Yesterday I found a flyer on my front door.
I’ve been staring at a project in my backyard for a few weeks. Staring hasn’t gotten it done. So I figured I’d see what it would cost to have these guys do it.
I called them. 10 minutes later the guy came by. He was down the street on another job. We walked out back. I told him what I needed done. He looked around for 20 seconds and said $300. I said “deal.”
That’s it. No proposal. No “I’ll get back to you tomorrow”. No “Let me see how much the materials will cost and I’ll drop an estimate in your mailbox next week.”
Just $300. Deal. When can you start? Wednesday. How long will it take? A few hours for a few guys.
He knows his business. I know what my time is worth. End of transaction. It was so damn refreshing.
I know everything can’t be done like this, but often it seems like we’ve slid down a path of formality with so many things that really don’t need it. Extensive contracts, delays, red tape, precise cost estimates based on precise amounts of materials, “let me think about it and I’ll get back to you,” etc. Essential? Sometimes yes, but most of the time probably not.
I remember the tail end of our time as a web design company. When we started we did 20 page proposals. I remember pulling all nighters getting a proposal ready. Pages and pages of stuff. What a waste of time.
Towards the end we were doing one page proposals. It didn’t seem to matter. We were going to get the job or we weren’t. Over six years I never saw a connection between length and detail of proposal and winning a job.
Same thing with contracts. Sometime we hire an outside contractor or specialist to give us a hand on a project. Our contractor agreement used to be 8 pages long. Lawyers wrote it. Our current contractor agreement is one page long. I wrote it then showed it to our lawyers. They said it was fine. Done.
I know it seems like a stretch to compare lessons from a door flyer for a small landscaping job to 10 page legal contracts for 3 month long expensive web design projects. But maybe it isn’t.
Justin Ahrenson 05 Jun 09
Amen to this – well said.
Steveon 05 Jun 09
I love stuff like that. Don’t make things difficult for difficulty’s sake. Reminds me of comedian Mitch Hedberg’s joke about buying a donut only to be handed a receipt. His reply, “I don’t need a receipt for a donut, I’ll just give you the money, you give me the donut. End of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I can’t even imagine the scenario where I’d have to prove that I bought a donut.”
Brian Burridgeon 05 Jun 09
I very much agree with you Jason. In many industries it may require more creativity to accomplish, but those business that make it this simple are the ones that will get ahead.
As a consumer, I’m much more likely to part with my cash quickly, if I get a straightforward answer on the price and a commitment for the work to be started and completed soon.
If the business has to “get back to me”, or I have to chase them down, pester them for the quote, go back and forth on details and terms, then it becomes a complete waste of my time and I’ll look elsewhere.
Joann Sondyon 05 Jun 09
Who and why did doing business have to so complicated? I remember when I worked at corporate, our proposals weight ~ 10lbs! You think we were in business to give make FedEx rich.
As a solo biz owner, I do my best to keep it simple and remove complications to communication & workflow while establishing personal boundaries about my schedule.
Great post… I’m sure the landscaping crew will do a great job.
Brandon Durhamon 05 Jun 09
I cannot explain how much I hate doing proposals for projects. Completely useless – even with the largest jobs I’ve worked on. 99.9% of the time they’re just looking for the cost and the rest is fluff. How long will it take and how much will it cost? Done. That’s going to be my next proposal. All that extra crap about project goals, objectives, etc. is pointless.
It’s easy to get caught up in this stuff. Many people in business are stuck in tradition and don’t consider another way. It’s very, very refreshing to hear a successful business owner reiterate what I already believe. Makes me feel less alone.
Scott Townsendon 05 Jun 09
I’m going to make sure my son sees this.
Ryan Burrellon 05 Jun 09
Shortness doesn’t equal efficiency, just like length doesn’t equal thoroughness – I think that’s your point. We have contracts and proposals so no one is confused on what they’re getting, or what they’re doing. They need to be there; I don’t think anyone could argue that. But what they don’t need to be, is pages of fluff and BS.
They key phrase in what Jason wrote is “He knows his business.” Know your craft, and you can communicate what you need to the client with a minimum of effort, and everyone is happy.
