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Master Proposal Writing And Turn Your Web Design Freelance Business Around

Updated on August 29, 2012

Web Development Proposal Writing

When I tell people that I'm a freelance Web Developer, I can see by the expressions on their faces that they misheard me and thought I just said Doctor, or Lawyer, or some other guaranteed success profession. Very few people know how hand-to-mouth the job can be until a few essential skills are mastered: We start by spending most of our time looking for a new gig and, once we get one, we spend our time split between getting the contract done and looking for the next job.

Without mastering the art of Proposal Writing and the Proposal Process, 99% of all our responses to Craig's List posts and freelance boards go completely to waste. If you want to go from a 1% conversion to high-double-digits percentages, you'll master the art of the proposal.

The sections of the proposal you'll need are covered on a thousand different web sites and in depth, so I'll consider that information beyond the scope of this article and you can research for yourself what belongs in your table of contents and what kind of information belongs on each page. I'll limit this article to the development, process and some tips and tricks that other articles don't talk about.

Take Time To Organize

When you're starting out and the date when rent is due is staring at you right in the face, taking time away from Craig's List to organize is hard to do, but you wouldn't be reading this if you felt that all that time looking for the next gig was working for you.

The very first steps will give you the tools to rapidly create effective proposals that will knock the socks off your future new client and blow away your competition.

Objective: Have a set of Proposal Template 'Parts' that you can quickly assemble depending on the job you're going after.

When I integrated proposal writing into my sales strategy, I started out by springing for Proposal Kit, which happened to be successful in helping me land the very first gig that I used it on, but ultimately, I found myself rewriting and reorganizing it to such an extent that I could have come up with my current custom collection faster if I had started from scratch.

(1) Design a Microsoft Word or Open Office Template.

If you're a designer, the final look of each page type needs to be embellished to exhibit your design skills, but there's no need to tell you that simplicity is the key and there's nothing more difficult that a design that is so successful that it's invisible.

Programmers and Developers should simply stick to an elegantly simple layout that is clear to read and easy to follow.

No matter what other content sections you may include, make sure you have these parts included and in this order:

  1. Cover Letter - Keep it plain text with no more than text and logo.
  2. Title Page - (in this order) Name, address and contact info you have of the client company, your company, Name of the Proposal in boldest, largest text and don't ever use the word 'proposal' in the title. "Created for: Contact Fist and Last Name," "Created by: Your First Name and Last Name," 1-2 VERY short paragraphs stating (a) what you're proposing, (b) what the benefits (not the features) are, (c) ASK FOR THEIR BUSINESS.
  3. Table of Contents - Section name on the left, Page Numbers on the right. I find it easier to create a master list of all possible section titles, then I just delete the sections I haven't included and add the page numbers. Skip this if your proposal is under 10 pages before the contract section.
  4. Content, starting with the summaries -- Most executives won't ever look past the executive and cost summaries. Their underlings and specialists will concentrate on the sections that concern them.
  5. Time Line and Work Statement -- A list of exactly what it's going to take to get the project done, in detail and with milestones accomplishes several things all at the same time: (a) It shows your future new client that you know exactly how to accomplish the project at hand and in more detail than they knew existed. (b) It shows how much work is involved, which clients don't always understand, so it helps justify the very large price tag that you're charging and your competitors aren't. (c) It sets exactly what is going to be accomplished in the contract and any changes that the client asks for during the project is a change in the contract: It's the only time you charge more than the contract asked for through a "change order" form. (d) It allows you to charge a flat fee with "no hidden charges" which is one of your selling points.
  6. Estimate in Spreadsheet Format. You'll actually be delivering this in PDF and/or Printed format, but it's important that you preserve the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet 'look' of this section. It needs to include every single, tiny, detail of what you're charging for AND details that you're not including AND what you're not charging for, but you could have.

    My spreadsheet is actually based on the original Proposal Kit spreadsheet that I purchased years ago, but what I did is rewrite it to include every possible task I would ever do for a variety of development projects: Registering for domain names, setting up server hosts, setting up a MySQL database, creating a task list, design of the home page, design of interior pages, installing payment gateway modules, .... EVERYTHING!

    There are some things that don't apply to the project, so it's just listed as $0.00 and zero hours. Other things I don't charge for and I write it in bold: "Complimentary" and even color the field backgrounds a light red.

    This document is a menu of future services, a subtle suggestion of other things you can do to improve the current project, Lastly, it's just a quick and easy way to accurately judge the real time and cost needed to complete a project with all the hidden parts of projects we don't think about too often: It's easy to say $1,500 to throw up an osCommerce or WordPress Site, but we tend to forget the time we lose when the Client doesn't even have a domain name set up, yet.
  7. Two copies of the contract ready to sign -- Get a lawyer to draft it. I promise it will save you time and money, later, because the amounts of money you will be demanding may eventually land you in court if a client ever wants to back out of payment. A good contract is a contract that never lets you see the inside of a courtroom. Two features that you want to include: (a) The fee structure and payment plan is referred to as "Schedule A" and is attached at the end. The reason for that is because you'll want different payment schedules for different projects. (b) A copy of the Work Statement referred to as "Schedule B."
  8. Ten "Change Order Forms" -- This last is important and has helped me keep projects on track, helped the client appreciate that their little requests means work that they have to pay for and has even allowed me to "upsell" some contracts with features that I've been able to suggest after the contract was signed. The Change Order has these parts: What the change is, Description of the change (multi-line), The extra time that the change will take, the hourly rate, the total estimated cost, how much is due upfront and immediately, how much is due at the end of the project. A statement that the client is requesting this change. This is a form that the client will fill out and send to you.

