Before I begin – I certainly don’t mind giving you a written estimate for your possible project. Now that that’s out of the way, I want to talk about why I don’t like RFPs.
After ten years of being the vendor for online services, I have come to hate the RFP. I think they are evil, and not even a necessary evil. Because I dance with the devil, I have written a lot of RFPs as a technology consultant, and some of the RFPs out there are mine (RFP language floats around the nonprofit technology community) and indeed, I have been bitten in the butt by my own terrible RFP text in the form of new RFPs that come into our firstname.lastname@example.org box.
I am not alone in my loathing and other firms have also bravely published their thoughts on this. My reasons are similar, but because you, dear reader, might be a prospective client, I’m going to tell you my very personal thoughts on this often touchy issue.
1. When I look back on our most successful and mutually enjoyable projects with our clients – few of them were relationships that started with an RFP. The successful projects that did start with an RFP sent to info-at-jacksonriver.com had a very specific second beginning: me calling the person saying, “I don’t want to respond to your RFP”. Now, I will actually write a proposal if I think it’s the next best step to further exploring if we should work together. I know sometimes prospective clients need something to pass up the food chain to the infamous “higher ups” in the organization. (Side note to other vendors: don’t take a project without making sure you like these “higher ups”.) I know that organizations need something in writing that is more substantial than a price estimate to print out and flip through in your meetings, so I will, eventually, write a proposal.
2. I can answer all your questions with a well done proposal and look good on paper, but when we meet we might not have that spark. Like in online dating, Jackson River can probably present itself in a way that looks good for you. This would be information that is largely available on our website so it annoys me that I’ve got to package it up with bow and make it into a PDF. But aside from that, it doesn’t do a great job of determining if we are actually a good fit for your project. We can look great on paper, but great projects start with that special spark where we both really like each other and have a strong hunch that we can co-create a fabulous and trusting relationship.
3. You don’t know enough about what you want or need anyway. So in order to really do a good job of writing a proposal, I have to do a deep dive into your requirements. Let me say this is in fact my favorite part of my job. I love meeting new organizations and talking about technology. Love it. I could do it all day long. (In fact, since it's my job, I often do it all day long). Nine times out of ten, I uncover a lot of additional or different things that are really going on in your organizations’ technology ecosystem than you say you need in your RFP. So I instantly become an apple, and my proposal comes out really different than the other oranges that sent you proposals. This is hard to explain to said “higher ups”. I want to meet the higher-ups before I sign a contract anyway, so generally by the time our legal relationship starts this is cleared up, but you – and me – have had to go thru a lot of dancing. This dancing is actually a “discovery” project that I do for you for free.
4. I can’t give you a very accurate price estimate anyway. Some companies who build enterprise level websites require a discovery period before it’s possible to provide an accurate estimate. We call this “paid discovery” which is when prospective clients are open, honest and aware that there are a bunch of things they don’t know yet, and they trust us to help figure it out. I am fully aware that it’s hard to get budget approved for a little bite of your project when the rest of it is a huge unknown. Some Drupal shops always do a discovery then give a price after, and honestly, that’s the right way to do it. I have huge respect for them, and I think one day we might get there. Now, I will give you a price, with lots and lots of caveats and conditions, but a whole lot of transparency into the process. Remember most shops can’t provide a very good price for a website without designs, or at least wireframes. Instead, we give you a pricing spreadsheet. If you know drupal, you’ll see we count how many content types, how many views, blah blah. We have no idea what that will be like when your site design is done, after it has gone through all the revisions.
5. I call your references before I respond to your RFP. It’s true. If we get an RFP and we think we want to pursue it, I will ask around in my network and try to figure out what kind of client you will be. I'll talk to other vendors you've used, your fundraising consultants, maybe even other employees in your organization - all to learn more about you before we decide what to do.
Phew. So despite all this, if you are a prospective client, feel free to send us your RFP anyway. I will always call you back, crossing my fingers that there's that spark.