K. Michael Alexanderon 05 Jun 09
Keepin’ it simple. So true. :) Well put.
Martinon 05 Jun 09
It’s annoying when sites don’t clearly display the price of their services. Especially b2b services, take for example the bitgravity site, where does it actually say what their service costs?
Russ Corkon 05 Jun 09
Be sure to let us know how the work project comes out… Not trying to be cynical, just realistic about where all the paperwork BS stems from…
Paul Hannayon 05 Jun 09
This is a cracking ‘one page proposal’ guide…
I use it. It rocks!
Andrew Mittonon 05 Jun 09
Perfect! And so true. A short chat about the basic terms (time, cost, and scope); mutual trust; and, communication – that’s about all that is needed in most cases. Lawyers wont tell you this (I know, I’m one of them) because either: (a) they’re straight out of law school and are too steeped in “thinking like a lawyer” rather than as a human being; or (b) too concerned about professional malpractice.
Bruno Figueiredoon 05 Jun 09
@Paul 112 pages to explain how to put it all in one page? Ironic isn’t it?
Nateon 05 Jun 09
@steve thanks for the Mitch Hedberg mention, nice to remember that and laugh out loud. just 5 minutes ago i ordered a tea at argo tea and had just the same experience. i get a receipt handed to me for a drink in a cup, i don’t even look at the words on it, i just wad it up and drop it in the trash on my way to the pickup counter. Probably time to start making them much more optional (ala chipotle) or Dustin Curtis wants to make them into something you might actually want to collect (here he redesigns a Starbucks receipt into something pretty):
Kyle Jacobsonon 05 Jun 09
It would be great to see that one-page contractor contract if you still have a copy somewhere and are willing to share!
Markon 05 Jun 09
Many a senior citizen has been bilked by contractors providing “their word” in an oral contract. So, as someone mentioned above, a one-pager with a few details (such as bonding/licensing, cost, finish date) might be a necessary evil for, say, a multi-thousand-dollar deck add-on or similar project. For the smaller stuff, I say Amen as well to a quick verbal agreement. So, a bit of measured caution + Jason’s basic idea here and you’re good to go.
Happyon 05 Jun 09
JF: Don’t forget to watch your hydrangea bushes this time.
gvbon 05 Jun 09
On a similar note, I love the anecdote of Charles Proteus Steinmetz as told by Charles M. Vest, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during commencement on June 4th, 1999.
In the early years of this century, Steinmetz was brought to General Electric’s facilities in Schenectady, New York. GE had encountered a performance problem with one of their huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant – not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now.
Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period, he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem.
After he departed, GE’s engineers found a large “X” marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There also was a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.
And indeed it did.
Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard of answer that his fee was $1000.
Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemized invoice.
They soon received it. It included two items:
Marking chalk “X” on side of generator….............................$1.00
Knowing where to mark chalk “X”....................................$999.00
– - – - -
anonon 05 Jun 09
This post made me unsubscribe. Please think intensively before you post.
Vaibhav Domkundwaron 06 Jun 09
Couldn’t agree with you more. Especially the part about proposal length affecting the outcome of an opportunity. I have seen and been through the exact same experience.
Another thing that is similar is company and product brochures. A lot of times after a sales call, the prospect says “can you send me more information” and sending a generic datasheet, in my mind, is completely inappropriate as every conversation is different and need a personalized follow-up. So we do two things (1) Point them to the website which has all the details (2) write bullets points in the email to cover what was discussed. And we write it in a way that it can be forwarded around without loosing context. Way simpler, faster and more relevant.
Vaibhav Domkundwaron 06 Jun 09
Jason: It would be awesome if you open sourced the 1 page contractor contract.
Ross Hillon 06 Jun 09
Refreshing. I love this.
Michael Clarkon 06 Jun 09
I know this is off message, but why did you support someone that trespassed on your property to leave their stuff attached to your property? If they did this via email, it’s called spam.
Ethan Gundersonon 06 Jun 09
Any chance of releasing your one page proposals and contracts? That would be pretty cool. I know my current ones are on the verbose side.
Nathan L. Wallson 06 Jun 09
@Michael Clark: Perhaps, but it wins because it’s relevant.
