There are at least a dozen other apps that help users create business proposals. It’s a pretty saturated market, with clear leaders and strong competition. So why did I create another?
Great question! Let me explain.
As a digital marketing consultant and small agency owner, I have to write a lot of proposals. Since I provide a variety of services including web design and development, SEO, content marketing, social media, and PPC, my proposals are often different depending on the project.
When I had to write my first proposal, I did what most people in my shoes would. I turned to Google and started looking for examples of proposals that I could use. After lots of learning, copying, and innovating, I put together a proposal in a Google doc I thought was pretty good. Then, each time I had to create a new proposal I would duplicate that one and make changes.
Overtime I continuously improved that original proposal until I got it to a level I was (and currently am) happy with. The problem was that I now had loads of proposals of all types and quality levels cluttering my Google Drive folder. So when I needed to write a new one, I had to make sure I was using the latest and best version. And of course, I had to then go into the document and make changes.
In the event that the project was exactly the same as a previous project, I’d only have to change the proposal title, client name, date,, and possibly the pricing. In most cases, even the projects that were similar to previous ones still had minor differences, either in deliverables or terms that I’d need to modify and update.
In a best-case scenario, creating a new proposal that needed minor updating could take an hour or two, from start to finish. Proposals that required a major or complete overhaul could take up an entire day or two to get it exactly right and ready for sending.
Once the proposal was done, I would usually save it as a PDF and email it to the client. I also would create a quick WordPress page with the proposal to share with the client, which would also take some quality time.
Beyond the actual time it took to do all this, it was the interruption of my normal workflow that really made the proposal process unbearable.
There had to be a better way.
A Potential Solution
I thought I had found a solution in an AppSumo deal that popped into my inbox. It was for proposal software by a then-new company, and it was $49 for a lifetime subscription—so I figured it was worth a shot.
I was excited, until I actually got into the software to try and create a proposal. It was pretty much like working in WordPress: choose a design template and then modify it. But I was already familiar with the WordPress template I always used, as opposed to this new interface and template that I now had to learn.
Then there were the limitations. I wasn’t allowed to make changes to the basic layout of the proposal template, so I was stuck using their idea of the perfect proposal—which unfortunately didn’t match my quality standards.
Also, the proposal content contained in the template—that was supposed to be proven to win huge six figure deals—didn’t seem to be relevant to the kinds of clients and projects I was pitching to.
Maybe their proposal templates were geared towards huge companies and multi six figure deals. But for the small to mid-sized companies, I was pitching projects that ranged from $10K to $60K; their templated format and content just didn’t make any sense.
My clients didn’t want images and graphs and mission statements and testimonials. They already knew who I was because I’d already had at least one or two meetings with them to build a relationship of trust. We had already discussed their needs and I had already explained to them what I could offer them. I had already given them a ballpark price to make sure we were on the same page regarding project cost.
They had already bought into the idea of working with me. The only things they needed to know now were the details of what I would do for them (deliverables), how long it would take (timeframe), and how much it would cost (pricing).
As Alan Weiss, the author of Million Dollar Proposals, says: “Proposals are not part of the sales process. They are part of the implementation process. The sale occurs before the proposal is ever written.”
So, after wasting some hours trying out this subpar proposal software that I now had a lifetime subscription to, I went back to my Google docs and WordPress template. Granted, for someone who doesn’t know how to easily throw up a WordPress page and make it look good, using the existing proposal software might be helpful. It wasn’t for me.
I also tried other online proposal software in my search for a better way. But they were all pretty much based on the same concept of providing WordPress-like templates and requiring that you then modify them. But I could already create my own WordPress pages for free, so what did I need them for? And like I said before, the content in these proposal template was not relevant to the type of clients and projects I was pitching.
But wait… there were other features that these software providers had:
#1: You could see how many times your proposal was opened and what pages they were looking at the most.
The reason they could give you that information was because the proposals lived online on their platform. So it was basically like adding Google Analytics to your proposal.
Sounds cool, but why wasn’t I excited by that? Well, for a couple of reasons:
- I already tracked the email in which I sent my proposals to clients (using mailtrack), so I could see when and how many times they opened the email and clicked on the link. I could also track an attached PDF copy of the proposal. I didn’t need to pay extra to do that.
