A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

A Modest Proposal

Proposals are difficult. They take too long. They’re usually an exercise in unrequited love. Is it any surprise creative professionals cringe when it’s time to put one together? Proposals are, however, often vital to being in business.

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Whether you’re running a solo shop or keeping a team of 25 busy, they lead directly to that next paycheck, enable us to keep the gears of business turning, and, ultimately, to make wonderful stuff.

Five critical questions

A compelling proposal requires more than a jumble of clichés and a nervous estimate of costs. It needs structure, organization, and joie de vivre.

We can provide that structure—no matter how complicated the final proposal needs to be—by providing the prospective client the answers to a few fundamental questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why are you bidding on this project?
  3. What do you propose to do?
  4. When will it be done?
  5. How much will it cost?

Using these questions as a foundation, we can craft a proposal to convince the client that we’re the right team for the job.

What, when, and how much?

How much will it cost?” or “how soon can you finish?” are questions that no prospective client can apparently resist asking early in the process. Having already persuaded the client that the appropriate time to assess cost and timeline is once pre-bid discussions are complete, we now find ourselves post-discussion and smack-dab in the middle of writing the proposal, so it’s time to make those determinations. It is worth cautioning, however, that healthy client relationships, and consequently well-executed projects, depend not on answers to these relatively superficial questions but instead on deeper levels of compatibility that we will explore later. For now, we should consider how “what,” “when,” and “how much” will influence a well-balanced proposal.

At this point, the budget should at least be partially known, owing either to full and early disclosure by the client or by your persistent investigative work. A wholly undisclosed budget is a problem. No car dealer, realtor, or salesman of any type will waste his time throwing darts at an unknown target. Neither should you.

Exact dates and prices are naturally going to be hard to pin down before the project’s discovery and strategy phases are complete. In your proposal, try to get close—but make it clear that both parties will need flexibility at least through the early stages of the project. Accurately estimating how long a project will last, how large a chunk you will be removing from the client’s wallet, or how many widgets your team will crank is somewhere between a mysterious process and an utterly indecipherable black art. There will be plenty of time down the road to adjust if necessary. (Just don’t forget to include language to that effect in both your proposal and your contract.)

Regarding the “what,” the web industry rightly abhors speculative work. Designing, building, or consulting for free devalues your work and that of your colleagues. Of course that doesn’t mean you should ignore the project’s details. You absolutely need to demonstrate that you understand the context, the problem area, and potential solutions. Show your ability to intelligently discuss the essential aspects of the project. Show that you have, as David Sherwin advocates, pre-digested the problem. Whether you’re building a marketing site, a game, or a full-fledged application, you should be able to relate this project to the state of the industry as a whole and briefly touch upon the techniques you will use. Demonstrating insight into and maybe even excitement about client needs will be well received.

Who? Why?

Every successful proposal results in a partnership. You, the professional and the client team up to create an artifact, which is the product of your relationship. If they had the resources to complete the work in-house, they wouldn’t need you. Since they’ve come to you, clearly that isn’t the case. Therefore, you have an opportunity, an opportunity to describe yourself, your process, and your motivations. Do not take this opportunity lightly. Your words here will dictate the nature of your relationship. Exchanging the role of equal partner for servant is your choice. If you want respect, authority, and control, you must demand it. To do less is a disservice to the client and an altogether unprofessional attitude.

Beyond setting the tone for the relationship, of course, you’re also trying to win some business. The good news for you is that a prudent client—the kind you really want—will choose a web partner on the strength of the entire package. Doing otherwise, selecting on a matrix of numbers, dates, and line items, is an exercise in foolishness, akin to buying a car without knowing the make and model. Relationships, even in business, are founded on and strengthened by mutual compatibility. Proposing to work together on a project is remarkably similar to proposing marriage (despite the obvious and important differences): it ought to be a decision based on both emotion and reason, supported by a high degree of trust. In writing a proposal, you are making the case for the appropriateness of your new life together. These early, hesitant steps toward knowing one another better are crucial.

