image for post - FT 114: The Surprisingly Short Proposal Format with Curtis McHale

FT 114: The Surprisingly Short Proposal Format with Curtis McHale

Have you ever spent a crazy amount of time writing a proposal for a prospective client, only to have them say no? Or even worst, go completely dark on you and not respond at all?

Curtis McHale shares his sales process and the approach that he takes to write super short and sweet proposals, only a page and a half long. And even better, he collaborates with the clients on these proposals, so that by the time the client receives the proposal, they have had a significant part in its creation and are completely on board with moving forward.

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Curtis shares with us:

Currently, Curtis is a developer for e-commerce sites and also coaches his peers, other freelancers. Of course, he didn't start there. He actually has a background in counselling, which certainly helps him in his coaching efforts now.

While taking a counselling degree, and discovering that it wasn't really what he enjoyed doing, he started making websites on the side. Well, actually, he was making websites during class.

“It was fun. It was interesting. I liked the challenge and I saw potential for living the life I wanted to live.”

It took a few more years to get there, but now he has the freedom to spend time with his family on a schedule that works for them. For example, on Mondays, he goes skiing with his children because he doesn't have to work late into the evenings.


Curtis maintains a blog and writes about 10 articles every month. If he finds that he has more to say about a topic, he turns it into a book, such as his book on proposals: Writing Proposals That Win Work.

Curtis was wining 90-95% of the proposals that he sent out, so it was no wonder that his friends would ask him for advice on their proposals. At first glance, Curtis would see a lot of things that were working against them and making it difficult for a potential client to accept it.

What makes a good proposal:

“A good proposal is short. I think one of the big detriments that people do with most proposals is that they rely on the proposal to do so much of their selling process.”'

Curtis's proposals are a page and a half, plus a pricing outline of 3 options, a contract and a payment.

And there is certainly some humor in the proposal as well, specifically in the contract. Modelled off of the Contract Killer, Curtis includes a clause:

“If we have a problem, we commit to having a maple syrup drink-off competition to solve it.”

(Yea, Curtis is Canadian, eh?)

It helps Curtis vet the clients a bit. If a potential client doesn't find it funny, and finds it unprofessional, Curtis knows that they aren't a good fit. In case you think no one would sign this, Curtis has worked with many businesses that have signed off, even a Fortune 500 who thought it was hilarious, but legally sound, so they signed it too.

Let's back up and talk about the proposal itself.

6 sections of a proposal:

  1. The Current Problem: What is the problem that the client has that you can fix? (Work with client upfront)
  2. Objectives: List out 2-3 high level tasks (e.g. New website, automated entry and cross-linking). The long, detailed list is a separate document. (Work with client upfront)
  3. Gaging Success: This is where you put in the metrics of how you and the client know that the project is a success. Keep it realistic. (Work with client upfront)
  4. Options: Option 1 is the smallest scope that will solve the problem. Option 2 solves the problem and includes some of the things the client wanted to include, but was unsure if they would fit. Option 3 does all the previous stuff plus solutions that Curtis thinks would benefit the client even more. (Client sees after proposal is delivered)
  5. Timeline: Each option has its own timeline. Generally Option 2 takes longer than Option 1 and Option 3 takes longer than Option 2. (Client sees after proposal is delivered)
  6. Accountabilities: What is the client responsible for? What are you responsible for? Curtis also includes: We agree that we will listen to what is best for the user, not what the client might prefer. (Work with client upfront)

It took a while for Curtis to develop this proposal format. Especially the part about digging into the problem. When he started out, Curtis didn't understand of even ask about the problem. This is a formula for unhappy clients at the end of the project.

“They had some problem, but they just presented some solution to me and I just implemented it. I didn't really understand the problem.”

Curtis had unhappy clients after the projects were over. When he dug into it a bit, he found out that the solution that the client had wanted, and that he had implemented, wasn't the right solution to the problem they had. So Curtis changed his strategy and started asking about the problem before the project began.

“Understanding what their real problem is helps you craft the site they need.”

