209 FS Proposals with Curtis McHale

00:00 2564
Download MP3

01:41 - Curtis McHale Introduction

  1. Current Problem
  2. Objectives
  3. Gauging Success
  4. Options
  5. Timeline
  6. Accountabilities 05:33 - Options (Cont’d)06:44 - Getting to the “Why”


Tell us the best proposal you sent in the comments section and get a copy of Curtis’ book: Write Proposals that Win Work



[This episode is sponsored by Hired.com. Hired.com is offering a new freelancing and contracting offering. They have multiple companies that will provide you with contract opportunities. They cover all the tracking, reporting and billing for you, they handle all the collections and prefund your paycheck, they offer legal and accounting and tax support, and they’ll give you $1,000 when you’ve been on a contract for 90 days. But with this link, they’ll double it to $2,000 instead. Go sign up at Hired.com/freelancersshow.]

[This week’s episode of the Freelancers’ Show is brought to you by Earth Class Mail. Earth Class Mail moves your snail mail into the cloud giving you instant access 24/7 and integrates with the tools and services you use everyday. It’s crazy that we’ve moved everything we do for the business over to the digital world but still need to pick up, sort and manage physical mail. With Earth Class Mail, you can get all of your mails scanned and accessible online 24/7. You can search your mail, send invoices over to your accounting software, sync important documents into cloud storage, deposit checks and really just make running your business a whole lot easier. You also get real professional address to share publicly with customers, business partners and investors, and you’ll never need to worry about someone showing up at your door if you run your business from home. Now, I’ve checked out Earth Class Mail and I think it’s a brilliant solution that’s perfect for businesses and independent entrepreneurs of all types. Visit freelancersshow.com/mail and you’ll get your first month of service free when you sign up. That’s freelancersshow.com/mail.]

CHUCK: Hey everybody and welcome to episode 209 of The Freelancers’ Show. This week on our panel we have Philip Morgan.

PHILIP: Hello hello.

CHUCK: I’m Charles Max Wood from DevChat.tv. This week we have a special guest and that is Curtis McHale.

CURTIS: Hello.

CHUCK: Now Curtis, you used to be a panellist on the show, but do you want to fill us in on what you’ve been up to lately?

CURTIS: I've been doing I guess everything else I've been normally doing before when I was on the show, just not being on the show; it wasn’t working at that point. So I am a WordPress developer mainly, and then I am doing more business coaching now.

CHUCK: Cool. Business coaching for internet businesses or consultants or what?

CURTIS: I focus on internet businesses, but one person who really likes to talk to me is not – I decided not an internet business he worked for; not currently in the Salvation Army, but was the regional manager for all the Dollar Stores in [inaudible] and Alberta for a long time.

CHUCK: Cool. Well, we brought you on today to talk about proposals. I will point out that we had Brennan Dunn on talking about proposals about a month ago, I think. The difference is that he – we spent a lot of time just talking about the logistics of making proposals, your first line product when you're bringing people on, so making people pay for the proposals. We did talk a little bit about building proposals. I don’t think we got too deep into the weeds on that.

What's your take on writing proposals? Do you charge for them as a product upfront, or is that just part of landing clients? And the other question I have is how do you usually structure yours?

CURTIS: Whether you charge or not, I think, depends on their size as well. It’s been a while since I've talked to Brennan and many of his clients were very high priced, and so even the discovery phase would be quite a while, a couple of weeks, most of my clients, the discovery is a 30-minute phone call and then some emails back and forth and maybe another 30-minute phone call at the max, but that’s not even very often, where the repeat clients I've worked with them lots, so again we have a quick phone call, hash out a few details that were up in the air and then we move on to the proposal.

So if it’s getting longer than that, if I have to do a discovery phase, I went to some of their site code or anything, then we absolutely charge for it.

CHUCK: That makes sense. And I think yeah, I think Brennan focuses on the larger priced tag engagements or he did when we was consulting.

CURTIS: Yeah. And you asked about format as well, right?

CHUCK: What – [crosstalk] – proposal look like?

CURTIS: I do six main sections, and they start with the current problem. So that is: what is the current problem the client has. And when you do that section, by the end of that you want them to be nodding their head saying “yeah, that’s exactly what my problem is”.

The second is the objectives. And in that, we’re listing the high level objectives. So if I’m building someone a new store, I’m saying “hey, by the end of this, we will have a store that functions and sells products”. We’re not going into every technical detail here. We’re just selling them on that objective.

Next is gauging success, so how are we going to gauge success, and this is to show them that you're not just dreaming about it; we’re actually have some metrics to look at.

Fourth is the options you're going to provide to them. You can up your – what you're going to earn just by providing some options. Big mistake a lot of people make here is the first option doesn’t actually qualify for the project for the client. So if the client wants an e-commerce store, the first one doesn’t include the store. I do it. [Inaudible] which is ridiculous. I did this last year once, and I looked up to their proposal later half when I was writing the book, and I was like “that’s a bad terrible proposal” because the first one wasn’t even what the client wanted.

