It hit me on a walk. Goddamned Good Proposals. Finally, a title for the book I'd been thinking about writing for years...
I began work in proposals back in 2006. Fresh off a stint as a curriculum designer for an academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was back in Maryland and needed a job. A friend from high school called and asked if I knew anything about proposals. I said no. He said, what about telecommunications? No. Government work? No. Finance or pricing? Yes - if you count working as a buyer for a subsidiary of Home Depot. After college I spent a year buying power tools for 16 warehouses in North America.
My friend knew a woman who was looking for a mid-level pricing analyst. The person needed experience working in government proposals. He had recommended me and wanted my resume. So I put a little polish on one I had and sent it over to him.
[Note: Companies who do business with the federal government have to compete for the work. They do this by submitting proposals for certain jobs at the government's request. For example, if the government needs software to track payments, they go to the IT industry for help. The government draws up a list of requirements and many companies bid on the work. The company with the winning proposal gets the job. Proposals usually require a staffing plan, a written technical proposal, evidence of past performance, and a price. Different people help put the proposals together. These include proposal managers and writers, pricing analysts, subject matter experts, and recruiters.]
A few days after I submitted my resume I was sitting across the table from a hiring manager. She asked me the same questions as my friend. Did I have experience in proposals? Government work? Telecommunications? Finance? "Look," I said, "I don't have this experience, but if you give me a chance, I'll learn the job." She was wary, but offered me the job as a pricing analyst. She must have had great faith in my friend!
A year later, an opportunity came up to write proposals, rather than price them. I had helped win about $30M as a pricing analyst, but we were losing opportunities we shouldn't have lost. My boss handed me one of the written proposals and I marked it up for him. I majored in English in college and taught at the university level for a while, so had a background in writing. He liked my suggestions and offered me a job as a proposal writer. It wasn't a promotion, but the lateral move gave me even more insight into the proposal process.
Fast forward through a couple of other proposal writing jobs to 2016. After 10 years I had helped my employers win hundreds of millions of dollars in new work. But I had also seen gross negligence by executives. Full-time employees appeared apathetic about new revenue. It took teams of 5 people a week to do what 2 people could do in a couple of days. Companies paid insane amounts of money to consultants with losing results.
Here's the thing: proposal writers are the bottom of the barrel. When I expressed concerns, no one listened. If I offered what I felt was a better way, most people ignored it. Proposal writers have the least amount of say but the greatest responsibility. If the government doesn't like the message, or the proposal is non-compliant, we have to answer for it.
The life of a proposal writer isn't glamorous. Long meetings. Sleepless nights. Stolen weekends. Missed holidays. People who make more money enjoy their time while we create miracles. The result is steady cash flow for many of the world's businesses.
As I worked, I saw small and mid-sized businesses cringe under the weight of consulting fees. Some proposals cost tens of thousands of dollars with no guarantee of results. Whether consultants are worth that kind of money is up for debate. But they aren't the problem anyway.
The problem is having the information you need, when you need it. Most companies don't have even their general information (e.g., legal name, address, points of contact) in one place. For a proposal, you need much more than this. You need to know what contracts the company has. You need to know how they are performing on those contracts. You need to know the company’s capabilities and how they do their work. You need to know how they determine what to pay their people. You need to know their recruiting process and what their benefits package looks like.
No consultant can provide this information. Only a company can provide it, because it is the company's information! Whenever you write a proposal, someone has to look for it. Or they have to create or recreate it. If you write a lot of proposals, things get confusing and inefficient quickly. Who wrote the last staffing plan? Where did I put that information I wrote about recruiting? How did we price our resources on the last proposal?
The entire proposal industry has grown to help manage this need for information. Proposal work can be lucrative, and no one would show you the best and least expensive way to write proposals; we would be working ourselves out of our jobs, right? But for me, I had the least glamorous job. I needed all that information to do my work. And I hated digging around for it under deadlines and extreme stress.
So I decided to start my own business. For many years, I have been refining my process and techniques out of necessity. I often had to compensate for a lack of good information. Or, my teams had to make up solutions because we didn't have technical expertise available. Or, we had to create reusable material, because proposals were coming so fast. The volume of work and time crunch forced us to adapt. We began to create and catalog the information we needed. We developed a framework that suited small teams with limited resources. But the framework could also scale.
There is a lot of information out there about how to write proposals. But it doesn't offer much practical advice. Much proposal guidance assumes that people follow prescribed processes. It assumes everyone does their work, from executives down to editors. It assumes people meet deadlines and have no competing priorities. The problem is that reality is different. A perfect world of all the best information for writing a kick-ass proposal doesn't exist.
So, how do you compensate? How do you take the lemons of the government proposal world and make lemonade? That's what I've spent the last 6 months writing about.
More times than I can count, I've been up before the sun this year. Sitting in the dark with coffee, a notebook, and silence, I used various techniques to get all my ideas on paper. Brainstorming. Mind mapping. Writing with my non-dominant hand. These methods all help in developing constructs outside of the norm. The distillation of these many morning hours is a concept and an eBook. This eBook has a few keys to writing very good proposals, regardless of your constraints.
Goddamned Good Proposals is Qocreate's answer to the tyranny of proposal writing. We apply three elements to our proposal work: Story, System, Style. We can use these elements to write a winning proposal. Quick turn proposal with little notice? No problem. Proposal for an opportunity where the client doesn't know the customer? No problem. Is the team stretched too thin to accommodate workload? No problem.
The preparation and forethought of our approach makes room for humanity. Absentmindedness. Mistakes. Forgetfulness. Losing priorities because everything seems urgent. Bad management practices. Conflicts. Egos. These workplace issues aren't going away. If anything, the onslaught of advice and opportunity means they will only increase. So, why not put an approach in place that makes up for the weaknesses? That allows for error?
The name of the book - Goddamned Good Proposals - grew out of an expression. When our team overcomes the odds to produce a proposal, sometimes we think: "Goddamn! This is a good one." No offense to any religious people reading this, it's just an expression. But it captures the essence of surprise and the subsiding feeling of exasperation.
These days, I rarely find the ideal situation for writing proposals. The readers of this blog may be different. If you are like me, I hope this book inspires excellence and clarity, even in chaos. The idea is to foster collaboration and communication. You can use Story, System, and Style to tailor proposals with precision for specific projects. Even under duress, you can attain a true sense of accomplishment. It may seem like a dream. But proposal writers can embrace a writing approach based on minimal effective effort. It drives winning results, even when that doesn't seem possible.
We've moved through a couple complete drafts of the book now, and hope to have it available for consumption by early August, just in time for the federal government's busiest proposal season. If you, or anyone you know has to write or deal with proposals on a regular basis, keep your eyes peeled. I think you'll enjoy the read, and it might just help you write a goddamned good proposal for your business.
Until then, if you want to talk proposals, let’s chat. We're always available and happy to share what we've learned.