How I built a SaaS product without being a developer [and you can too]

This is the story of how I built a SaaS product — Propfire — without being a developer, or hiring one. The reason I’m writing it is to give non technical founders a blueprint to follow (or at least some hope) in their own startup journey.

Propfire is proposal creation software that I built using html, css, javascript, php and mysql.

I didn’t use any frameworks such as Laravel (php) or React or Vue (javascript) — not that there’s anything wrong with using a framework. In fact, using a framework would probably have been a smart idea and possibly made my app better in some ways.

But the reason I didn’t is simply because I would have had to learn a framework on top of the basic php and javascript code — and I wasn’t prepared to invest that kind of time to build an MVP. I wanted to do it as quickly as possible (I’m sure you do to).

Now, the first step to any development process is obviously having the idea of what you want to create. But for the purposes of this post I’m going to skip over why I chose to build Propfire and stick with the process of developing the actual software. You can read about why I decided to create Propfire in a market already crowded with competitors here.

Who am I

Before I dive into the details of my development experience, I need to tell you a bit about who I am and the skills I brought to the table when I began my development project.

For the last 7 years I’ve been building WordPress websites and providing SEO and content marketing services for companies. The website development part of my services entails working with a few professionally designed templates that I’ve gotten very familiar with over the years, and modifying them with basic CSS.

If you’ve ever worked with WordPress you know that you do not need to have any development or coding skills to create a beautiful website. All you need is the ability to organize information (no simple task) and work with whatever website building engine your particular template provides. There are even tools that will generate custom css code without you having to know how to write it.

But I don’t want to portray myself as a total coding ignoramus. Back in the years 1999 – 2000 I had learned how to code html from a book and then ridden the dot com wave to get jobs at a couple of internet companies (which are long gone) where I had the opportunity to perfect my html and learn ASP (not the same as ASP.net) and some SQL (on the job). For those of you who don’t remember ASP, it’s very similar to PHP.

While I in no way became a coding expert working at those companies, I did have the opportunity to learn from more experienced developers the basic structure of a web app — how to set up database tables and how to move data from a web page to the database and extract and display data back on the page. Once you know how to pass information to and from web pages and into and out of a database, you’re well on your way to creating a data-driven web app.

Structure vs Implementation

The most important part of the development process is understanding the flow of your application. You need to map out exactly what happens on each page or screen of your app. Once you know what data you want to get, manipulate and display, and where you want to do that, the task of writing the code to make it happen is something that you can either figure out yourself or pay someone a relatively small amount to do for you.

The most expensive (and probably least effective) way of developing an application as a non developer is to come up with an idea and then hire a developer (or team) to turn that idea into a functioning product — unless you just want to copy an existing product. For example, if you decide you want to create a Tinder clone with your own branding, you can find developers who can do that pretty efficiently by simply copying the original. That’s because the structure and flow (and UX) of the app already exists — and that’s the hard part.

A lot of the time I invested into developing Propfire was spent figuring out the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) of the application. I wanted to create a way for a user to build a proposal in a way that was faster and more intuitive than the way all the competitors do it (via design templates).

I began by drawing the individual screens of my app on sheets of paper (one screen per sheet) and put them in order. Then I went through each screen  as a user (over and over) to determine the most user friendly and intuitive experience.

I’ll admit that my knowledge of basic database table structures helped by through this phase, because as I was moving through the screens I was also mapping out how the information being entered would be efficiently stored and accessed.

Understanding how to store data in a relational database has more to do with organizing information than with coding. You don’t need technical skills to organize information. But you do need a basic understanding of how a database and data tables work, which I got from a book around 20 years ago. The principles of storing and managing data haven’t changed.

You do not have to be a database guru to create the data tables for your app. All you need our the basics, which you can learn from books, tutorials or online course. Again, database design requires the ability to organize information — not technical or coding skills.

So up to this point I had not written a single line of code, but I already had the the UI and theoretical functionality of my app. And like I said before, once you have this, the actual writing of the code becomes a technical task that can be outsourced or done on your own.

Type of App Matters

Stop for a second. I need to clarify something important.