Fifth is timeline. Timelines are tied to your options. So option 1 would be, say, 4-6 weeks. Option 2 would be 6-8 weeks and on depending on how long things take. And the accountabilities. What does each party responsible for? This is where I’ll also lay some groundwork for telling clients that I’m going to tell them no. [Inaudible] probably have even in the proposal process upfront where I’m going to say “we’re not going to do this. That’s a terrible idea”, and will also get them to commit to doing what's best for the users, not just what they like.

PHILIP: So Curtis, can you talk more about that options thing? You gave an example of a proposal where the lowest option – I didn’t understand; was it basically less than the minimum they wanted or –


CURTIS: When I look [inaudible] – when I look at it again, I look at the proposal and say they wanted a store and I said – so they wanted a WordPress theme and e-commerce store and I said the first option is the theme only, which was dumb because that’s not really an option. I just fooled myself into thinking it was an option. It would meet their minimum qualifications. Yeah. So that was [inaudible].

And then the second option was the minimum qualifications, which is the theme and the store. And the third option – I’m trying to remember now; I think it was a bunch of conversion work and that one specifically. I used this with another client last year as well.

And the third option was $6,000 above their budget, I think, and it provided features that they hadn’t even thought of, but their main problem was that the old site didn’t have any automation. They had to hand code every little link to every different host and every different product on their site. And so jumping off that, I provided a bunch of extra automation for them for $6,000 and it took me about 60 minutes to do.

CHUCK: So one thing I want to just jump in here with because you mentioned that it doesn’t meet the minimum requirement, then in the last explanation you also explained that you understood what their problem was and that was part of why you propose these other features. I’m curious; how do you get down to that? How do you get down to the “why”?

This is something that Jonathan pushes a lot is it’s “well, we want you to build this big massive CRM system” and then you start to figure it out, and you're like “you know what, there's a really good one over here that does everything you’ve talked about except one and it’s way cheaper than building your own”. So how do you get down to that “why”? How do you figure out “ok, this is the actual problem that they're going to solve”, because they're not going to – most of the clients I've dealt with won’t tell you that. They won’t tell you “we’re tired of hand coding all this stuff”. They're just going to say “we need a new system that does these things”.

CURTIS: That’s where you need to slow down and ask good questions. My counselling degree is good here because I was taught to ask lots of questions where you can use even stuff like the 5 Whys Method.

CHUCK: Yeah, that’s – [crosstalk]

CURTIS: Why did I do this? Why why why reflection questions. So they say “we’re having trouble with the CRM”. “Oh, so the CRM is causing you trouble”, and they’ll say yes, and they’ll tell you more. And you need to learn – I actually wrote about that a while ago, but I think it’s called effective questioning method is the series on my site. I spent about a month talking about different questioning methods and how to flow between them. So you ask, and you ask good ones.

And most freelancers even when they ask some ok questions in the initial call, they start to write their proposal and then they don’t stop when they have a question and ask it. They think “I’d get this out today. I actually never going to get the proposal out today”. I could guarantee you see a draft of it or that I’ll start it and ask more questions, but that’s it because I’m not just going to get to it. I am terribly slow at proposals that it’ll sometimes take weeks for me to get a proposal to you. And if you need it faster than that and you need it faster, then you should probably find somebody else.

CHUCK: That’s really interesting. I've definitely made that mistake before where it’s like “I told them I’d get the proposal tomorrow” and so I make some assumptions and then send them something that isn't exactly what they need.

PHILIP: I think the mindset behind that is like “this is my first opportunity to show that I’m a professional. I do things when I say I’m going to do them”. That’s the thinking. I think that’s valid.

Curtis, do you ever find that sets you up to look like not as professional if it takes longer than they're used to seeing?

CURTIS: No. [Inaudible] on the phone, the client will say “when can I expect your proposal?” and I’ll look at my calendar and look at what I have to do and say “well, I’m going to start it next Tuesday, but it’s like we all have some more questions because I would like to do it right, and then I’ll get back to you and ask some more questions”.

It may take a week or two to get a proposal together, and that’s part of the discovery process. I work – out of the 6 sections I said, I work with the client on everything except 4 and 5, which are the options and the timeline. We go through and we will define together where they will actually get to work on a Google document with me once I've done the first draft. We define the current problems. They’ll even rewrite my language sometimes so that it’s their language, which is great. We’ll go through the objectives as well together. We’ll go through gauging success about getting the right metrics. And then I add sections 4, the options, and 5, timeline, just when they get the pricing.

CHUCK: So you give them access to Google doc and allow them to collaborate on the proposal?

CURTIS: Yup. Part of the discovery process.

CHUCK: Got you. So the only part they're going to be waiting on then are the options and the timeline.