- More importantly, it didn’t really matter to me how many times my proposal was opened if they didn’t sign and accept it. Once I sent my proposal, I would follow up whether I knew if they opened it or not. If the client didn’t accept my proposal within two weeks tops, I would still follow up until I got a definite answer, but for the most part I knew that the deal was dead. Being able to track your proposal and see when someone is reading it sounds really cool, but I don’t think it changes anything in the real world. But it’s still helpful to know that your proposal is being opened and read, and the easiest way to do that is to simply track the email you sent it in.
#2: Clients can sign your proposal online.
This is a tricky one because it sounds super sensible and in many cases it might very well work. The idea is to make it as easy as possible to get a client to sign and accept your proposal. And some clients will take advantage of that opportunity.
In my experience in dealing with manufacturing and other “old school” companies of that sort, the decision maker (usually the owner or CEO) is going to want to sign a piece of paper and have a hard copy of it. That means I would put my signature on a pdf copy of the proposal and they would print it out, sign it and mail it back with a check.
ONLY giving the client the option to sign your proposal online is not the way to go. You can give them the online option, but you also must give them the pen-on-paper one too.
The truth is that as nice as it is to get your client to sign your proposal, it means zilch until you’ve got their payment in your hands. And while I’m not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), I’m pretty certain that the payment made is at least as good, and probably even better, than a signature if you take it in front of a judge.
But let’s be serious here. When was the last time you heard of a small digital agency taking a client to court over a dispute related to a project? It’s not going to happen (other than in the rarest circumstances). Most disputes are going to be worked out through negotiation and possibly arbitration. But you certainly don’t want to be known around town as the consultant or agency that sues clients. That is definitely NOT helpful in getting more business.
Bottom line: Is the online signature option nice to have? Yes (which is why it’s included in Propfire). Is it required to get business? No.
#3: You can chat with clients within the platform
First of all, the high-level decision makers who are the ones signing my proposals are not chatting. Period. If they have questions they’ll most likely email or call me. In the even that a client likes using chat, they usually already have a favorite chat tool which they prefer, be it Hangouts, Slack, Messenger or Skype. I honestly don’t understand the purpose of a chat feature in a proposal app, other than it being a cool looking feature to display and charge for.
#4: Hundreds of Templates
I hate going to a restaurant that has a hundred items on the menu. Give me your best dishes to choose from. Don’t overwhelm and confuse me. Less is more.
What on earth are you going to do with hundreds of design templates other than waste a truck load of time trying to make sense of them and find one to actually use?
Unless you are selling creative services to large Fortune 500 companies, where the agencies have teams of designers working on creating stunningly designed proposals, you don’t need to worry about design. Yes, your proposal must look professional. But like I said earlier on, clients care about what you’re going to do, how long it’s going to take, and how much it will cost. Imagery and colors are not going to help you win an engagement.
For example, I once had to create a website development proposal for a large real estate company in NYC. The deal would be worth around $70K, which is no small potatoes for a small agency like mine. At the time I had just brought in a VP of Development who had spent twenty years working for large advertising agencies. When I walked through the proposal with him and put it together right there in front of him, he was pleasantly surprised. He said that at his old agencies they would have assigned a team of designers to spend a week or two creating a proposal. And here I was creating a proposal with no images (other than our company logo) and saving it as a PDF to email to them.
The client must have liked the proposal because we made it to the finals of the decision process. We did not end up winning the business, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the design of our proposal. The client decided to go with a much larger agency that had capabilities that we simply did not. And no, I have no idea how their proposal looked. 😅
#5: Team Collaboration
I can’t really speak to this one because I don’t have a team of people collaborating on a single proposal. Large agencies might need this feature. Small ones probably don’t. Consultants, freelancers, and most bootstrappers definitely don’t.
#6: Companies can pay you online
This sounds awesome—get paid immediately, right into your bank account. And if you’re charging a few hundred dollars for a small freelance gig, then it might work fine. But companies spending thousands of dollars on a service do not pay online by credit card. Companies pay by checks, signed by an owner or officer.
This might change in the future, but for the foreseeable future, companies paying substantial sums for services will only do so by check. That’s why I didn’t include online payments in Propfire. If things change, online payments can always be integrated down the road.