Jeff Goinson 06 Jun 09
Great blog—I agree. We (meaning “I”) have unnecessarily complicated certain processes. Writing project proposal or strategic plans have become a means of procrastination instead of just getting started on the work. Of course, we all need to plan, to estimate, to strategize, but it doesn’t need to be a piece of art. Thanks for keeping it simple.
Markon 06 Jun 09
I agree with your sentiment that some things are way more complex than they need be, but I don’t buy your example. You’re need didn’t require anything more than the simple transaction that took place. Similar, you don’t order a hamburger from McDonalds with the idea that you can substitute the iceberg lettuce for red lettuce.
Had your landscaping issue been causing your home to flood every time it rained, would you have accepted that same 20 second scan followed by a price quote off the top of his head?
I would hope not.
Markon 06 Jun 09
On the other side of the coin, I think designers tend to over complicate things with the need for RFPs and fancy, multipage contracts and whatnot in an effort to add legitimacy to their image. There just seems to be so much of the “I’d like a gourmet meal” desire with the budget of a .99 cent cheeseburger going around in the design world. Even on the corporate level, some design needs are after thoughts which are thrown the spare change of huge titan budgets.
Funny video which gets to what I’m speaking of, “The Client / Vendor Relationship in the Real World”
Steve Wanlesson 06 Jun 09
Great post. Kudos.
Deanon 06 Jun 09
All of your situations, from the garden to the contract, have the same problem – what should the parties do when something happens that wasn’t anticipated by one, other or both of the parties. A contract says X will do this for Y by Z – everything else largely covers what will happen in certain situations – leave that out and your only recourse is to sue for breach of contract unless you can come to some agreement.
As an aside, Jason would be mad to open source his one page contract – no matter what disclaimers he put on it, he still might be pulled into someone else’s legal dispute. Don’t do it.
Note: I am not a lawyer.
Derek Boboon 06 Jun 09
I totally agree. My philosophy on this stuff is pretty simple. If I can’t look you in the eye and shake your hand and feel comfortable with the business transaction, then I shouldn’t be doing business with you.
I’ve had a couple folks who were a little slow to pay but I’ve never been stiffed on a job. The types of clients I do work with often find it refreshing and appreciate the mutual respect.
Juleson 06 Jun 09
Mutual respect only gets you so far. One of our freelancers started working on a job before the contract was signed. A few weeks later the contract was signed with some significant changes making a lot of his invested time useless. The relationship turned sour quickly, and we found outselves having to expand our standard contract with a few lines – it’s hardly 10 pages yet, though.
Amion 06 Jun 09
Yes, the work seems easy but difficult to manage the time, which they make very simple with their competent business service.
Noelon 06 Jun 09
There’s a big risk in doing these quick verbal agreements. Like, when the guy says he’s finished the work, but it’s not what you thought you agreed to, or suddenly there are a lot of extra charges and so on.
After having renovated my house and had a lot of outside work done like this, I have what we agreed upon in writing to avoid problems with what each party ‘thought’ the agreements was.
Anonymous Cowardon 06 Jun 09
To the people who think “getting it in writing” is your savour, how many of you have actually gone legal on bad contractors and recovered money? There’s a huge difference between “having it in writing” and “doing something about it.” Writing is not comfort unless you are prepared to sue. Are you really going to sue a house painter? Are you really going to sue a plumber? Really?
PeterBon 06 Jun 09
What we are talking about here is what is known as the transaction cost of doing business with a supplier. The point JF is trying to make is that the txn cost needs to be reduced as much as possible and in proportion to the service/goods being provided. From my point of view this is the value of building a strong relationship with someone or company you trust and have had a good track record. The txn cost goes way down…maybe the reason for the one page proposals:)
Jim Barrowson 06 Jun 09
Noel, and others are falling victim to analysis paralysis, they imagine everything that might go wrong, and try to plan for it. A contract, and complicated sales process won’t prevent either side from intentionally or accidentally misunderstanding what needs to be done. Einstein said “It should be as simple as possible, and no simpler.” This coming from the guy who came up with E=Mc^2. I think it works folks. Instead of imagining what can go wrong, imagine what can go right.