Suggested Sections and when to include them

You want to keep the size of the proposal down to a minimum. The more money you ask for, the more detail you need to include. Typically, if I'm doing a small site and asking for $1,500 - $3,000, my proposals (not including the cover, contract and change order forms) is no more than 5-7 pages. When I ask for $3,000 - $10,000, the proposal can be up to 20-30 pages. No matter what, very little of it will be read by any one person, but everyone will check to see if a particular section is included and thought about by you, even if they don't read through it.

For most proposals, even the small ones, I include these sections and you can research them further on your own:

SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats -- For a small project, keep this about two pages with about three statements each. For very large projects, a page per item. This shows that you understand their business and what your 'solution' is answering to. On very large projects, you want to go further to prove that you may not understand their business better than they do (suggesting that would piss them off), but you understand the impact the project will have on their business better than they do.

Benefits and Features: Two different sections and it's the two most difficult parts to write because it's difficult to understand the difference between the two: We tend to see Features as self-explanatory and the 'Benefit' is inherent in the feature. You HAVE to understand the difference because it infuses the language you use throughout the rest of the document. It took me a lot of failures before I got this lesson: A benefit is an emotional appeal to the one single person you're trying to close: How do THEY benefit, personally and emotionally, if they say yes. A feature, on the other hand, is just a list of cool things and what it will do that may be useful and may even be understood by your client.

That said, you have to include both sections back to back. If you master the concept of "Benefit" this section will be read all the way through by the person you're trying to sell to. If you master "Features" the section will be parsed briefly, maybe, by their IT guy or gal. You still have to include both and put them back to back.

Process: Figure out your estimate and work statement, first, then use this section to describe what each work statement item statement means. At best, a person at your future client's firm may read half way through, but include it: The fact that it's there has an impact.

Tips

This is from experience, research and from actually experimenting to see what works and what doesn't:

  • Find every possible way to state that you want the client's business in every section. Be blatant and unapologetic in the first parts of the proposal that everybody reads, be subtle with statements about you you really want to 'do this thing and see it a reality' as if you're excited about exercising your own prowess with their particular solution. Make each proposal about you waiting for just this opportunity to finally be able to do something that you know will work.
  • Charge more than your competitors and sell on 'benefits.' You don't want clients that pay on 'price break.' You want clients that are well funded and appreciate your work. A $500 "install a WordPress site" project may pay your rent, which is due in 7 days, but you'll spend a month doing it. You'll be a slave to every bright idea they come up with on a Monday after a weekend of being excited at what you're doing for them.
  • No matter what the project is and how big the price tag, charge 33% - 50% upfront. Break up the rest of the payments into milestone payments, but do not ever charge less than 33% upfront. That said, demand 100% of the cost of every site upfront under $1,000 no matter how desperate you are for rent money. Charge no less than 50% upfront for every site under $3,000 with no milestone payments. Charge 33% up front for site in the $3,000 to $25,000 range with milestone payments described in your Work Statement and Schedule A at every point you need them to "sign off on" so that you never have to go back to that part of the project, again.
  • NEVER apologize for the price you charge. If any client tells you that other competitors are charging less for the 'same work,' then always compliment your competitors and tell your client every good thing you know (because you researched) about your competitors and encourage them to go to your competitors, first. If your client changes their mind, they're always willing to come back to you to 'renegotiate' ... with a higher price tag, of course. Slide them a list of the 'benefits' and 'features' sections and tell the client, "Just use this as a checklist when you're considering your options."
  • If you're in an actual conversation about the price, when asked about what your final price tag is, State how much you're charging, then SHUT UP. DO NOT SPEAK. DO NOT BE THE FIRST PERSON TO SAY THE NEXT WORD. The first person that speaks loses.

    If you have to count out seconds, do so: Pretty much, even the toughest negotiator can't last 60 seconds of silence. Try with a friend if you don't believe me: Friend in a mock negotiation asks how much and you give them a number that seems outrageous even to you and then you sit staring at each other for 60 seconds and you lean back in your chair and try to seem casual. Even with a friend and it's not real, 60 seconds is torture.
  • No matter how desperate you are in the beginning, toss every potential client that isn't willing to deal with you on your terms as fast as you can. No matter how desperate you are for immediate cash, don't take it if it doesn't meet your proposal. Beg the landlord for more time, borrow from friends and family, go homeless if you have to... do NOT compromise on your proposal and estimate..

Have fun! Freelance work is an up and down business and you'll make it when you can toss clients and even FIRE clients. The proposal, though, is far and above whatever most people are offering. Master it and you'll see results almost instantly.

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