For now, if you are in a situation where your client wants to pay you online, just send them your Stripe or Paypal email (if you’re willing to eat the transaction fee).
A New Way to Create Proposals
I tested the vast majority of the proposal software available and I found that they were all almost exactly the same. They all offered design templates that would then need to be modified. The pre-written content they provided didn’t fit my way of doing business, even though they were supposed to be tailored to my services (web design, SEO, social media, digital marketing, development, etc.) The other features they offered weren’t really important or relevant to me.
I didn’t want a tool that basically mimicked what I could already do in WordPress, which was build pages with design templates. What I really wanted was a tool that would let me create a proposal so quickly and easily that I could even do it at a client meeting.
Just imagine having a great meeting with a client in which you have a total “meeting of the minds” regarding how you can do what he needs done. He’s ready to make a deal, but you first need to get him a proposal that clearly spells out what you’ll do, how long it will take, and how much it will cost.
But to create that proposal you need to get back to the office and start either going through your drive to find a similar proposal that you can then work over and modify, or start redesigning and modifying a design template. While you’re doing a whole list of other work related tasks pop up which you need to address. By the time you finally create the proposal and send it to the client, it’s almost a week later. And guess what? The client isn’t as hot on you as he was at the meeting. He’s moved on to other pressing matter, and now you have to win back his attention. Maybe you successfully do, or maybe you lost your chance at some new business.
Now imagine being able to create a proposal in just a few minutes right after your meeting and either showing the client your proposal on the spot or sending them a copy right then and there. Striking when the iron is hot.
That’s what I wanted. A tool that would let me create a proposal at a client meeting.
To do that it couldn’t be based on design templates, which are too cumbersome to be modified on the spot, especially when you’re sitting across the table from a client.
I imagined just clicking a few boxes to generate a proposal, that I could then easily modify with a basic text editor.
So, I started mapping out the basic workflow and screens of a tool that could do exactly that.
Making it happen
I’ll talk a lot more about how I, a non-developer, was able to develop Propfire pretty much on my own in another post. Rest assured, I had to go back to the drawing board several times before I finally came up with a workflow for Propfire that made sense.
But even when I had pretty much completed the tool development phase, I still had my doubts about whether people really needed a proposal tool. The fact that there were major competitors in the space helped calm me a bit (it proved that there was market for proposal software). But I had never paid to use any of them, and I had made this far by using Google Docs, so maybe everyone else could do the same?
Then I had the opportunity to work with another digital marketing consultant on a potential web design and digital marketing client she was trying to win. She specifically needed help in creating a proposal. She told me she had been working on one for a few days already, and wanted me to look it over and make changes, if needed.
Now before I continue the story, I need to tell you a bit more about this consultant. She had been in the business for at least ten years and had done her share of consulting work. But apparently, she acquired these jobs despite her proposals. When I looked at her Google doc proposal I was truly shocked. This smart and experienced professional had no idea how to organize or write a basic proposal.
That’s when I understood. Not everyone can create a good proposal. Just because someone is great at social media or sales or design or development does not mean that they are also good at creating an organized and effective proposal, without help.
I developed Propfire to help awesome professionals create winning proposals, closing more deals for them and making them more money.
I want business people to be able to create proposals without having to deal with design templates.
I want them to be able to create custom proposals faster and easier than they ever imagined, in a more intuitive way than the old fashioned design template modification process.
That’s why I created Propfire, even though the market is filled with competitors.
Because Propfire is different than all the competitors. And better. 👌
My journey from customer to developer was born from necessity: I had a problem that needed fixing, and no other competition was willing or able to fill that gap. Propfire became my solution, and has succeeded despite an over-crowded market.
The takeaway here is this: when searching for your market and your niche, nothing can replace raw need. Find a problem that’s widespread, try to just be better, and solve the pain points. Allow your personal strengths to shine, but don’t let it overshadow your product; just because you don’t have the problem as painfully as others doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of some research. And finally, don’t be afraid to do your research. I tested almost every tool on the market, and came up wanting. A successful idea is one that has been put through the proverbial ringer many, many times.
I hope my journey from a guy that wanted better proposal software to founder of Propfire has lent you some insight into how to validate your idea. If you want to see more of my work, check out my blog. Leave some comments below if you have any questions or stories you’d like to share with me and the IndieHackers community. I’d love to hear it!