Why Proposals Suck

by Matt Wallens

We have a love-hate relationship with proposals. We love getting new work, meeting new clients and launching great products, but we hate the process of coming up with an accurate estimation of cost and time. Talking to other shops like ours, it seems we’re not alone.

In fact, according to the April 2014 SoDA report, all digital agencies suffer from this.

“When asked to rank their organization from 0 to 10 on their ability to accurately estimate project costs, agencies left themselves quite a bit of room for improvement in 2014. The average for all agency and prodco respondents was just 6.09, indicating that most digital shops continue to struggle with estimation – a core business requirement that wields a tremendous impact on their overall financial and organizational success.”

Ideally, after just a few meetings with a potential client, we will fully understand the problem to be solved, be able to calculate how much time and effort it’s going to take, and figure out what the end solution is going to look like. Next, we combine all those factors into a fairly accurate estimate of what the project will cost.

For small, relatively non-complex projects, it usually happens exactly like this. But, we’re not in the business of small, relatively non-complex projects.

Our Past Experiences

Potential clients often approached us after identifying a problem. They pinpointed their customers and their market, they had a full solution already mapped out, and they needed this “fixed yesterday” or “launched by next month.”

After gathering all project stakeholders for a Kickoff meeting, we often discovered the problem isn’t as clearly identified as the client first thought. Or the problem changed. Or we’re not able to move forward with the users, or market, or product as currently defined. The result? We needed to adjust project scope, resources, and timelines … during the Kickoff.

It would be nice if you could make sure you have the proper project goals and scope from the start, instead of having that, “Wait, what?” moment five minutes into the Kickoff.

We Can Do Better

For each project, we now (very strongly) suggest doing upfront Discovery research.

Each time we’ve started a project this way, we’ve ended up with a solid plan for the rest of the project that more accurately outlines the scope, the level of effort, all necessary resources, and, most importantly, an accurate price. To be honest, there’s still some guesswork, particularly with really complex web or mobile applications, but we start the project with as much confidence as we can reasonably expect. Investing in building the right thing is an awesome experience for both us and our clients.

How does our discovery project work?

We typically start with a simple approach to gain quick, accurate qualitative and quantitative data for any project. I’ve listed below our baseline of where we like to start, but all projects are a little bit different so this list can change from project to project.

  • Competitive/Market Analysis: This means we research the current market. This is especially useful for startups or entrepreneurs who come to us with a great idea for a new product that they haven’t fully vetted. We’ll look across the web and mobile platforms to see if any similar options exist today and how they compare to the proposed service/app/website.
  • Interviews with current, past, and potential customers: We work with the client to identify the right people to talk with and the best questions to ask them so we get a true understanding of the needs.
  • Quantitative study: Based on the same customer segments as above, we’ll conduct a survey of current, past and potential customers (when possible) to glean quantitative metrics of their usage and/or perception of the product or service.

Usually done in two to three weeks, we gather as much information as we can and provide it back to our clients. After we present our findings to them, we give them time to evaluate it, talk to investors and/or partners, and decide if they want to move forward. If so (which is more common than not), we’re ready to take our findings and roll them into a formal proposal more accurate than we would have come up with without any data.


Our Discovery projects have been successful for us. In some cases, they’ve opened the door for us to work on the project that was originally pitched to us. In other cases, they’ve actually led to projects, and even companies, being shut down when clients discovered that they didn’t have a viable product or business plan. These are positives, too, but for a completely different reason. But in the end, the benefit of Discoveries are clear: Find out as much as you can as early as you can so that you can move into a project with confidence!


(Thanks to Creative Commons and thomasvan.com for use of the header photograph.)