You might find it helpful to start simply by describing yourself. What’s different about your company? Why does your company exist? Who comprises the company? Where are you located? Don’t underestimate the importance of this narrative.

At some point later in the document, include the contact information for a few of your best clients. References reassure the reader that you are who you claim to be. You might also wish to provide a brief overview of some previous projects similar to the project on which you are bidding. Business is as much (if not more) about people as it is about dollars and cents, deliverables and timelines. If your company is difficult to relate to because your proposal is generic, it shouldn’t surprise you when you are inevitably forgotten.

Above all, don’t be timid. The proposal is where you lay it on the line. It is your ambassador, your emissary. It serves to screen you from undesirable clients and attract the good-looking ones. To do this, it should reflect and clarify the reputation you have already established. Be upfront about your business principles. Stand for something. Even if—especially if—your way is controversial or unique. Full Stop might not agree with Bold about whether the customer is always right, but it’s important that Bold’s potential customers do. Meticulously evaluate every client before issuing a proposal. Once you do, don’t panic if they walk because you stuck to your philosophical guns. You just saved yourself bucket-loads of stress and misery.

Finally, have a reason for offering your services and make that reason clear. Is non-profit work something you’re passionate about? Do you love sports? Is it your mission to help local companies? Realistically, it’s possible that you’re just trying to make payroll or ends meet. That’s okay. At the very least, you can state your commitment to fast, error-free code, clean and simple design, or intuitive content strategy. Find your reason.

Bonus materials

At minimum, to qualify for the job, you must answer the key questions. An outstanding proposal, and one that puts your company in the best possible position, needs more. A few tips:

  • Read it backwards. If who, why, what, how much, and when are the scaffolding your proposal hangs on, conscientious attention to the little bits are what can elevate it over the competition. A poorly designed, sloppily worded, or generally slipshod proposal signals the client that your work is of the same poor quality. Don’t send a proposal full of typos and grammatical errors. Have a friend look it over. Try some of these proofreading tips from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab. You’re a professional. Make sure your proposal reinforces that.
  • Under-promise. Don’t commit to anything you can’t deliver. It’s better to lose a project by leaving yourself room to over-deliver than to boast of your prowess only to find yourself in the weeds later. Managing expectations is critical to having happy clients.
  • Have a template, but don’t be a slave to it. Reuse language about your company, but focus on making the parts unique to this project shine. Proposals ought to be preceded by a period of getting to know the client. Use that knowledge to shape the language, tone, approach, and content. This proposal may be shown to people you haven’t met personally, so make sure it conveys who you are without your presence.
  • Shorter is better. Superfluous examples, references, and blathering on about “capabilities” are easily identified as boilerplate and possibly even a bit desperate. Make the client feel special.
  • Solicit feedback. Win or lose, each proposal is an opportunity to improve your writing, to hone your story, to get better. What did they like? What didn’t they like? Sometimes your price will be too high. Sometimes you will be bidding against someone who is more suited to the job than you are. Sometimes you failed to write a compelling proposal that gave the client a reason to work with you. Don’t leave valuable information behind.
  • Be confident in your work and in your proposal. For every project that goes your way, six won’t—at least in the beginning. Failure, however, is the handmaiden of success. Don’t lower your rates, exaggerate your abilities, or abandon your process in the face of rejection. Confidence—even confidence you don’t always feel—is attractive and will eventually beget results.

Win one for the team

Why should you be selected for this project? Because you’re the cheapest? The quickest? Because you promise to do more than the other guys? Maybe. Sometimes those are the reasons, but they’re also the levers you least want to rely on pulling. Website design and development are services and not, on the professional level, commodities. Providing a commodity is an exhausting, unsatisfying, deadening experience. Doing what you love, on the other hand, working as an equal partner with smart, respectful clients is invigorating.

Establish that collegial relationship at the outset of the project with a personal, brief, sincere proposal. You’ll be glad you did.

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