Proposal Preparation First Time

  |  April 10, 2009

Consequently, you have no body of experience as to what approach, process, style, structure, or size will achieve the desired results.
   The first question to ask is this:  “Should we even be bidding this contract at all?”  Many developing businesses lack the experience to know whether they have a reasonable chance of winning the contract or not.  To determine if you have a chance to win, you can ask the following questions:


  1. Have we met the key personnel letting the contract, and have we established enough credibility with them that they would consider awarding to us?
  2. Do we have personnel or products that would be attractive to the group letting the contract?
  3. Do we have references who will attest we have done a good job on previous contracts of similar size and type?
  4. Do we know who the competition is and have a reasonable belief we can submit a proposal superior to theirs?
  5. Do we know what price the buyer has budgeted for what is being procured?

    If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then you should no-bid the contract.  Many inexperienced bidders have an unreasonably rosy view of their chances to win the contract.  It is hard for them to accept the concept, for example, that you usually can’t win the contract unless you have previously met the group letting the contract and established credibility with them.  Ask yourself the question, “Would I award to a group I don’t know when there are bidders who I do know and know to do good work?”
   Let’s assume that you have determined you do have a chance to win the contract and you are going to prepare a proposal.  How can I get a winning bid prepared?  How can I climb this steep mountain?  At the top level, there are 3 approaches:

  1. Plunge in and do it yourself.
  2. At least take a good training course prior to attempting to do it yourself.
  3. Hire a consultant firm to assist you. 

   We can next discuss the pros and cons of the three different options.  The option of doing it yourself is the cheapest in cash outlay.  However, the negatives are significant.  The biggest negative is that proposal preparation is complex and difficult enough that you can usually not expect to write a winning proposal if you don’t have experience.  The problem is mitigated if you attend a training course prior to attempting to prepare a proposal.  However, you still find yourself in a position similar to trying to defend yourself in court after having taken a brief class in law.   This is less true for preparing a Grant proposal than it is for a contract proposal.  Typically, grants are much simpler than contracts in the way that softball is simpler than hard ball.
   Describing every step and every nuance of how to prepare our proposal in-house is beyond the scope of this brief piece.  However, we will offer some general guidance below:

  1. Review the solicitation and
    • a. Prepare an outline including every item requiring a response and
    • b. Prepare a plan in which you assign every piece part to an author and give it a schedule
    • c. Prepare a compliance matrix in which you will ultimately identify every solicitation item requiring a response and state where the proposal reviewers can find your answer to each item.
  2. Hold a meeting in which your team determines what technical and pricing strategy you will follow
  3. Define all long-lead items such as obtaining teaming partners, obligation facilities, checking references, getting vendor quotations and the like
  4. Assign a manager to shepherd the work of the various authors and in putters in completing the different pieces of the proposal
  5. Assign qualified personnel to assist in defining your technical response
  6. Determine how and who will work out the price response
  7. Get a qualified person to edit the input for same voice and feel
  8. Appoint fresh personnel who were not assisting with the proposal to review it for technical, price, and stylistic factors
  9. Determine how / who will help illustrate and produce the proposal

   Although attending a training class will not make you into a professional, it will at least help you see the nature of the landscape and the scope of the task in advance.  And it can provide insight into what is required to prepare the different sections of the typical proposal.
   Enlisting a consultant group to help you is usually the best approach if you can possibly afford it.  The expense of hiring a proposal professional is approximately half as much as a lawyer.  What a consultant brings is knowledge on how to plan and execute the proposal preparation process.  The starting point is a plan and an outline.  He or she parses work pieces or information gathering pieces to appropriate personnel.  And then he or she leads in writing and shepherding and assembling the pieces into a proposal document.
   Here is an example of why it is a virtually an impossible task for an inexperienced company to prepare a winning proposal.  A standard section in nearly every proposal is the management plan.  The solicitation asks you to present a plan as to how you will manage this project if it is awarded to you.  If you have done 100 management plans before, then this is like riding a bicycle.  However, if you have not done one management plan before, it may be more nearly like translating Greek.  Because you need to know things like this:

  1. What are the 12 or 15 standard sections that should go in this management plan?
  2. What type, depth, and extent of answers will be right for the different sections?
  3. And how can we craft an overall management response that will demonstrate to the customer that, yes, we really can do a good job of managing their critical project?

   Many new bidders do not have any idea as to what will be the cost of using professional help.  It is difficult to generalize, and any generalization will not fit a specific case.  However, what about the case where a company will enlist one proposal professional to lead their group in managing the effort; supervising team work; and writing some sections.  The hourly cost for such a person in the Washington, DC area ranges from about $125 – $165 / hour.  Assume there is a standard 30-day period for preparing proposal responses.  This is approximately 4 weeks.  Although proposal weeks are usually 50 plus hours, you could use 40 – 50 hours per week and multiply by the rate to determine the approximate cost.
   If you decide to engage a consultant, the downside is the cost.  However, the up side is that your chances of winning a contract are greatly increased.  A mitigating factor is that you can expect to obtain a technology transfer over time.  When you do your second and third and fourth proposals, you could expect to be able to do more and more of the work in house due to what you learned from the consultant on the previous projects.
    A key question is how to find the right consultant group, and we will offer some ideas about this question:

  1. Can they offer a consultant who matches your qualifications, including any special factors that may exist such as Subject Matter Expertise (SME) required?
  2. Do they have a good reputation?
  3. Can they solve problems such as a consultant getting sick?
  4. Is their price competitive?

The first-time bidder is facing a challenge.  This is the same challenge faced by anyone who dares to reach for higher goals.  In the government space, successful growth requires winning proposals.  It is sometimes said, the race goes to the swift and victory to the strong.  In this case, success goes to the wise – those businessmen who can budget their precious resources in a way that moves them ever closer to their goals.


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