The Development Source
When she started her computer training business in a corner of her kitchen in 1984, Trish McClelland’s goals was quite modest: in her first year of operation, she hoped to earn $30,000.
McClelland reached that goal in just eight weeks. Today, the owner of McClelland Enterprises in Alexandria, Virginia says she owes her success largely to government contracts. Although her first two proposals were rejected, she has since won millions of dollars in federal contracts for her computer training programs and she has fulfilled over 20 contracts over the last few years!
As McClelland quickly learned, writing winning government proposals is a profitable skill any entrepreneur can master. At stake are hundreds of billions of dollars in local, state, and federal contracts for goods and services ranging from engine lathes to asbestos removal.
Many small business owners are surprised to discover that these contracts don’t go solely to Fortune 500 companies. In fact, in a typical year $63 billion in government contracts went to small businesses like McClelland’s. Although your business probably won’t be building America’s first space station, you can win other lucrative government contracts by writing proposals — ones that convince government agencies you are the company best qualified to assist them.
Many businesses fail to get contracts,” says Rawley Soberano of Soberano Associates International in Rockville, Maryland, “because they don’t do their homework.” Soberano, who provides marketing services for minority-owned small businesses seeking government contracts, suggests you establish your own information system. If you want to bid on federal proposals, go online to read the Commerce Business Daily and federal agency Home Pages about RFPs (Requests for Proposals). Smart businesses should also ask funding officers in government agencies about guidelines, possible competitors, and their procurement forecasts for the fiscal year.
Soberano encourages his clients not to neglect local and state governments. They regularly announce contract opportunities and sponsor small business seminars to help you write proposals. Although huge federal contracts dominate the newspaper headlines, the combined value of state and local contracts exceeds the federal level. For many small businesses, it may be easier and less expensive to bid locally than nationally.
Once you have identified the appropriate government agencies, you should request any information they make available to prospective bidders and arrange a preapplication meeting with the official likely to handle your proposal. Find out what the agency considers a competitive proposal. And don’t be afraid to ask questions about an RFP because government officials rarely expect you to be an expert on bidding. Above all, be positive and cordial; you may be doing business with this person for years.
Soberano has a special message for minority-owned businesses. According to him, only a very small percentage of the estimated 1.5 million minority-owned businesses in America have been certified as 8(a) companies, a designation that can give you an advantage in bidding for local, state, and federal government contracts. Soberano recommends that any women or minorities owning businesses contact their district SBA office for advice. If you’re not certified as an 8(a) company, you may want to team up with one on a proposal as a subcontractor.
After you have thoroughly researched your opportunities and begun receiving RFPs, you must decide whether to respond. As Soberano colorfully puts it, “writing a proposal is like going to war. You must know your competition, your own resources, and be convinced that you can offer the government a superior product or service.”
Once you have carefully studied the RFP, you should ask yourself five basic questions:
If you can answer yes to these questions, you are ready to begin.
Many businesspeople are understandably intimidated by the thought of writing a government proposal. Marc Montefusco, who has worked for many multimedia companies, has spent most of his career as a writer, yet he admits that “writing a proposal is often expensive, time-consuming, and stressful.” When bidding on government RFPs, Montefusco says, a business must demonstrate to a panel of very critical reviewers that it is competent, dependable, very likely to complete the job, cost-efficient, and able to respond to all the contract requirements. Treating each proposal as a sales presentation is Montefusco’s suggested strategy for establishing your business’s credibility.
To make your strongest case, Montefusco recommends that you carefully study all the evaluation factors used to judge the proposals. The RFP contains extremely detailed information on how to structure your proposal and what points should be emphasized. You must follow it precisely to submit a competitive proposal.
To write a good proposal, organize yourself to win by doing the following:
Once you have studied the RFP, you should develop a detailed outline that leads to a smooth, logical presentation. Your business doesn’t have to hire a Shakespeare to write a competitive proposal, but you should incorporate the four “Cs” into your submission — it should be complete, clear, concise, and convincing.
Proposal formats vary widely, but all of them contain these elements:
Although you probably are exhausted by this stage, your work has just begun. Plan spending as much time revising your proposal as it took to complete the first draft. After your first draft is finished, you need to be compulsive about polishing your proposal with these rules in mind: be specific, use action verbs and the active voice, avoid sexist language, eliminate spelling and grammatical errors, convey a tone of quiet confidence, and prepare a realistic budget and schedule. While you’re revising, put yourself in the place of the individuals who will review your proposal and ask: have I been completely responsive to the requirements in the RFP?
After revising your proposal, have the Red Team review it carefully and provide candid comments. Make sure they understand that this is no time for courtesy or deference. Take the Red Team’s comments and use them to produce your final proposal.
Before you mail it, make sure you follow these steps:
The final step — finding out whether or not you’ve won the contract — can be either the most exhilarating. . . or the most depressing. If your business did not win the contract, you should request copies of any written evaluations or attend the competition’s debriefing session. By law, government agencies must provide information about all bidders who responded to an RFP, along with an analysis of your proposal’s strengths and weaknesses.
When Trish McClelland’s first two proposals were turned down, she realized the debriefing sessions could help her become a successful proposal writer. “Expect to lose before you win,” says McClelland. “The government provides you with a great opportunity to learn from your mistakes.” Today, she admits with a smile that being rejected twice benefited her business. In her second debriefing session, she discovered that the winning bid on a Navy proposal was one-third higher than her own. The next year, she bid 33% higher and still won the contract!
Like McClelland, many winners began with rejections. The best proposal writers never become discouraged, but learn from their experience and try again. Through hard work and persistence, it’s only a matter of time until your business starts submitting winning government proposals.