GeeIWonderon 06 Jun 09
Job done yet?
Michelle Jayeson 06 Jun 09
It’s amazing how people have the need to say in a hundred words what could probably be said in ten. Long documents always appear to be more important. I enjoyed your article and agree with your comments. Lets keep things simple.
tyler rooneyon 06 Jun 09
“He knows his business. I know what my time is worth. End of transaction”
Realizing how much your time is worth is such an eye opening experience. And I feel like I never would have realized it without switching from a full-time job to contract work.
Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational has some great examples and studies related to this stuff in the chapters on pricing and procrastination. I really was the guy who would analyze a $300 digital camera for 3 months before buying one not realizing that I had just lost 3 months of actually using a camera.
Brian Andersenon 07 Jun 09
I’ve recently had to write a 4-page project management proposal – detailing how we would manage the project and the roles of each individual.
I was within inches of throwing up, but I think at the end its a matter of trust. If you’re working with people that trust you, paper doesn’t make a difference. In our case the client relationship had gone sour, and we all had to fall back on contracts, detailed description and long-winded assurances to make something happen. Its worth nothing that it helped bridge a gap to where we could actually prove worthy of trust again.
DL Reddenon 07 Jun 09
Jason, It would be fantastic to post your 1 page contract. We had a lawyer “whip” one up for us and it was 5 or 6 pages long and we thought that was pretty condensed.
Ryan Yockeyon 07 Jun 09
A saying I was taught which relates in a sense to this is ‘Reduce the barrier of entry’. Its something I try to follow in most every aspect of my work. If you can reduce the time it takes to get to the job itself and get things done right, then do it.
Anonymous Cowardon 07 Jun 09
Williamon 07 Jun 09
I once heard Dr. Gary Blank speak about “how to do consulting” and his idea of a proposal was to get the person wanting to employ you to say what they wanted, then repeat it right back to them. The written proposal would be the exact same wording.
Hirer: ” I want you to build me X Y and Z” Consultant: “I will build you X Y and Z” Proposal: “Consultant A will build Hirer B, X Y and Z”.
Simple and straightforward.
anonon 07 Jun 09
Doesn’t this sort of contradict the “resumes vs cover letters” posting to this blog? That crazy-impressive guy with the insane HTML cover letter—that was basically the all-nighter proposal. And because it was so awesome, he got the job. Without that “proposal”, he’d be just another schmuck in the wastebasket. Please discuss!
David Barneson 07 Jun 09
For the most part proposals get long because they go into detail on the solution. A proposal isn’t really about the details of the solution. It’s about:
- Showing that both sides agree on the problem that they’re going to solve - Demonstrating that the supplier has the right skills to solve it - Specifying a price
William, I agree with you—state what the client wants in the same words, and then promise that you’ll do it. Going into more detail is only necessary to control scope and scale if the problem is open ended.
Steven Aitchisonon 07 Jun 09
So true. I used to hate dealing with people who would take a few weeks to make their decision when I had spent around days preparing a proposal. Bottom line, I stopped dealing with them and published my rates on the web, nothing fancy just a straightforward price and when they called to meet I informed them there was no need to meet as everything could be done via email and phone.
KarenGon 08 Jun 09
Great point. The better your product solves the client’s need, the less that words are needed to justify, convince or argue the point. The client will either “see it” for himself or not. Besides, show some compassion…. who wants to read all that proposal drivel anyway!
[bo]on 08 Jun 09
Regarding the last paragraph – yes, it is a stretch. The last sentence should be removed. Otherwise interesting post, but I cannot imagine having a proposal for my backyard, anyways…
Martinon 08 Jun 09
What you haven’t noticed is that I’m dropping flyers in the area that I am busy working in at the time. 90% of my customers stemming from a flyer will phone immediately, and you need to be available to make the deal on just as short notice. Being busy “down the street on another job” becomes rather convenient, and it gives you confidence that I’m already working for one of your neighbors…
Tim Riceon 08 Jun 09
I would agree about proposals. Businesses generally don’t have time to sift through a ton of 10-page proposals for the same reason they don’t have time to read 10-page resumes. If they want to know more about you, they can visit your website. I don’t know that I agree on contracts though. One of the companies I worked with always had a problem with clients trying to sneak things in, or change things mid-stream and our lack of clarity in our contracts allowed for this. There are some times where you can get away with a simple contract (5 page site, trusted repeat client), but on larger, more detailed projects it is more of a necessity. In the end, they don’t have to read the whole thing, but it sure makes things easier down the road.