CURTIS: Yeah. So usually if I’m saying I’ll get you anything, it’s “I’ll get you the first draft”. I usually say “I’ll get you the first draft. I expect we’re going to make reactions in this” because there's always 3 things set. There's “I think I said what I actually said and what you heard, and the proposal, this document, is to help get those down so we’re both understanding the same thing”. So they’ll have marks all down the side and comments, and sometimes we’ll attach some supporting documentation to it and a bunch of other stuff.

The only thing I really stop them on is that they start adding 300 tasks to the objectives. It’s not “install WordPress and install the theme and do this and do this and do this”. It’s “have an e-commerce”. “Be able to attach PDFs to the email invoice”, ok, that’s an objective as well. We do some of the high-level stuff, but we don’t get into everything. And if they really feel they have to do that, then I just create a second document and we can work on that together.

PHILIP: How do you frame that second document? Is that – what do you call it? How do you describe the purpose of it?

CURTIS: It’s called a task list. And very few clients think about it. They’ll say “ok, that’s a task list”. I say “this just needs to be focused. This is the high-level stuff. If you’d like to get some more detail, then that’s fine”. And so the objectives may say “and see the task list”.

But I don’t actually attach that when I send the proposal. And very few clients really do that. I just say “all these little things, that’s all in there”. They’ll say “well, I want to make sure that Goggle Analytics is on my site” and I say yeah, but when you buy a new car you don’t ask for the tires. The tires are included. Of course, the tires are included. So that’s a bunch of stuff that they unfortunately feel they need to include sometimes because they didn’t think they got it with previous providers, but for me when I think of it, I think it’s the sheet where the client can put a whole bunch of stuff that I’m going to look at a little bit on and not spend as much time on because the real sales is in the proposal document.

CHUCK: So you’ve talked about the “why” and you get down to the objectives, and I can see that they're related, but I don’t see where you actually put one in one place over the other. So it seems like this is a document that demonstrates “I understand your problem. I understand what you need. I’m going to provide this level of service” and so it’s [inaudible]. So your objectives are you're going to have a working –

CURTIS: Well, it’s not just that. The objectives are selling them on their better future. So with this site, you'll be able to make more sales. And they look at that –

CHUCK: Do you quantify that?

CURTIS: It depends. I quantify things I can control. I can’t guarantee they're going to have a 30% increase in sales because if they do zero marketing, then what am I supposed to do?

CHUCK: Right.

CURTIS: The clients that really want that, then I make them – they want more harder number on it, I make them commit to marketing stuff, marketing [inaudible], and I will even – there's one client who wanted it and I said that they have to have a good blog post every week that I had to say was good essentially, and for everyone they didn’t do, they owed me a thousand dollars.

CHUCK: Oh, wow.

CURTIS: Because they wanted me to also take [inaudible] based on their sales. And they said “what?” If you're going to do it, then I had to guarantee that you're going to do it.

CHUCK: Right. That makes sense.

CURTIS: They backed out and they basically said “no, we’re never – we’re actually [inaudible]. In a year you're going to be wondering why the site doesn’t make any sales,  and that’s because you didn’t know marketing, but you are going to think the developer screwed you over. So I’m not interested in this.

PHILIP: Yeah. I’m super interested in how much of that kind of conversation gets baked into your proposal process. It seems that really heads a lot of things off before they become problems. Is that what you see or do you see things that still slip through despite having a pretty rigorous process?

CURTIS: At some point every year I get into a project where I’m like “ah, I missed something”. Sometimes you just don’t know what it was. You finish off and you're like “what could I have done differently?” Other times you say “oh yeah, that’s a red flag, but it won’t happen to me”.


CURTIS: We’ve all done this. “I’ll totally – it’s not a problem. I know the other developers had trouble here, but it won’t happen to me”. So I’m trying to finish off one of those right now where – yeah, we had a bunch of failed developing stuff before and I said “oh yeah, I’ll be fine and I can tell you exactly why they have failed development in their history. It’s because they're a pain in the butt”.

PHILIP: That sounds like a red flag if you catch yourself saying “that couldn’t happen to me”. That’s a big red flag.

CURTIS: Absolutely.

CHUCK: Oh yeah.

PHILIP: I’m reflecting on my own client work history and I’m like “oh yeah, I do that too”. [Chuckles]

CHUCK: “I know better than that”.

PHILIP: “I’d never make such a dumb mistake”.

CURTIS: Yeah. My process won’t let that happen, which is not nearly as true as you’d like to think it is.


PHILIP: So in terms of formulating options, have you found anything that helps – in the past, that’s a place where I've gotten stuck because here’s my thinking: the solution is obvious. The solution is this. So do I propose a water down version as the entry level option? And then the thing I really want is option 2, which as we all know from reading those millions of articles on pricing and persuasion that you try to drive people to the middle or high-priced option like – is this there some framework you have for thinking about that, Curtis, or some things you found that helped you think of sensible options?

