A Modest Proposal
Issue № 330

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#section1

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?#section2

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?#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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.

About the Author

Nathan Peretic

Nathan Peretic is co-founder of Full Stop, a web design and development shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He wrangles HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and unsuspecting users by day and dreams of making use of his liberal arts degree by night. His objects of undying affection include Winston Churchill, Marshall McLuhan, United Pixelworkers, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Myers-Briggs test (correctly) declares him to be off-the-charts INTJ. He blogs here and tweets there.

9 Reader Comments

  1. Thanks Nathan! Great article and great things to consider. I’m left with a question I hope the collective ALA wisdom can help answer for me. Proposals are intended to respond to core client needs, not just explain our services. More than being companies or businesses or decision makers, clients are people, and people are trying to process the world at a very basic level. That “how much will it cost?” or “how soon can you finish?” are asked by all potential clients acknowledges this, but then the article goes on to dismiss them as superficial questions.

    Many will respond to “how much does it cost?” with “how much does a house cost?” but I feel this type of thinking is a disservice to the person behind the role of client. If I’m looking to build a house, I don’t expect the same architect to be designing shacks and mansions. Even when the cost of services is a range rather than a fixed number, when we are crafting messaging for someone else, we are quick to include as much information as possible- up front- to answer anticipated questions for our clients’ clients. When I see web agency sites that claim to know the psychology of online communications, and then fill their pages with self-serving “we” speak and never address the core client (human) concerns (including “how much” and “when”), it starts to seem that the complaining we do about our short-sighted clients is perhaps a bit deflective.

    Custom work requires custom services and therefore custom pricing, but why don’t we do a better job of communicating the basic elements of our services/project lifecycle early and clearly to our prospective clients? Shouldn’t much of what’s being communicated in the proposal already be clear to clients (a quick review rather than a long-awaited document with answers)? Isn’t “what you get/what’s in it for you” a more compelling question to answer than starting off with “who we are”? and “why we are bidding on this project”? I’d love to know the rationale for the industry’s standard approach to pricing and proposals.

  2. “Is it any surprise creative professionals cringe when it’s time to put one together?”

    This is an unfortunate truth for most companies in our industry.

    It all depends on how your company approaches proposals. I’ve worked at companies where being assigned to a proposal meant you had to work on the proposal in addition to delivering your other client work. Translated: lots of late nights.

    At our company, we treat proposals like any other creative client work. We break the proposal down into tasks, assign time estimates to those tasks and create milestones. This approach makes the proposal feel like a proper project, as it should. Our proposals have improved a great deal as a result, and people actually look forward to working on them.

  3. Hi, Amy. I don’t think we’re far apart on how to pricing ought to be communicated to clients. What you suggest—a range—is a fair (and efficient) solution, but it’s also possible that no helpful range can be supplied at the outset. In those instances, we prefer to inform clients what our minimum viable budget is so we can be sure we’re at least talking with someone who is prepared to pay the going rate for professional design and development.

    We would also agree that much of what is in the proposal ought to be discussed during the process leading up to the proposal delivery—especially conversations about budget and timeline. Those questions are only superficial in the sense that they are often assigned undue weight and answers are requested before the proper context has been established. For more information on pricing, you should absolutely read “Andy Rutledge’s article on calculating hours”:http://www.andyrutledge.com/calculating-hours.php .

    Finally, we completely agree on the precedence of the “what you get” part of the proposal. I may have given it short shrift in this article by partially burying it at the end of the “What, When, and How Much?” section, but I hope it was clear that from our perspective _who_ you get is at least as important as the particular deliverables you are promised in the proposal.

    I hope that answers some of your questions, and thanks for kicking things off. I too would love to hear more from others about their approaches to pricing and proposals.

  4. When I started my business almost ten years ago as a one man show, I stumbled over an article in german from the “Institut für Jungunternehmer”, a spin-off from the university of St. Gallen, Switzerland. I follow their suggested structure ever since and I must say that around 90% of our proposals turn into an assignment. One reason is because agencies of our size (up to 10 noses) mostly just present a one-pager with some numbers on, the other reason is because the suggested structure makes very much sense and is as follows:

    1. Starting point
    Describe the clients current situation and their needs why they want to get this project done. Repeat with whom you already where in contact and what where the basic agreements.

    2. Clients requests and goals
    Stipulate again what you think the client was asking for, what he wants to achieve with it or what problem it should addess.

    3. Your solution
    Describe your solution or product and how exactly it fits every issue raised in #2.

    4. Advantages and benefits
    Describe the clients benefit he gets buying your service / product and why your solution is standing out from the crowd.

    5. Your strength
    Exactly what Nathan pointed out: Present your company, your profile, your methods, your way of doing things

    6. The clients investment
    Don’t say “this cost this and that”. Instead say “with your investment of so and so much we will be able to reach your goal”. That sound more like a partnership.

    7. Schedule and next steps
    Suggest or rather nail the client on the next steps to go, so he can just say “off we go then!”

    Bonus material
    Make a summary: With our solution we address your specific needs — orderly, in time and with full transparency on costs.

    My proposals usually have a range of 8 to 12 pages. Obviously not all of them are written all over. Sometimes I call it “parrot marketing”, especially in #1 and #2. Repeat what the client said with your own words. It makes him feel that you where listening to him. Plus both of you can validate that you’re talking about the same goals.

  5. I find that being succinct is the key to our proposals as, as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think many of our clients ever bothered to read them properly. I think they skim through them, check out the main areas and then look directly at the quote. Ultimately, being incredibly detailed in one’s offerings doesn’t mean much unless you want/can use it as a bat to beat client’s over the head with further down the line to make them toe the line.

    Probably the most vital and useful part of any proposal – in my opinion – is the way it looks and feels. Shallow I know but presenting the client with something that visually impresses them and represents the quality and style of your business can be tremendously potent.

  6. I’ve got to say that while proposals can be worthwhile to template and re-use, most times I don’t even make them. I combine my proposals with contracts. Why? Because it makes more sense to do this in one document, and get it all observed and reported on by the client in a limited amount of time and effort.

    I usually do a confidentiality agreement, proposal for work, timeline, and copyright agreement all in one convenient little document that they sign…. it seems to work well for my company.

  7. This is a really interesting article. Writing a proposal is something that I haven’t yet come across doing, however is something that I assume one day could be part of my job role.
    It sounds like getting it right is extremely important and time consuming. The part that stood out to me is making your reason clear. I think showing your passion to the client would really help to portray your devotion to the job at hand.

  8. From the proposals that I have created for prospective clients, getting an idea of the budget beforehand is definitely crucial. Smaller clients often have unrealistically low assumptions on the level of budget that would be required to create a first-class website. I’d rather find this out before spending a huge amount of time writing their proposal.

    On the flip side, some clients surprise you when they suggest a high budget, which gives you the option of either coming in under budget, or addding in a range of additional functionality to enhance the site.

    I also agree with one of the previous comments, I couldn’t believe it when a potential client the other day said ‘oh, we didn’t actually read the text we just looked at the pictures!’. Arrrgh!

  9. As a relatively new developer, I haven’t had to submit any proposals yet, but this article will most definitely be saved and referred back to when required. Thanks a lot for sharing!

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