Ari Rochmannon 08 Jun 09
I always favor a short, simple, yet complete proposal. For most things, if you can’t say it in a few paragraphs you should rethink what the core of the project really is.
Michaelon 08 Jun 09
Michael Clark, the contractor didn’t trespass on Jason Fried’s property unless Jason posted clearly visible signs stating, “no trespassing,” or Jason ordered the contractor off his property and the contractor refused. Since only bad neighbors (like you, apparently) do things like that, the landscaper legally approached his door.
David Barneson 08 Jun 09
This is a great point. For me, what made that crazy impressive guy so impressive is that he showed how much he wanted to he job. Not in a desperate way, but in a way that made it clear he really thought this was the job for him—and that he had the skills to do it.
His skills were impressive too, but he could have demonstrated them much more easily with a portfolio. What made his application work was that it showed real desire to get the job. (I actually found the site itself had all the problems of a long proposal—lots to read, when everything that you would need to make a decision was right there on the front page.)
Martin… “90% of my customers stemming from a flyer will phone immediately, and you need to be available to make the deal on just as short notice.” Ah, so it wasn’t a coincidence.
I am impressed to see somebody with real marketing and business insight doing that kind of work. It’s a sort of dream for me that the whole economy could be like this one day.
Patrickon 08 Jun 09
Apple to Oranges comparison I think…
In this case, the ‘scope’ of the project was $300 and ‘Things to be done’ was small enough, easy to explain, and the entire scope of which could be held in both participants heads.
Larger consulting projects are quite a bit different. When a client has a $100k+ job to be done, there are a lot more details to be specified than are going to fit on a single sheet of paper.
Stephen Jameson 08 Jun 09
How many $300 jobs does 37Signals want to be hired to do?
Wanna make me a website for $300? :-)
JFon 08 Jun 09
Stephen: We don’t do client work anymore, but we used to redesign pages for $2500 each. One page, one week, fixed price. Contract was one page too. Sometimes we didn’t even use a contract.
Gayle Birdon 08 Jun 09
Oh man. I just bought and house and was getting sick of painting… we tried calling around for an idea of how much it would cost to have someone come in and paint two rooms for us. We gave room dimensions, we already have the paint and the supplies, we just wanted an idea of the cost.
NOBODY would tell us. We don’t want someone to come see it, we don’t want to consult, we just want to know if it would be in the vicinity of $500 or $5000 because we just had no idea if it’s in our budget. Every single person refused to answer the question with even a ballpark. We finally gave up and just decided to paint fewer rooms in the time we had.
Peteron 08 Jun 09
The 1-page contract I use for almost all consulting contains this:
- Title: Statement of work - Who (me and them, contact info) - What: paragraph or 2 about what I’ll do and the expected deliverables (like: “Peter will work with the client to create a set of wireframes (delivered as PDF’s and Visio files) that describe the product X and Y.” - When: start and end dates. - Price: agreed fixed price or hourly fee, payable upon delivery. Travel & expenses extra. - IP: belongs to client
That’s it, it’s usually less than a page, has worked great for me. It instills trust and attracts the right kind of clients.
If a client starts requiring extensive contracts and makes it hard, then I know they’ll be hard to work with and my rate suddenly goes way up or I become unavailable.
Joseph Turianon 08 Jun 09
Could you post a typical one-page contractor contract?
Ryanon 08 Jun 09
I sold commercial photocopiers to businesses (Ricoh brand) for a living until recently. 90% of the time I sold things over the phone, without a proposal, and without a meeting. I had never met these people before. These were not small contracts either – they were for 5 year lease/service contracts that would be anywhere from $2000 to $25000.