CURTIS: I have found that most clients at some point say “oh, if we can, I’d really like to do this”, whatever that feature is. And that’s usually a prime candidate for “this is not required. This is just something they'd like to do”. “Oh, a big dream would be to whatever”, and that usually would make it into the, say, second or third option.

Occasionally it is hard. I do not go hard and fast to always have to have three options before it goes. I spend some time on the options if I’m start on going figuring out three. And if I can’t, then I just send the proposal and I don’t worry about anything.

Another good one is, say, ongoing consulting. So the e-commerce work. I’ll be around to help fix problems maybe, or to do conversion work or something like that would be the third option. Occasionally I’ll be changing higher pricing is, so it could be it’s flat rate for option 1 and 2, and option 3 is a little bit less flat rate for percentage of sales, or for percentage based on conversion and then you’d work at it for a longer period of time, say 6 months on conversion work and you get paid for a year. So you’d work on it for 6 months and still get paid for the following 6 months as percentage based on the conversions.


CHUCK: So this whole process, how do you start it when somebody emails you or calls you and says “we have this problem. We want you to work for us”?

CURTIS: The first thing they do is they get an email that says something along the lines of “hey, that sounds good. Well, I need to make sure it’s the right project for me. Here's 9 questions”. It’s at least 9 questions; sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. And if I don’t get a good response for most 9 questions, I don’t even go any further.

And a lot of them are on “why”. “Why are we doing this? What is you brighter future that you think you're going to get? What's your timeline? What's your budget? Who’s the decision-makers? What are we missing because of this? So if we do option A, what are we not doing? That might even be better.” And if I don’t get good responses, I don’t even get on the phone with them.

CHUCK: So one thing that I've ran into with those particular questions and some of these other things is that – and I completely agree with you, but I’m also going to [inaudible] up to another mistake that I make, and that is that a lot of times they’ll come, they don’t really have a good “why”. They don’t know what outcomes they want. They just know that they want some system that does something.

And so as I talk to them and I figure out “why are you doing this, what outcomes do you want, what makes this a success”, and they don’t have those answers, I start pushing them to give those answers, and eventually they just start talking about going to somebody else, which is what I should’ve let them do, I think, in some of these cases.


CHUCK: But I've justified a couple of times taking the client because it’s “well, they're going to pay somebody to do this”. But yeah, in about half of the cases, and I think I've been fortunate that it’s only half of the cases, I've had these clients come back and basically talk like I ripped them off, where in reality they didn’t know what they wanted out of the system, so I built them what they asked for and then they just –

CURTIS: Ultimately, it is your fault. You decided to take them on knowing that they didn’t have any good outcomes. I would say “hey, this doesn’t sound like a good project to me. It doesn’t sound like you know what this is going to accomplish. [Inaudible] successful project not failed once, so I think this [inaudible] project, or if you’d like to come talk to me about a successful one, I’d love to talk more”.

CHUCK: Yeah. The other thing is that even the ones that didn’t come back and basically insinuate that I ripped them off, there was nothing to show. And I wanted to be able to say “hey, I worked on that and it was successful” and there was nothing to show because the project languished after I was done working on it because they never launched it.

CURTIS: Yeah. And you have times when we maybe need to pay some bills so you have to take something like that, but I think that is [inaudible] between most people take them on way too often. I just say no. So out of all the people that get in touch with me, I probably only get on the phone with 30% of people. Everyone else gets referred or I just say no to them. And then out of that, I’ll only send estimates to – or proposals to 20% of people, and I usually win everything I send.

CHUCK: So you bring them on board, you send them the questions, they answer them to your satisfaction, and then –

CURTIS: We get on the phone. I have to get on the phone. I use a system called Calendly that books call times, and if my call times don’t work, then we’re not a good fit. I don’t worry about it. And we have to have at least one 30-minute phone call. If out of that we have enough information to really do proposals, then we’ll start that. If not, then I usually sit down and decide how much more is this going to take? Is this going to take a bunch of discovery, in which case it’s a paid project and we talk about that. If I can’t a decent proposal together, then I do and we’ll work on it together usually over the course of a week or two maybe, and then they'd get the pricing out of it.

CHUCK: That makes sense.

PHILIP: On the subject of pricing, I know a lot of people have the following experience especially if they use some sort of software to present the proposal that shows – that tracks people’s – where they spend time on the proposal. I think Bidsketch does that or – I know there's others that do.

And so what I hear is people open the proposal and they just jump down to where the pricing is. That’s how they process all the information in the proposal. And I’m loving the fact that the way you work, people can’t do that because you have forced them to be collaborators in creating that everything that goes above the pricing. So I’m assuming the pricing shows up when you present the options. The problems, objectives, measures of success, and then options – is that where the pricing goes?

CURTIS: If I was to make this one document, then it would be in the middle. So I gave you the exact order it would go in and the responsibilities are right at the end. The way I do it is we work on everything except the options and the timelines, and we work on them together. And then when I send you the proposal – so we've spent how much time working on that, and when I send you the proposal, it shows you the options and timelines. That’s it.