Now, before you can even talk to Curtis about a project, you have to answer 9 questions around the problem that you have (what's the problem, why is it the most important problem, who are the decision makers, what is your budget, what is your timeline, etc.).

“You don't just walk in and say, 'Hey, Doctor. Here is my problem.' And they say, 'OK,' and write you a prescription and you walk away. At least, not a good one. They ask you more questions and do some diagnosis first.”

As a patient, you might have done some research on Dr. Google, and think you've found the solution. But, you are not a a doctor. You are not an expert. As the freelancer, you are the expert. You have to probe the client to find out the problem and then use your expertise to suggest and implement the solution.


“Ask more questions. Talk less.”

You can start simply by asking 'Why?' Why does the client think they need a particular solution? What are they selling? Is there another solution that might be better?

Being an expert means that you have expert language. Curtis is a developer and sometimes veers off into developer lingo. But he tells his clients up front:

“I'm totally going to talk like a nerd. And when I do, just start laughing at me, tell me, and I will explain it.”

Have a conversation with the client. So few people do. Most people won't take the time to walk through the problem and the optional solutions. They will take the first solution the client suggests and start the next day, competing as a commodity for how cheaply and quickly they can do it.

Have the confidence to say that you don't know if that solution is right, that you have to look into it more, not start implementing without investigating. Have the confidence to slow down.


Keeping the proposal short has a lot to do with keeping the objectives at a high level.

“99% of the time, your clients don't care. They want the end result.”

The details of how you solve the problem are not very important to the client. If there are more details and specifications that the client wants, then you can make a separate document for the client to write them out. But don't get caught up on this. Even if the client gets stuck on whether or not having a “remember my login” feature on the login page is included in the project.

“If you are pricing properly, it doesn't matter.”

By pricing properly, Curtis means that you should price based on value. If you are getting down to the nitty gritty, then the client is not convinced that you are going to carry through on the ultimate vision because you don't understand it.

“For me, I think it comes down to trust.”

Again, you are the expert. The client should trust you to figure out how to implement the objective so all you write in the proposal is “streamline the process for inputing content.”


Before Curtis writes a word of the proposal, he talks to the prospective clients, once or twice, in person, over video, or over the phone. The idea is to get them to agree to all the pricing and understand the solution you are proposing before they have a proposal in front of them.

One of the first questions that Curtis asks a prospect is, “What is your budget?”

Some people come back and say they don't know because they simply don't understand how much something should cost in his industry, websites. He replies with: What sounds expensive to you? $3,000, $10,000, $15,000, $20,000, or $50,000? Normally, they respond with an upper limit that if exceeded, they won't go on with the project.

Once you have the budget, Curtis wants to see a minimum of 3x return on investment (10x is the goal) within the next 12 months. If he doesn't see this, he questions why they are doing the project. For example, if he sees and ROI 10x and the client will make $100,000, then he will charge $10,000.

An ROI can also be savings rather than earnings. So implementing some solution might mean that the client doesn't need to hire another employee and they save $60,000 a year.

Intangible value is a bit more difficult. For example, automating a podcast doesn't make money, but it saves time so the client can do something else that makes money or not work and hang out with her kids instead.

Figuring out what an ROI might be is generally a guess. You get better at guessing with experience, but it is always a risk.

Here's an example that Curits will walk through with his prospective client:

Increasing the cost of a membership site from $5 to $14 and improving branding etc. If they can get about a third of the current membership to convert, they break even. More than that, they make money. Plus they are setting themselves up for higher future sales. It's a no brainer.

If you can, talk in person. If you can't talk in person, talk on video chat. If you can't do video, do phone. Don't have these conversations over email.

“You want them to be saying, 'Yea, that's really good. Yes, I agree with that.' Or, 'That doesn't sound right to me.' And you work it out together. By the time you are sending out a proposal, they are seeing nothing that they haven't said yes to at some point.”

When they see the numbers on the proposal later, they aren't blindsided. They know where the numbers come from, based on the expected return on investment that you already discussed with them.

So let's get to options. The basic idea of options is price anchoring. There is a low, middle, and high option. Most people choose the middle price as being economical and providing sufficient value.

