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Writing A Project Proposal

~ By Jonathan Wold

Proposal stamped in red on a manila envelope

Having 100% of project proposals accepted usually means that a freelance developer has had very few clients. Low percentage rates usually mean that proposals are being sent to people who didn't ask or the proposal writer simply needs a few good "getting warmers" in the right direction. The following tried and tested tips are to encourage the 100%ers to write more proposals and the low raters to take heart and give it another try. Let's get started…

1. Ask Questions

Before starting your proposal, take some time to make sure you know exactly what you're proposing. If you're unclear about any part of the project, ask your potential client a few meaningful questions. If anything seems vague in their description of "what they want", ask for clarification and then give them a list of possible options as to what you think they might have meant. For your sake, when preparing to give a price, it's important that you and the client both have the same amount of work in mind. - Note: If you decide to include a list of questions along with your proposal, include an educated guess as to what their answers would be. Make it clear that your price is based on you having made the correct guesses to the proposed questions and that if anything needs clarifying or if anything is missed, you can adjust your quote accordingly.

2. Summarise the Project

Take all the information on the project that you're received from the client thus far and summarise it briefly, using your own words, in an opening paragraph. This not only helps you get a clearer concept of the project in your own mind, but also gives the client confidence that you've given it thought and understand what they want. It also provides a solid opportunity for them to clarify encase you didn't understand. - Example: "Below is a summary of my understanding of the project based on our conversations thus far."

3. Break Down the Project Into a Nice "To Do" List

After your summary, follow-up with a solid "To Do" list, which is very useful for both you and the client. List everything that they've requested so far as well as your standard work on the project. For designers, this would include listing the initial drafts, etc. For programmers, this would include planning the database, building it, etc. Be thorough in your list. It will help give the client a strong sense that you know what you're doing and that you'll do the job well. It will also help you make sure nothing slips through the cracks. Use the list in your project updates and cross things off as you move along.

4. Split the Project Into Phases

After your "to do" list, split the project up into a number of clearly defined phases. I recommend starting out with a minimum of three. Your first phase might be the "Initial First Draft". During this phase, you begin work on the project and end the phase by sending the client a first draft for testing and revision. Your next phase, in a simple 3 phase project, could be "Bug Squashing and Customising" - During this phase (I recommend project appropriate naming conventions) the project is tested and revisions are made until the client is happy with the work and it's ready for action. Your last phase is "Finalisation". Once the work is finished, you send them an invoice, ask for referrals, collect payment, and end with a virtual handshake, all parties satisfied with a job well done. - Bonus: A useful strategy to keep in mind when it comes to pricing is splitting up a long to-do list into meaningful project phases and then pricing each of the "phases" individually. This can be especially useful for isolating features that require additional time and energy and being sure the client recognises the work involved when it comes time to give them the price.

5. Give Your Clients a Timeline

Once you've gone over the project phases, let your clients know approximately how long you expect the project to take. Be generous (overestimate if need be, but gently) and then strive to finish up ahead of time. While a project may only take you a few hours to finish up, keep in mind that there will be waiting time between the initial drafts and the finished project as the client reviews the work and provides feedback. If the client is in a rush, let them know exactly when it can be finished and be sure to go over in detail exactly what, if anything, needs to be done on their part to make that deadline possible.

6. Estimate Your Time Involved

While not useful for all project types, giving an estimate of time involved is useful for most and not only gives the client a sense of what to expect and that you know what you're doing, but also helps you know exactly what to plan ahead for. A large design/programming project, for example, with a high dollar amount, can be an excellent opportunity to detail the hours involved in each step of the to-do list. Be generous, but honest. The last thing you want is word getting around that it takes you several hours to do what takes the average freelancer 15 minutes ;).