And the reference is “here's the document attached to this email that is the proposal”. We spent, say, all of the rest of the time working on the proposal so we are intimately familiar with every detail of it and the options may reference “this is for option 1, does these things”. So it only references some of the high level objectives for the option. That’s it.

PHILIP: I think that’s great. By breaking up into the phases like that, you avoid that behavior I was talking about where people just zoom down to find the pricing, and then maybe go back and review the supporting detail.

CHUCK: Well, the reason they do that is –

CURTIS: We worked on it together too. They know it. They know the supporting detail.

PHILIP: Yeah. Right. They can’t not know it because you led them through that process to get to the point where you can even come up with some simple pricing.

CURTIS: Yeah. And I don’t move on until they say “yes, I’m happy with that. This looks like it’s good to me”.

CHUCK: Well, there's so many people that they go out, they ask for proposals, they get a proposal in a couple of days from 3 or 4 people, and then they look over what's offered, they look over the price, and then they make a decision. And so in a lot of times, it’s “whatever number’s lowest that gets me most of what I want, wins”. And then they can’t figure out why the project is over-budget or why they're not getting what they want, and in reality it’s because nobody walked through the process of actually figuring that out with them.

CURTIS: Yup. I even had – even just recently, I sent my initial questions to someone, and they – in their mind they said “I've read your questions and I said this is way bigger than I thought”. And they sat down and they answer them, but they stopped and they looked through my pricing and they said “ok, this is my budget”, which was well below my pricing, and they said “is there anything I can do though to achieve these objectives?” So I just said “hey, here's some options you may look at that might hit your pricing”. But it said – they spent a week looking at my questions and looking at their business and getting better “why’s” for what they're going to do, which was good for their business in general.

CHUCK: That’s really great. Now, I do have to ask because I know somebody sitting there going “ok, so I figure out what they want, and then how do I actually know what to charge them? How do I know what timeline to put on there?” because they're not that great at estimating.

CURTIS: Some of it is practice. For most freelancers, it’s twice as much as you think you should charge. Most people do not charge very well or not charge the appropriate rates because they're scared. They're scared that that’s the last client that’s ever going to come to them and if they don’t say yes to this one or get this work, then no one will ever work with them again, which is not true.

It just depends. I charge well above the standard industry rates for my – that most people would expect with WordPress stuff, well above my charge usually within line with the high-end agencies. I charge usually in line with them.

Pricing is hard to say unless I actually talk like “how much are you charging for this”. That way, people look at it as your hourly rate, and I – so I have an hourly rate; I just never actually use it. I don’t work hourly. I work by the project, but it’s something I look at later on just to look at the overall profitability of that project versus, say, other things I’m doing.

CHUCK: So when you're figuring out the price on some of these projects, then you just go by gut feel? “This is so complicated or so much work”, or do you – [crosstalk]

CURTIS: Well, one of my questions is their budget too though. So if they come back and they say “our budget is a thousand dollars” and they want some big system, I say “well, it’s not going to work”. Then I don’t even get past that initial email. I’ll say “hey, that’s not going to work. Look at these options over here”. If they come to me and say “I've got 15 to $20,000; that’s what I've got”, then my first option might be that the lower end of what they have. My second option would be at the higher end of what they have, and my third option would probably be about what they thought they had.

So I have found [inaudible] that clients actually have more once you show more value. They just didn’t they think they're going to get more value for more money.

PHILIP: Have you – Curtis, do you have a rough percentage of how many clients go for option 1, 2, 3?

CURTIS: Most clients, I will say 80% go to option 2, which includes some of their dreams typically when I do it. And I’d say the majority of the rest go for option 3. And there's a few that pick option 1, which is just the bare [inaudible] of what they wanted.

CHUCK: It’s funny because I was – most of my questions when we were thinking about – when I was thinking about proposals is we’re around “ok, well how do you deal with them going what you offered isn't in line with what we’re willing to pay for it”, and your whole process totally short circuits that. [Chuckles]

CURTIS: Yeah, and you had the wrong discussion upfront then, or you didn’t ask the questions. I did that. I did that [inaudible] actually. I got a reference from another client in a similar field and they’ve always paid well and they had a budget. They said “my friend would love to work with you. [inaudible]” I said sure, and I've got through the proposal process, I sent it over, and he’s like “wow, that’s 10 times what I expected”, and just totally my fault. I did not ask; I assumed, because his friend – because my current client had the budget that he would, which is often safe, but I should have asked.

PHILIP: Yeah, it sounds like a cognitive shortcut. Are there others you’ve seen as you’ve developed your process to this point, common mistakes or shortcuts that you should never take the shortcut?