This post is referring to an application that uses existing technology to accomplish a task. The innovation is in the design of the application — figuring out a more efficient and effective way to accomplish the desired task. That’s why the coding part fo the application development is something that any skilled coder should be able to do quite easily.

However, if you want to develop new technology or a sophisticated algorithm to accomplish a complex task, then you are going to have to get expert programmers to work on developing that technology — and that’s way beyond the scope of DIY or ordinary outsourcing.

Just keep that in mind :)

Development Path

My plan from the start was to create an application for as little money as possible. I just wanted a functional MVP (minimum viable product) to test the market. I could always build more features after I’d found product market fit.

If I could create the flow of the application and all of the screens, I knew I’d always be able to find a developer to code it (although I never actually priced it out).

Of course, there’s a wide range in quality when dealing with developers, and the price you pay is going to be directly related to that quality. If you need a developer to do the thinking for you and create the application flow and screens, then you’re going to have to pay a lot more than if you’re just looking for someone to code up your screens.

Building without code

After a few months of thinking, mapping, rethinking and rethinking again, I had all my screens and knew exactly how I wanted my application to work (at least version 1). Now all I needed to do is build it!

Like I said before, I didn’t have a big development budget to play with. Even if I did, I believe in the MVP model, especially since I had no idea whether people would actually want to use (and pay for) my product. So there was no way I was mortgaging the house or selling my son’s Xbox to pay a developer to create my MVP (you probably shouldn’t either).

I needed to build Propfire, or at least most of it, myself.

How was I going to build a data driven application?

My first thought was to see if I could find a way to create my app without having to code, at all.

In the past I had played around with a very cool program called Bubble, which according to its website “is a code-free programming language that lets you build and host web applications without engineers.” In other words, Bubble lets you build stuff visually (like using a website builder tool), while creating the actual code behind the scenes.

Sounds great, and it really is. You can create lots of very cool stuff using Bubble.

One of my hesitations in using Bubble was that you can’t modify or export the underlying code. It’s created in the Bubble framework and has to be hosted on the Bubble platform. If at some point I’d want to hire developers to improve or expand the app, they would need to rebuild it from scratch in whatever language they were using.

But this wasn’t a deal breaker for me. The Bubble folks claim to have a very stable and scalable hosting problem, and the price was ok. And if at some point my app was so successful that I needed to rebuild it, then I’d be able to afford the extra development work.

The reason I did not use Bubble to build Propfire is because I found the platform to be constraining. I tried building it on the platform but I found that I couldn’t perform some of the data operations I needed to. Now that could be totally my own fault, for not fully understanding or implementing the Bubble capabilities.

For all I know Bubble might absolutely have the capabilities to do everything I needed to do and more. But I did spend a decent amount of time trying to figure it out and it just wasn’t happening, for whatever reason. At the same time I new that these data operation could be easily done in a few lines of code.

So despite the allure of being able to visually develop an app without writing a single line of code, I opted to try it the good ole way — writing code.

[Again, I don’t want to downplay the power of Bubble and other code free platforms. People have been lots of functioning apps on them and there’s a whole sub-industry of Bubble developers available to help you build yours. Depending on the complexity of your app, using Bubble or an alternative might be the smartest way to go.]

Choosing a Language

The first thing you need to code is a language to write it in. Google something like “what language should I code my web app in” and you’ll find an ongoing debate as to what language is the best and easiest and neatest etc. The bottom line of the debate is that it depends on what you want to build and what language you already have some familiarity with.

Web applications require HTML to display the pages on a browser, CSS to style to pages, and at least some Javascript or Jquery to make stuff happen on the page without having to refresh the browser window. If the app is data driven, you need a language that can send and retrieve data to and from the database from your web pages. You can accomplish that with different languages, including javascript (nodes).

Remember I told you that I learned ASP around 20 years ago and that it’s similar to php? Well, it just so happens that php is probably the most popular scripting language to build data driven web apps with. Some of the most famous apps built in php include WordPress (which includes the hundreds of millions of websites built on the platform), Yahoo and Wikipedia.