7. Use the Multiple Choice Price Strategy

Now that all the details have been clearly laid out and your client is confident in your understanding of the project and your ability to see it through, it's time to give them the price. Calculate your predicted time involved and be sure that nothing is overlooked. Then, give them the total number of hours along with your standard hourly rate followed by a discounted "flat rate". As an example, take a typical CSS design/coding project. Let's say you estimate about 5-8 hours involved in the project and your hourly rate is $40 an hour. Your proposal would then read something like this: "At around 5-8 hours of work, you're welcome to my basic hourly rate of $40 an hour or a discounted flat rate of $250." 9 times out of 10 the client will choose the flat rate over the hourly and will be happy with having had the freedom to choose. - Note: As an honest freelance artist who's abilities are constantly improving, you'll often reach a point where what once took you 5 hours now takes you an hour. Once that happens, the multiple price strategy is no longer needed. Give them your flat rate and do an excellent job :). - Be sure that, along with your price, you give them your options for accepting payment.

8. Offer a Satisfaction Guarantee

Once you've given them the price, be sure to include your satisfaction guarantee. Let them know that you're committed to working on the project until they're fully satisfied and then, once they've accepted your proposal, stick to it. There's always the possibility that it can backfire with a client who just doesn't ever seem to be satisfied (we can talk about dealing with them another day), but the vast majority of the time a solid guarantee will give your clients an extra vote of confidence and help to close the deal. There's always the possibility of a project costing you more time than it's worth, but no matter. Give the project your absolute best and learn everything that you can. Satisfied customers often end up being repeat customers and they are more than worth the time spent on those who may not appreciate your work.

9. End With a Call to Action

Finally, after all the details have been made clear, and the price and guarantee given, end with "what happens next." Let them know exactly what they need to do to get started. If you require payment upfront, let them know where to send the money. If everything prior has gone well, you now have a client who's excited and eager to see their project come to life and you want to make sure that they know what needs to happen next.

10. Write and Format Professionally

Nothing says "unprofessional" like a bunch of "misspellings", grammatical errors, and "IM Style" typing. Take the extra time to proof read your proposal and fix any little errors that may have slipped in. Use spacing between your paragraphs and divide your various sections (Project Summary, Timeline, Price Quote, etc.) with subheadings. For extra points, put your proposal up on a password protected page (make sure the password works!) within your website. - Note: If you're struggling with style or would just like some extra ideas/opinions, put together an example proposal and share it with family and friends along with a request for feedback.

And there you have it! Once the proposal has been accepted and the project complete, be sure to always ask the client if they have any suggestions for how you can improve and do even better work in the future. Ask them if your proposal was clear and ask, if you're able, what the deciding factor was in choosing you to do the work. Take note of all you learn and apply it to the next proposal you write.

Although not directly related to "proposal writing", here are two other tips that are worth mentioning:

  1. Pre-Screen Your Clients: To save both you and your clients time and energy, it's important to be sure that they are as informed and as prepared as possible before they contact you. This is where your website can step in and do its job. After they've browsed through your portfolio and decided to go for a price on your services, it's important that you provide a clear path to follow. Create a page specifically for those interested in working with you. Outline the types of projects that you do and the processes that you use. Don't hide your prices. As well as offering an hourly rate and flat rate estimates for various project types, I recommend mentioning that you're always open to creative negotiations. You can often end up with "free projects" that more than pay what you would have charged them.
  2. Respond Quickly: While not always possible, when you're able to, respond to your prospective and active clients immediately. If you have an expected delay, let them know that you plan to be unavailable. Be punctual with all your appointments and make sure that you meet your deadlines. If you miss a deadline and you're at fault, take a hit on your earnings. This will let the client know that you mean what you say and it will also help you to make sure it doesn't happen again ;).

Now go out there and do some excellent work :)


Jonathan is a 24-year-old Internet entrepreneur who enjoys writing, reading, WordPress, CSS, and his wife's excellent homemade meals. If you have any questions or comments regarding this article simply add them below. For more about Jonathan, visit jonathanwold.com


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