CURTIS: Even to that, I just reiterated to myself “I have to ask those questions every single time”. That is I always have to ask my questions. I didn’t and [inaudible] pain in the butt and I have no one to blame but myself. That’s probably the biggest one.

And don’t rush; slow down. I am terribly slow at getting proposals. When you send me an email, it might be a month before we get a proposal to you. If that doesn’t work, then fine, I’m not worried about it. I have consistently got slower at doing proposals because I make sure that that person – they may even have other proposals while they're waiting for me, but the longer they wait,  the more likely they are to say “no, this is the right person for me”. And they will wait and usually I will get the work, even in fact when I've helped friends with their proposals and they’ve sent it faster than me and I've still won the work right after. So they sent a very similar proposal to what I would send – at least with all the same details; maybe not formatted exactly the same, and I had still won the proposal.

PHILIP: Why do you think that is?

CURTIS: Part of it is probably my confidence when we talk, which even comes across in the podcast. I've always been – we’re having a terrible [inaudible] and the person said “oh well, we just thought we’d see you right away because some of the qualifications, but by the time we finished talking to you, the person we wanted”.

But also, I’m just willing to wait possibly loss a version as well. I’ll just say I’m both – if someone emailed me right now, I’d say “well, first off, I've got a kid coming in a couple of weeks, so I’m taking a month off. And after that, I’m booked until September. So if you want anything from me, not happening until October. And I’m going to take a month to get a proposal”, although this point I’m going to say “I’m probably going to take 2 months to get your proposal”. So they get a month off and it’s just not in many ways, not high in my [inaudible] list or I only take 2 calls with new clients every week. That’s it. And if they are full, you have to wait.

CHUCK: So besides going too fast and not asking the right questions upfront, what are some of the things that people are going to get hang up on when they're writing a proposal?

CURTIS: They're probably going to worry about compromises as well, except on the rates or in the timelines if the client comes back to them on the proposal, they're going to offer a discount of the rates, which is a bad idea. If you think of it, then don’t do it.

CHUCK: Yes. I agree. I've done that before too and then they think they can haggle over everything.

CURTIS: Yeah. I've even had an agency, a local agency – I forget; I think I should probably be charging higher than $50 now at that point and they said “oh, we each pay everyone 50 and so how much can you do for us?” I looked at them and said “what? No no no. I can sell my time for $150 an hour. Why would I work for less? That seems like a dumb idea, doesn’t it? Well, yeah. So if you would like me to work, this is what I charge. You need to charge more to your clients, I don’t care; that is not my problem”.

CHUCK: That does bring up another question and I don’t know how much subcontracting you’ve done as far as farming any work out to subcontractors, but I have talked to several people about doing value-based pricing just because we have Jonathan on the show and he’s kind of sold me on that. The issue that I ran into though is then they're like “well, I have subcontractors and I pay them hourly”. And so if the work goes over, then I’m stuck not making any money or losing money.

CURTIS: That’s doesn’t sound like your problem.

CHUCK: Well, I know that we have freelancers that listen to the show that do subcontracting, so if they give a straight bid on a proposal, I guess the proposal could be hourly.

CURTIS: Then if they're not doing it, if they're doing it straight [inaudible] proposal and the contractors go over, that means you estimated poorly.

CHUCK: Right.

CURTIS: Right. You need to go back and redo the estimate. For some agency, if they say “well, that’s more than we charge”, it’s not my problem that that’s what you charge. This is what I charge. If you would like me to do it because you think I’m the best, then that’s great.

I have some contractors and a bunch of subcontractors at the beginning of the year for a former client who had a bad bad time with another contractor, and so I was basically paying the safety net. I barely looked at the project. I sent it off to another contractor that I know and he did all the work and I just triple this pricing and sent it on because he didn’t charge very much. And he went over at one point, over enough even with my drastic mark-up, I lost a little bit on it and that’s not my client’s problem. I just – it happened. I need to estimate better again or communicate more [inaudible] with people that subcontract for me. And that’s it. And actually, I even sent the client to him, and the client was like “well, I don’t have the budget for this”. I said “just work directly with this contractor and I won’t be insurance anymore”.

CHUCK: How long are your proposals usually, like page length?

CURTIS: Two pages max. And then the options are in a separate web screen – web view. That’s it.

CHUCK: Why do you put them in a separate web view?

CURTIS: Because that’s how my system works. So I put the invoice together in 17hats [inaudible] the proposal where they can pick the options. And attached to that is the PDF with the actual proposal we worked on in Google Docs. And when they click on the link which they into 17hats, it takes them to a webpage and they can see the proposal, they can select which one they want, they hit Next, and that takes them to the contract and to the payment, and they're done.

CHUCK: Great. And you just make them pay the whole thing upfront?

CURTIS: It depends. I still do weekly pricing on some stuff. Otherwise, it’s a hundred percent upfront.

CHUCK: I’m curious. I know this is a little off the topic of proposals, but for the hundred percent upfront, do you get people push them back on that, or do they know that upfront, I guess coming in you tell them “this is how I work. You're going to pay it all upfront”?