The reason PHP is so popular is because it’s relatively easy to learn and use. And there’s plenty of documentation and code examples available. So since I already had some basic knowledge of the language structure, I chose to go with php.

Setting Up

Before writing any code, you need some prerequisites to get started.

  1. Code Editor
    All you really need to write is code is a basic text editor like textedit (mac) or notepad (win). But if you want some help, in the form of highlighting, formatting, auto-completion and other useful tools, then you’ll need to use a code editor. There are lots of them available for either man or pc, and free or paid.I chose Visual Studio Code by Microsoft — the mac version (since I use a Macbook Air) — because it’s free and I liked the feel of it. You can also try Atom, which has lots of great reviews.None of these editors are going to actually write the code for you, although they’ll let you know when you’ve made an error and sometimes save you some typing by providing code snippets you can use.Don’t spend a month trying to figure out which code editor to use. Just pick one and grow to love it.
  2. Local Server
    To view the results of your HTML, CSS and Javascript code, all you need is your browser. To view php (which is a server-side scripting language) you need a server. Macs and PCs come with a local server, but you need to set it up and get it running properly.Setting up my local server on my Macbook scared the hell out of me. It almost discouraged me from continuing. Luckily, I found this article which had very clear, step by step instructions on how to get the job done.
  3. Local Database
    Since my app was data-driven, I also needed to set up a local database. The most popular choice is MySQL, which you can download for free here. The same article that showed me how to set up my local server covered the MySQL installation and the installing of SequelPro, which is a tool to manage MySQL with a visual interface.

To clarify, the development environment I just described setting up allowed me to code and view only on my computer (local).  I would eventually need to host the app with a hosting company, to get it “online”. But for the time being I was fine working local.

Start Building

I had my code editor and my local server and database setup. Now I had to actually start writing code!

There are 2 parts to a web app: the functionality and the presentation. In other words, what the app actually does behind the scenes and how it looks to the user.

You can start on the functionality and leave the interface for later. I personally wanted to have a concrete idea of the app interface would look before diving into the functionality.

As I explained before, web pages are built primarily with HTML and CSS, along with some Javascript or JQuery for doing certain tasks in the browser window (without refreshing the page) like manipulating images and text (and tons of other cool things).

Since I knew how to write HTML and (some) CSS I could theoretically code the web interface from scratch. To make things easier I could use Bootstrap, which is “a free and open-source CSS framework directed at responsive, mobile-first front-end web development. It contains CSS- and JavaScript-based design templates for typography, forms, buttons, navigation and other interface components.” (wikipedia)

But building a web interface from scratch, and making it look awesome (on both desktop and mobile), takes a lot of time and hard work. There’s an easier way: I found a free html web interface template built on Bootstrap.

You can find these html templates with a simple Google search, or on Themeforest. An html template comes with lots of different page templates and elements that you can pick and choose from to find the right ones for your app. It also comes with CSS stylesheets and various Javascript and Jquery functionalities to choose from.

Setting up an html template can be a bit difficult at first and take some time, but once you understand the structure and set it up, the work is done and you’ve got a beautiful interface for your app.

After my interface was in place, I created my database. A database is made up of tables that store different data. The tables relate to each other. That’s why they call it a relational database. I can’t teach you how to build a database, but again, it’s all about organizing information, not programming or coding.

Google is the answer

While I had some basic knowledge of php, I couldn’t actually code an application from scratch. However, I could look at existing code, figure out what is was doing and modify it.

That’s where Google came into the picture.

In theory what I should have done was to take a course on to learn how to write php cod, from A to Z. And I have gone through some “Learn PHP” books over the years. But the learning from the bottom up route would take me a very long time, which was something I absolutely dod not want to do.

My goal was not to be become a php developer. All I wanted to accomplish was to build my app. So instead of searching for a course or book, I went on Google and starting search for the php code that would accomplish the specific task I needed at that moment.

And because of my familiarity with php and how web apps are supposed to work, I knew just enough to know what to search for. There are LOTS of resources out there on writing code, in pretty much any language. My focus was php, Javascript and jQuery.