Options also shift the mindset of the customer. Say the client is considering 3 proposals. Your two competitors each list only one all-or-nothing price, but you list 3 prices with customized options that go under, fit, or exceed the budget. The client now has 5 options, and you are 3 of them. The client doesn't think “do I work with you or not?”, they think “which option do I choose?”

Option 1 is usually within their budget and includes a base solution to get the client what they want.

A note here: Don't make option 1 something so basic that it really doesn't give the client what they want just so you do something within their budget. For example, if option 1 is to make a new website but what the client really needs is a new website with e-commerce functionality, but adding e-commerce is out of the budget, then option 1 really doesn't count for the client. This scenario simply means that the solution they want cannot be obtained in the client's budget. They either have to increase the budget or they have to go somewhere else. Don't include these “options” because they do not provide value to the client.

Option 2 may be within the budget or a bit above and gives what the client wants plus some of the client's “dream” objectives.

Option 3 is usually priced a bit above the budget because it contains additional aspects to the project and provides more value and solves the underlying issues that are causing the symptoms, the problems.

Working with the client to write a proposal:

Curtis writes the first draft on Google Docs based on what he and the client have discussed. If he has questions, he puts them in, such as “Did I miss the mark here? Am I making sense?” Not “Does this make sense?” since that implies that they might not get it. He puts the problem on himself.

They can edit the whole thing. They make comments and work back and forth. This way, he is using their language because they are helping to write it so it sounds exactly how they would describe the problem and what they want.

Usually, there is another call involved to work out more details and discuss the main points of the project and which pricing options the points would fit into.

“When we work on it together, we are both making sure that what we think we said and what we actually put down is something that the other person understands.”

Of course, you are still going to miss the mark a bit, but discussing the proposal together will help everyone stay on the same page.

When to say “yes” to a client:

The problem has to be interesting and something that Curtis can do. If you don't like a certain type of work, decline and refer it.

Curtis also wants to make sure he gets along with the client. Did they laugh together during the meeting? Did the client understand his dry sense of humour? Was the client annoyed if his kid accidentally walked in during a call? Did he enjoy the conversation and hanging out with them?

Curtis also works on his timeline, not the client's. If the client says that their deadline is next week to start a project, and Curtis knows that he won't get to it for another week, because it takes time to work with the client to figure out the problem and potential solutions and what works for them, then he tells them to wait. If they insist on the deadline, Curtis tells them:

“I have to back out if I want to do my job well... There is no way for me to serve you well. And if I can't serve you well, then I'm not doing it.”

Often, the client will waive the deadline and wait for his proposal in two weeks. No problem.

The client waits because Curtis has already set the expectation that he is not the cheapest solution. He asks them why they don't do the project in-house or go over seas. They wait because they think that Curtis is the best option for them, because he has taken the time to talk to them, understand their pains, and walk through solutions.

If the client chooses someone else in the mean time, it doesn't matter. There are lots of other clients out there.

A special note about RFPs. Curtis doesn't take them. He has a pre-written response informing the potential client that he doesn't take them because there is generally a preferred contractor. Because Curtis didn't help them write the RFP, he is not the preferred contractor. He declines to put time into this because he is likely to lose them.

That tends to be the end of the conversation. Sometimes, he receives emails back calling him a terrible person who doesn't know how to run a business, and he responds with, “Good luck with your project. Have a wonderful day.”

Once in a while, they reach out and say that they don't really have a preferred contractor and need help, so they talk.

“It's willing to say no and being willing to be far enough up the chain.”

Saying no can open up doors. A lot of the “problems” aren't really problems.

Common mistakes with proposals:

  • Letting the proposal do the selling.
  • Not vetting the clients. If the client doesn't answer the 9 questions about the problem, budget, etc., Curtis doesn't send a proposal. If he gets off the phone and didn't enjoy the conversation, he doesn't send a proposal. If he thinks they might be a good option for someone else, he refers them. If he thinks they are just going to be a bad client no matter what, he says that everyone he knows is busy.
  • Be willing to say “no”.


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