Spolsky on RFPs

By Deane Barker on March 28, 2005

The Road to FogBugz 4.0: Part I: Joel Spolsky is running a series of articles about the development of FogBugz 4.0. I haven’t even read the first installment, but the fourth paragraph contains a hysterically damning description of the RFP process.

RFP stands for “Request for Proposal.” It’s a request by a large company for a custom proposal from a small company. The small company works on the 200 page laser-printed proposal like mad for three weeks and Fedexes it in great expense and at the last minute, where it gets put in the trash because the large company has their favorite vendor who takes them on a helicopter to Atlantic City on junkets involving blackjack and strippers, and who is going to get the contract no matter what, but someone in purchasing for some unexplained reason, maybe he’s bucking for a promotion is insisting that the proposal be opened up to “competitive bidding” and the small company has been chosen as a victim to write up a proposal that has no chance of being accepted just to make the process look a little bit less corrupt, and if you’re a small company, I would recommend that you don’t fall for it and don’t spend any time responding to RFPs unless it’s already understood that you’re going to get the contract.

This reminds of the Web design sales process, where a company essentially wants a functional specification of their new Web site before they sign a deal. They want you to analyze, plan, and specify every last detail of what the new site will do before they agree to anything.

You can easily spend a dozen hours preparing this for a complex site. And this can involve consultations with the prospect where you really help them define their plans — to draw some concept out of the haze that usually accompanies the “we need a new Web site” urge. I’ve found that the time spent is rarely ever a prospect trying to get me to understand what they want. Most of the time is me questioning and prodding the prospect so they can start defining their own plans.

There’s no concept that these things have a value all their own. They’re not just a freebie byproduct of the sales process. If you do them for free in the hopes of getting a deal, then you can always add them back into the deal when you land it as hours already spent. But if you don’t land it, well then you’re just out that time.

And they have the spec. You think they’ll toss that, or will they hang onto it to show it to the vendor they do hire next week?