For specific questions, Stack Overflow, a forum where developers ask questions and other developers answer them, was a Godsend. Any question I had, no matter how specific, had already been asked and answered on Stack Overflow. Another great site with tons of code for the taking is phppot.

It’s really quite amazing what you can find out there. Sometimes I found examples of code that I could copy and slightly modify. Other times it was small snippets of code from Stack Overflow that did the trick.

The bottom line is that you can pretty much copy and paste your way to a complete, functioning application. All you need is just enough knowledge and familiarity with the language and the basics of how an app works to modify the code to your own needs and to know where to place it.

I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that you can easily throw together an app by just copying and pasting. You can’t. You need to understand enough to know what code you need and then how to integrate it into your app. You also need to weed through a lot of search results and code that isn’t right or doesn’t work for you before you find the code that does work.

BUT — if you can educate yourself enough, you can hack together something that really works!

Putting it online

It took me about 2 or 3 months of off and on coding (which still doing my other digital consulting work) to complete most of the code for the app, which was still living on the local drive of my Macbook. In order to use certain online scripts, set up my registration and payment process and see how the app looked on a mobile device, I needed to move it to a website hosting platform.

There are loads of hosting companies to choose from. I use Pressable for all of my WordPress sites, including the Propfire marketing site. But since Pressable focuses exclusively on WordPress and my app wasn’t WordPress, I decided to go with Cloudways. It’s cloud based, inexpensive and very scalable for when my app gets huge :)

Cloudways also lets you easily create a staging site, which is important to have in order to test changes before pushing them directly to your live app. In other words, you write your code on your local machine, test it on your staging server and then push it to your live server.

Accepting Payments

If you plan on charging for your app, you need a way of accepting and managing payments and subscriptions. I chose to use Stripe as my payment processor, but there was no way I could integrate it into my app (or even if I could, it would take me much too long to figure out how).

I found a few services that provide a ready made integration with Stripe that you can just add to your site. I chose Servicebot (because it was the cheapest option), which lets you easily create nice pricing tables and handles the subscription registration and billing via Stripe.

Servicebot costs me $49 a month, whereas simply using Stripe is free. But I would have had to pay a developer to integrate it for me and it would have been difficult to manage on an ongoing basis. With Servicebot I still had to pay a developer a small amount to integrate, but now I can easily change my pricing tables and manage my users and subscribers on my own. And it also handles the login/registration process on the app.

In general, I always try to keep things as simple as possible so that I don’t need to rely on developers for most tasks. Servicebot makes my life easier, so I’m happy to pay the monthly fee.

There are lots of other subscription management providers, with different features and at different price points, to choose from, so do some research before picking one.

Using a Developer

Since I mentioned using a developer to integrate Servicebot, I’ll make a couple of quick points about working with developers.

Unless you’re well funded, you’re probably going to use a freelance developer. I found mine on Upwork several years ago when I was working on another project. He’s located in South America. I’ve also used an offshore development shop before.

I personally prefer working with a solo developer over a firm because I can communicate directly with him instead of going through a project manager or some kind of management tier. But there are pros and cons to either, so go with what works best for you.

The most important thing is to work with someone you feel you can trust.

An offshore developer is going to be much cheaper than a US based one. In some cases the cheaper price might reflect less experience or lower skill level. But there are plenty of very experienced developers, especially PHP developers, who will do an awesome job for a fraction of the cost of a US developer because of the lower cost of living in their native land (and because they really want the work). The trick is finding them, and that is often a process of trial and error or just pure luck.

When you’re sending your developer a task, you MUST include specific instructions — the more detailed the better. Some developers will be able to figure things out on your own or read your mind. Most will not. The best way to avoid costly misunderstandings and screwups is to communicate CLEARLY, preferably in writing.

A really good developer will tell you if you’re what you’re asking makes no sense or won’t work as planned. But when you’re dealing with someone halfway across the globe, for whom English is a second (or third) language, you have to anticipate the possibility of communication difficulties and therefore be extra careful in created clear and detailed specs and instructions.