How is this possible? I wouldn’t sell any features or benefits or even talking about specifications. I wouldn’t do detailed pros/cons, comparisons, or any of that waste. Most of the time, people just want a number that comes in the same or less than they were thinking or currently spending and an assurance that it will simply “get done”.
Here’s an example: I would ask a few questions and find out they were paying $400 a month for all of their document costs on their current equipment/agreement. If I didn’t have anything that would fit their payment or if the only way I was going to get the business was to sell something at a bad margin, I would tell them that they have a good deal and that if we fussed with it they would end up losing out. If there was an opportunity for me to get them a machine at full margin or higher based on this payment, I would suggest a machine and state “it will do everything you need it to” and the total cost would come to $350 a month for new equipment/service on a 5 year lease. I’d point out they’d be paying less WHILE getting new equipment that will do what it needs to do and that we were going to back that up.
The only reason people would balk or ask for detailed proposals/spec sheets at this point is if they had already planned on doing business with someone else and were hanging on to me as a plan B. Sometimes, in business, people get so afraid of being a plan B or losing the business that they want to head off all the risk and cut margins to the bone, use lame closing techniques, detailed proposals, customer testimonials, etc. etc. None of these things win the business by themselves. Not to mention, if a potential customer detects a hint of insincerity or bs anywhere in your troves of information, they will walk. People can smell desperation and underhanded techniques a mile away.
Selling doesn’t have to be stupid and complex. I’m glad to see that this article shows that.
Anonymous Cowardon 09 Jun 09
I think that he thinks that his bid is based on the idea that theoretically it should cost a certain amount of funds to accomplish the labor for the project – we all bid this way (as contractors) though people should also know that it is easy for a difficult client to throw rationale out the window, and before you know it you’re (the contractor) is paying for the pleasure of doing the job. Volume is the only way (for contractors) to reach a medium that could potentially advantageously affect both parties. This is probably the real reason for the quick verbal bid. It’s capitalism in a country that doesn’t value artisanal labor. Calling Mexico…..
Melissa Ford Harton 09 Jun 09
I certainly don’t mean to be a coward.
John Contion 09 Jun 09
I think a lot of this depends on who were talking about. Is it someone that taking a risk on is itself valuable? In the end, if the job is bid wrong, it is still an advantage because a useful relationship may be planted? In this case, your man has a chance to get another client in the same neighborhood, which could mean more work for less fuel, or more work in a single day (because of less travel).
Design work is pretty uncertain. I think yard work might be a little more concrete and hence easier to predict. That said, I have made it awfully hard for some folks to do business with me, and sometimes I’ve regretted that. I’ve also regretted not making it harder for others ;-)
I never regret messing up a bid for someone who is a potentially good customer. Good customers are worth so much. It is worth it to take the risk to find them. It is worth going in the hole to be loyal to them. Like employees: bad clients are known to be awful, but good clients can be great in ways that are unpredictable. Great jobs can be just around the corner with good client., opportunities that are hard to even imagine with a “stable” of bad clients.
It seems like this is another case of needing to take a risk to find opportunity, and of course, great people.
PS: This blog is good read, nice that it is kept up. Thanks…
Tomon 10 Jun 09
I couldn’t agree more. I like the flyer too.
When I got my contract from the solicitors I couldn’t believe how awful it was; about 20 pages long poor formatting with long lines of text wording that even I could barely understand
I came to the conclusion that they do it this way so that they can charge you £1000 (!) for it.
Monkey with a Cigaron 11 Jun 09
As a few people pointed out, that’s absolutely not applicable to the jobs across the board.
The maximum exposure that you had as the client of the service provider was $300. That’s two dinners for 2 in a nice restaurant. I’m sure even if he completely messed up you would not have cared that much – it was only $300 ( after all, you redid 1 page in 1 week for $2500 ).
Real work on proposal comes after your proposal got preliminary approval and now there are little details that are being worked out. Are you truly claiming that you would not put another 3 hours of ironing out the details for that final signature on a say… $60,000 job?
Anonymous Cowardon 12 Jun 09
As a few people pointed out, that’s absolutely not applicable to the jobs across the board.
You mean like Jason did in the original post? He said “I know everything can’t be done like this”
This discussion is closed.