I was so excited about starting my own freelancing and consulting business. As recommended by the Small Business Administration (SBA), I had written my business plan, determined the legal structure, registered my trade name, applied for the tax ID number, and registered for state taxes for my new startup. I even designed and ordered some stylish business cards from Vista Print. I thought that I was ready to secure my first contract until I went to government agency for a pre-bid conference. The contract: write a marketing plan for a new health campaign. In order to bid on it, however, I was told that I needed to submit a response to the RFP. Wait! What’s a RFP?
Request for Proposal
Sure, I had heard of a request for proposal or RFP while working for other businesses. But it was from the folks in the procurement or fiscal departments who were always complaining about writing one. According to TechSoup Global, a non-profit public library, a RFP is a document that describes a project’s needs and asks for proposed solutions from qualified vendors. A good RFP, says TechSoup Global, can help a company ensure it has good vendors and the project is completed as planned.
I had two weeks to submit the response to the RFP. It was the only way to bid on the marketing plan and secure the contract. Needless to say, I had some more research to do.
For the next couple of days, I was bombarding the government agency’s procurement specialist with questions about the RFP. For one thing, I started my business to be creative. And the RFP was over 200 pages long. Just reading and understanding it became a real challenge. But I needed specific details about what they were looking for in a “good vendor”. I also wanted to know the names of PR firms that they had worked with in the past. I figured it what give me a good idea of what qualified as a “good vendor”.
According to the Canadian Bar Association, the trouble with RFPs is that there are usually many other firms replying, which competition makes it crucial to differentiate yourself and demonstrate clearly that you can meet the client’s needs. You can’t do this successfully, the Canadian Bar Association added, without certain information and some of this information is often missing from the original RFP.
“Responding to an RFP is a time-consuming process,” ClientFocus founder Sara Holtz told the Canadian Bar Association. “Before you invest that time, make sure that you have a good chance of winning by discovering if it is an open competition, what the client is really looking for, and what it will take to make you and your firm stand out.”
By the time that I had asked those critical questions and researched how-to write the response, I had run out of time. And I wasn’t able to bid on the contract. I was devastated.
Writing a RFP
I spent the next couple of weeks online reading a bunch of articles on how-to write a response to a RFP. One of the best resources that I discovered was the National Federation of Independent Business, an association that offers its 350,000 members advocacy and advice. On their website, I found an article on the “5 Simple Steps to a Successful RFP Response”.
"Government business is really great," RFP expert and consultant Michael Asner told the National Federation of Independent Business. “But obtaining it can be a complex and even intimidating task for vendors, both large and small.”
Asner added that it’s because there’s a learning curve when it comes to successfully responding to a RFP, which is a formal discipline, an acknowledged skill set. As a result, many small businesses hire someone whose sole responsible is to write responses to RFPs. I didn’t have that luxury. What I did have was the ability to do good research.
So I checked back in with the SBA where I found a number of articles, sample templates, FAQs, and discussion boards on their website about how-to write a response to a RFP. In addition, I attended a few SBA-sponsored workshops and trainings on the subject. While I am still not an expert, I learned from a little trial and a lot of errors just like every other new small business owner. I eventually landed my first contract a few months later.
So if you are currently thinking about starting or have already started a new business, make sure that you research the dreaded RFP first. You can do it. As a matter of fact, I have already done most of the research for you. So check out the references below. In the end, it’s another opportunity to prove to a potential employer that you are the best at what you do. Isn’t that why you started your business in the first place? That’s why I started mine.