Also, you can’t expect to get an immediate answer from a freelancer in a different time zone. That’s why it’s best to be familiar enough with your code to troubleshoot in an emergency.

In my case, I’ve had to troubleshoot the few snippets of code I got my developer to write. And the few tasks I give him tend to take longer than expected. But as far as I’ve “hacked” on my own, there are still some difficult tasks that are simply beyond my pay grade and I’m not willing to spend the time it would take to learn enough to do them. That’s when I’ll turn to my developer — when I simply can’t (or won’t) do it myself.

At some point, when Propfire is making lots of money, I’ll hire a good developer and fly from there. For now, i pay only for the stuff I can’t figure out on my own.

 

Support Center

One of the things I put a lot of effort into was crafting the copy on my app to make sure the instructions on each page were clear enough for new users to follow without asking for help. But there will always be question, so I needed to create a support center.

There are several major help center software tools on the market. I chose Zoho, primarily because of its free plan. You can check out the Propfire support center here.

Then I got to work writing knowledge base articles.

In addition to the support center, which is a separate site, I wanted to provide users with help directly on the app pages. To do that would entail manually coding hotspots in different places and showing relevant help messages upon hover or click (in Javascript). It would take a good deal of time and work to create, and I was not looking forward to it.

Just as I was stressing about it, as if by Divine intervention, Appsumo offered a lifetime deal on tooltip.io, an app that makes it super easy to add and manage in-app messages of all types including tooltips, slide outs, popups and lots of other types. Huge problem solved, for only $49 (lifetime). Thank you Appsumo!

If you’re building or planning to build something, you should definitely be following the Appsumo deals because you’ll find some real gems which will (at some point) make your life easier for a heck of a lot less than you would otherwise have to pay for them.

Next Steps

Taking your app “live” might be the end of your development journey…well, at least phase 1 or it. Unless you’ve performed the most thorough testing possible, you’re going to find bugs and things that seemed to work really well at the time, but now don’t seem that great anymore and need to be changed.

You also should always be trying to improve your product. New use cases will arise that will motivate you to tweak the way the app works. Maybe that tweak will turn into a major change.

And now that the development is done for a while, the real hard work begins: marketing (i.e. getting paid users!). I’ll be writing another post about what I’m doing in that regard real soon.

I hope this post has at least given other non technical founders the courage and motivation to try their hands at developing their own SaaS product.

Feel free to reach out with questions :)

Oh yeah…try Propfire free for 14 days!

effective proposal

How to create an effective business proposal

[ To watch video click here ]

Creating proposals can be stressful for consultants, freelancers and agencies, whose livelihoods depends on pitching projects to clients and closing deals. That’s why it always surprises me how many of these professionals are clueless regarding how to create an effective proposal.

The Prerequisite

The first thing to remember is that a proposal is not a sales tool or pitch. It should only be presented after you’ve already spoken with the potential client and have a meeting of the minds regarding the work that is required and the budget.

If you’ve done that, then the client has already bought into using you. Now he only needs to know what exactly you’re going to do, how long it will take and how much it will cost. The proposal is a summary of what you’ve already discussed.

How important is design?

Contrary to what proposal software companies would like you to believe, clients do not choose vendors based on the design or beauty of their proposals (unless you are a creative design agency, in which case design does matter).

As long as your proposal is professional looking and neatly laid out, it’s the content — specifically timing and pricing — that are going to make or break you at this stage.

Beautiful design templates do not win clients. Relationships, trust, service and pricing do.

In fact, using design templates can end up distracting your client. It can also force you into a specific format that might be right for certain situations — but not yours.