CURTIS: Yeah. When people do say “this is – oh, I don’t feel comfortable with that”, we just split it up into weekly.


CURTIS: So I’m still paid on Friday for Monday. So it’s still upfront; it’s just more like chunks upfront.

CHUCK: Right. And if they don’t pay on Friday, you don’t work on Monday?

CURTIS: No, it isn't a reason, I suppose. But yes. I have long-term clients and how you didn’t get paid yesterday so I’d part with you today, but I've worked with them for 20 weeks so far this year and they’ve always paid. So did I worry about it? No, I didn’t worry about it.

CHUCK: Obviously.


CURTIS: We work for a couple of weeks, fine, and then one week they were late and the second week they were late in a row, and I just emailed them on Monday, said I’m not working until I get paid. And they didn’t pay me until Tuesday, and they still – that’s the rest of the week they had. And they would ask “what do we – so are you working on next week?” “No. I told people I couldn’t work this week because I was working for you. You're not paying. It’s not my problem”. And they said “ok” and I went and didn’t work for the last bit of the week, which was halfway through Tuesday and Wednesday. And they even caught me because I usually work from 7AM to 1 or 2PM straight, and so they [inaudible] at the end of my day, which meant like an hour or two.

CHUCK: I want to go back to your 9 or so questions that you ask, and in particular, you mentioned that budget is something that you use to put together your options and pricing. If they refuse to answer that, do you just not work for them?

CURTIS: It depends on what they say. Some clients will say “oh, I have no idea. I literally don’t have any idea”, in which case I would reply something like “ok well, that’s $5,000 expensive or $10,000 or 15 or 20”. At some point they go “ooh, that sounds expensive”. And that’s where the value proposition changed [inaudible].

But I very rarely don’t get an answer to that question. I think that’s because just underneath that says “what's your budget or what is the budget you’ve allotted for this project”, and then the next paragraph is “budget is usually the hardest question, but it’s something I need to at least have an idea on. Do you have a thousand dollars and we need to only find these [inaudible] solutions that are glued together to meet your goals. You're going to have to give up on some of those specifics if you want that, or do you have 30,000 or more to spend and we can build whatever we want”. So I even arrange where things start to feel expensive helps me know.

PHILIP: Curtis, I’m curious about measures of success. That’s for sure related with the accountabilities/responsibilities part of the project. How typically are you measuring success and how much of that is reliant on the work you do versus what clients do? You touched on that earlier, but I’m curious for more detail on that.

CURTIS: For the, say, the client – the automation was the real problem. We said we would give them a new WordPress site that they would be able to create a category. And when they create a membership, they could check a box and it would automatically create a membership for them and that we would automatically link all their products together for them. Those were the real gauging success pieces.

I can’t guarantee their traffic and I can’t guarantee their sales. If I need a guaranteeing in that, then I’m going to have to, longer term, look at conversion work for them to get them to the sales they want.

For another client, it was “we’ll make your site pass Google’s automated mobile checking” because they had no mobile theme and that’s how we looked at it.

PHILIP: Mm-hm. So it sounds like it’s a spectrum. There's no one-size-fits-all thing. Do you try to make sure that the measures of success are things that you can control? Is that your default?

CURTIS: Yeah, yeah.


CURTIS: Yes. It’d be like me saying “I guarantee you that Philip is going to write a book next week”. How am I going to do that? I’m going to go down to Philip’s house and make sure he sits at his computer all the time? No. I could, I suppose, but that’s the only way I might be able to guarantee it. I might even have to sit while I’m going to tell him to type it too. So that’s the only thing where I couldn’t guarantee that.

PHILIP: That would really – [crosstalk]

CURTIS: I would guarantee that I would email Philip everyday and tell him to write. That’s it.

PHILIP: I appreciate the suggestion, Curtis. I’ll give you – I’ll forward travel details and try to get version 2 of The Positioning Manual out the door so that would really help.

CHUCK: He’s got about 9 questions for you before [inaudible].


PHILIP: I see your point.

CURTIS: And on one of them is I want a chair with that puffy pillow on it too.

PHILIP: [Chuckles]

CHUCK: Nice.

PHILIP: We can arrange that. I see your point. The default is try to focus on things that you control, not things that are out of your hands. That sure makes sense to me.

CURTIS: [Inaudible] pure development projects that you're adding unit testing. You can say “we’re going to get to X percent coverage” or “we’re going to cover the main business logic in your app”.

PHILIP: I would think there is some correlation between being able to price at a premium and the measure of success is something that really impacts the client’s business in a positive way.

CURTIS: If it’s something that is really valuable to them, then you can charge a premium. If it’s not valuable to them, then you can’t. If it’s not valuable to them, then they just want the quickest estimates they can and they want to move on.

