Matt Griffin on How We Work: Let’s Do It! What Are We Doing?

Today is a great day. A new potential client has come knocking on your door, and they’d like to consider you for a project. Thrilling as it may be, your excitement quickly turns to anxiety as you realize that the next thing they want to know is “how much will it cost?”

Here begins the great struggle of web business development. You need to know what you’re building before you can know how much it costs to build it. But accurately mapping out the scope of a project could take weeks of focused effort. That’s probably not something you can give away whenever you get a request for a quote. So what do you do? Make up numbers and hope you’re on target? Undershoot and you may land a job that cripples your business. Overshoot, and you may unnecessarily send that new client packing.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Defining the challenges, solutions, and strategies for the project to come is some of the most valuable work you will do for your client. Not only is that time worth paying for, but the resulting deliverables will be critical to the success of the project, regardless of who they hire to complete the next phase.

Let’s look at how we can structure a pre-project research phase that will ensure that—on completion—everyone’s ready to hit the ground running with design and development. By the end, our new client will know more about their organization and web project than ever before, and you’ll be able to create a much more accurate budget for subsequent work.

Let’s do it! What are we doing?

So there it is. That unread email with the subject line Fancy Organization Request for Proposal.

It’s a website redesign: no surprise there. And, wait—oh miraculous day—they even told you their budget. They have $100,000, which is enough money to do some real stuff. But what stuff do they want? Poring over the pages, you realize quickly that it’s not so clear. Some of the requirements they state, in fact, seem vague, strange, or misguided. As much as these folks are hoping you can take their RFP and give them a precise quote and a plan of action, you know in your bones that you need more clarity—and clarity rarely comes easily.

Smaller is better

So instead of putting together their requested $100,000 proposal, what do I do? I put together a $20,000 one. This, my friends, is unexpected. Gutsy, even! This is not what they’ve asked for. The gall. The nerve. The chutzpah!

Alright, let’s acknowledge this right now: there is risk involved in this approach. If I turn in something that looks entirely different from what the client is requesting, they cannot compare apples to apples with the other proposals. This may not fit into their (potentially rigid) RFP process. Our proposal may get tossed out in the very first round, just for being different.

On the other hand, this may be exactly what makes us stand out. Rob Harr from Sparkbox has a terrific line that I’ve started using myself: “I’m going to embrace the fact that I’ll know more about your project tomorrow than I do today.” For some clients, that may be a refreshing dose of honesty and creative thinking. And I don’t know about you, but those are the clients I really want.

One caveat: though we’re holding off on producing an accurate second phase budget until later, we still need to address the general cost of future work in some way. It’s a good idea to take a stab at a ballpark range for the second phase, with the understanding that it’s a bit of a shot in the dark. That way everyone will at least have a sense of the magnitude of a second phase, and can plan accordingly.

So what are we actually pitching in this smaller project? Well, it’s the first part of the bigger project, naturally. Depending on the nature of the project, it may require different tasks and deliverables. But we’ll likely include things like meetings, interviews, information architecture recommendations, branding analysis, a copywriting style guide, a content audit, wireframes, and style prototypes/style tiles. Whatever we end up doing, we’ll compile all of the research and conclusions we draw in the specification document, which is the central deliverable we provide at the end of the phase.

When putting together a standalone research phase, the trick is to focus on work that will help you more clearly define the project. That way you’ll have a well-formed plan for a second phase, and can provide the client with a much more accurate budget for that subsequent work.

What does everyone get out of this?

In all likelihood, I don’t need to sell you on research. Understanding what we’re going to design and build before we begin means we can create better things, more efficiently. But why, when we have the opportunity to sign a big contract, would we opt to sign a small one? Why, indeed!

It’s good for clients

You know what’s scary? Handing a big wad of money to a stranger. That’s what a big initial contract is like for a potential client. A smaller introductory research project lets a new client wade in ankle-deep before the big plunge.

Not only are they making a smaller commitment of time and money but—by the end of the project—they’ll know if you’re a good fit for them. If everyone decides to part ways at the end of this phase, they’ll still have valuable deliverables to help them jump-start the project with a different team.

It’s good for you, too!

And this goes for you, too. There’s nothing worse than signing on for a year-long project with a new client, and then realizing a month in that it’s a bad match. The pre-project project lets you assess the relationship in a low-risk environment, and decide if it’s worth continuing.

From a business development perspective, this initial research project has a lot of appeal, too. Sure, you’re not landing a big ticket contract just yet, but bear with me on this one.

Proposing is time-consuming

If you’re a small company like ours, you likely don’t have a dedicated sales person. This means that responding to RFPs is costly, and before long you’ll have to start making some hard decisions about which proposals you can afford to write, and which you can’t.

The nice thing about research phase proposals is that they tend to be very similar from project to project. By definition, these proposals don’t include very much about the specifics of the work being done, so a chunk of well-written boilerplate in your proposal gets you a lot more mileage. Investing less time with each proposal means that you can respond to more proposals. Wider net, less effort—without sacrificing quality. Yay!

Your feet, their door

In my experience, when you don’t have a proven track record with a client, selling a $10,000–20,000 project is a lot easier than selling a $100,000–200,000 project. This little research project helps you get a foot in the door with that new client, and prove your worth without resorting to something devaluing like spec work.

A clearer future

As this phase is nearing completion, you’ll be able to create a much more accurate budget for phase two. Because your research has generated a well-informed project definition, there will be much less guesswork, and a far greater understanding of the project’s requirements. In effect, you’re getting paid to write the best proposal ever. And you should be! The insight into the project and organization you’re providing is vital work that ensures that no one will be jumping into the project blindly and simply hoping for the best. That’s because now you’ll have something that every project desperately needs, but surprisingly few actually have. You’ll have a plan.

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