build a prototype of how your solution might work.

The key thing here is that you’re not yet building the technology you will finally use. You’re using things that are cheaper and quicker so that you can get feedback. As with the initial interviews and questionnaires, you’re looking for patterns but also aware of anything that sounds strange when you first hear it — sometimes those things can tell you a lot.

These are the tools I’ve tried and would recommend:

Draw it on paper

One of the best ways to show the service to people is to have cards with the stages they would go through to use the service and then see how they react. It really doesn’t need to be complex at all — just sheets of normal paper or card that you can show them in order.

Get people together

We did two things to test the original idea for School of Everything by getting the people who we thought would use the website in a room together, although I don’t think we realised we were prototyping at the time. It helps get over all the asynchronous and distance stuff that your service will help people get over eventually.

The first was what we called Free Schools, not the Michael Gove ones, but evening events where we’d get a bunch of people (usually about 20) together and put up a board with ‘What would you like to teach’ on one side and ‘What would you like to learn’ on the other. Basically they would get conversations going and quite often people would meet up afterwards to learn from one another.

The other was prompted by Russell Davies who asked us to do ‘something fun’ in the lobby at Interesting in 2008. We built an Interesting Machine which was really just a postbox that people could put what they wanted to learn or teach into. We got several hundred cards and sorting through them showed us a lot. We didn’t know quite what to do with them though. Thinking back, what we should have done is then set up groups for all the people who were interested in similar topics.


We’re really lucky at School of Everything because we have Sangeet who can mock things up in photoshop very quickly. We often turn them into click through presentations and then show them to people to get immediate feedback. It very quickly shows you if there is any confusion about what the service does. Wireframes have a similar effect and there are lots of tools out there for putting them together pretty quickly, even if you’re completely non-technical. Mockingbird is a very good one.

Be the machine

The next technique is possibly the closest you can get to building something that might work. If you’ve started to realise what the different bits of your service are you can generally mimic them yourself using Google Docs, email and a mobile phone. This is what we’ve been doing over the summer with School of Everything Groups as members of Bethnal Green Cookery Club will testify. Of course you can only do it for a small number of people but it’s amazing what you learn.

So that’s it. A few techniques for non-coders to get a better idea about whether the problem you’re trying to solve is real and whether the solution you’re proposing is something people might use. At this stage, you still don’t have a website or a business plan but you have a lot more information about whether your idea is a goer.

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