So the whole being slowest part is part of my client vetting process. I only want to work on projects that someone is really invested in, but also often it gets me to the client where we say “hey, this is a problem so I actually – I rebuilt this one chunk of code. I already did so we’re behind”, and they say “well, I want it to be done right”.

PHILIP: Yup, that’s a good point. Really good qualification criteria. If it’s important enough to wait for it, it’s probably important.


CHUCK: Alright, anything else we should go into before we get to picks?

CURTIS: Don’t do RFPs.

CHUCK: [Laughter]

PHILIP: I’m sure those dove tails seamlessly with your process. [Chuckles]

CURTIS: Yeah. Don’t do. Yeah. No, not at all. Occasionally that’s not true. One client I've worked with who I’m still working with just now, they sent me an RFP to start, and I said “hey, I don’t do RFPs. They're wasting everyone’s time. Usually I have a preferred contractor. I didn’t help you write it so it’s not me. So, good luck. I don’t like wasting my time”.

And they came back and said “I've never done this web thing. Can you tell me more?” and I agreed. I looked through the RFP, I said “I’ll put 10 minutes to look through it” and just looked at it, and they had like – idea 1 was stupid, idea 2 is dumb, idea 3 was going to cost them an extra 20 grand, and idea 4 was also a bad idea, and I just said “here's why they are all bad ideas”. And he said “I bought estimates already on those”. They're still bad ideas. And I am working with him about his budget after short-circuiting the RFP process. That’s the only thing I send is “I don’t do RFPs. Here's the reasons”. And then if they never get back to me, they never get back to me. That’s fine.

CHUCK: Alright, well I know you wrote a book on this, or I think you wrote on this.

CURTIS: I did.

CHUCK: Where do people find it?

CURTIS: At curtismchale.ca. It’s under the Shop menu at the top. It’s called the Writing Proposals that Win Work.

CHUCK: Awesome. And if people have questions, can they tweet at you or email you or what?

CURTIS: They can. They can tweet at me or email me. I get a little slow on email and I will be slower coming up in the next few weeks as the baby comes, but I get to respond to all of those.

CHUCK: Alright. Well, let’s go ahead and get to picks. Maybe we should give one away. What do you want to do Curtis? You want to help come in on the episode?

CURTIS: Sure. Let’s have them comment on the episode and tell us the best proposal they’ve sent; why it’s valuable to their client. And after a week, I will go through and get someone a – someone will go through and we’ll give one of the copies of the book away.

CHUCK: Sounds good. Alright, let’s go ahead and do picks. Philip, do you have some picks for us?

PHILIP: I have a pick, a French comedy called Superchondriac. It was laugh-out-loud funny, but hypochondriac guy who is just hilarious and – that’s all I’ll say. It was a funny French romantic comedy type movie. Highly recommended.

CHUCK: Alright. I've got a pick. I just read a book – well, I’m almost done with the book. It’s called Start With Why by Simon Sinek, and it has been really terrific as far as helping me get an idea behind why I do what I do and what's driving it and what's important.

CURTIS: Can you share your “why” with us, Chuck?

CHUCK: I haven’t actually gotten – I have an hour and a half or two hours left in the audio book, and I haven’t gotten to the point where he actually talks about how to figure out your “why”. Though, I’m getting the feeling that it is somewhere around I feel like in a lot of ways, software is going to shape the way that the world moves ahead over the next several years, and I want to be able to provide the people the opportunities and the means to better shape the world. And I haven’t quite condensed that down to what I’m doing other than the podcast and how that’s going to affect the podcast and how in particular I’m going to shape things to make that work, but that’s kind of where I’m leaning. But like I said, I haven’t gotten to the part where he talks about how to find your “why” and make sure not to be something else.

CURTIS: You should also read The Art of Work by Jeff Goins, which does [inaudible]. He calls it your purpose or your story.

CHUCK: Yup. Ok.

CURTIS: Good stuff in there about how to figure it out as well.

CHUCK: Cool. What are your picks, Curtis?

CURTIS: I’m going to pick Baron Fig specifically their Squire pen, which I just got a while ago and is excellent, and their pocket notebooks because they're just slightly smaller than a standard pocket notebook and they – I haven’t lost one whereas I lose the field notes because they fall on my pockets sometimes when I’m riding my bike.

CHUCK: Cool. I have to check these out too. I always wind up losing mine as well.

Alright well, if people want to check out what you're up to or hire you or find your blog or anything like that, where should they go?

CURTIS: They should go to curtismchale.ca.

CHUCK: Alright. We’ll go ahead and wrap up the show. Thanks for coming Curtis.

CURTIS: Thanks for having me back.

CHUCK: Alright. We will catch you all next week.

[Bandwidth for this segment is provided by CacheFly, the world’s fastest CDN.  Deliver your content fast with CacheFly. Visit cachefly.com to learn more.]

Sign up for the Newsletter

Join our newsletter and get updates in your inbox. We won’t spam you and we respect your privacy.