Elements of an effective proposal

Here’s what your proposal should have:

  1. Your company logo or branding
  2. Proposal title (ex. web design proposal), client name, proposal date
  3. Brief “Objective” section where, in a couple of sentences, you explain the objective of the project. This shouldn’t be a pages long analysis of the clients business challenges. Just a concise summary of what you’ll do.
  4. Bulleted list of deliverables or services that you will provide. Bullets keep it concise and easier for the client to read. You’ve already discussed most of these services and deliverables with the client. This is just a summary.
  5. Description of your process, explaining how you will work the client to get the project done from start to finish. This should preferable also be a bulleted list, to make it easy for the client to read and digest.
  6. Timeframe of project.
  7. Pricing — you should ideally try to give the client 3 pricing options, each one providing more services. Research shows that doing this has both practical and psychological benefits — and makes it easier for the client to accept an option.
  8. Terms (ie, payment schedule, payment form, cancellation policy etc). Don’t go crazy with terms. The last thing you want is for the client to feel like he has to get his lawyers involved. Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting Proposals says, “You want to stay out of the other person’s legal department because it will slow down the process and may stop the sale all together.” The less legalese in your proposal, the better.
  9. A way for the client to sign the proposal. No need for a separate contract — your proposal is your contract. Simple is better — and just as legal.

Timing is Important

Once you’ve created your proposal you need to get it to your client as quickly as possible. The longer it takes you to get it to your client, the more time he has to get busy with other things and forget about you. As the man said, “strike while the iron is hot”.

You don’t take a few days or a week to create a proposal — which is really easy to happen if you’ve got other work and distractions pulling you away.

If the client is ok with just viewing the proposal online, great. In most cases the client will probably want a PDF copy he can print out (another reason why lots of design elements and images is a bad idea).

Follow up

Emailing your proposal to your client is not the end of the process. You need to follow up in a day or 2. If you’ve built a relationship of trust, it shouldn’t take the client long to accept your proposal.

But unfortunately, the client might have other, more pressing, concerns to deal with and your proposal might end up getting lost — which is why you MUST follow up at regular intervals.

Don’t stop until you get a YES (or a no)!

A better way

Propfire is built to help you do exactly what I just described in this post — create effective proposals faster and easier.

Try it free for 14 days — no credit card required — to see if it’s a good fit for you.

10 Elements of an Effective Proposal [checklist]

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proposal templates

Business proposal templates: Do you need them??

Creating proposals is a task that most sales people or service providers need to do on a pretty regular basis (you would hope). And it’s a hated task, especially if you are doing your first one, or you just aren’t experienced at creating proposals.

You sit there in front of a blank screen, with lots of information in your head but no idea of how to present it. If you only had a proposal template. So you do what anyone in your shoes would do. You google “proposal” and get a list of creative ideas of how to pop the question to your girlfriend.

Then you google “business proposal template”. You’re in good company because, according to Google, around 6,600 queries for “business proposal template” happen every month in the US. So you get a list of sites offering hundreds of free proposal templates, although in most cases you need to actually subscribe to the respective proposal software service to actually use the “free” template.

At this point you’ll either sign up for a free trial on one of the proposal services, or find a template somewhere on the web and copy it into a Google doc. It can all get very frustrating, fast.

But wait.

Before you start going crazy browsing through dozens (or hundreds?) of online proposal templates, I want to let you in on a little secret: the design of your proposal doesn’t really matter too much to clients.

It’s all about the content.

Let me explain.

Not a Sales Pitch

The first thing to understand is that a proposal should not be a sales pitch.

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.”

In other words, you should only be sending a potential client a proposal if you’ve already had at least one, or several, conversations or meetings in which you’ve learned what exactly your client is looking for and how much he’s looking to spend, and you’ve told him how you can help him accomplish his objectives. If, and only if, there is a meeting of the minds and a mutual desire to work together do you then create and present your proposal.

Since the client has already gotten to know you a bit and has bought into the fact that you can help him, the only things he wants to know at that point are the exact services and deliverables you will provide, how long the project will take and how much it will cost. He already knows about your company and your bio, because you told him that during your first conversation. He doesn’t need a sales pitch. You already did that, and he bought it.

All he wants to know now is:

  1. What you’ll do
  2. When it will be done
  3. How much will it cost

Unless you happen to be a creative design or advertising agency pitching creative work, you don’t need to worry about fancy images, colors, graphs, special fonts. What you do need is a neat, professional looking, proposal that concisely presents the What, When and How much.

Your proposal should have:

  1. Your company logo or branding (can be in color or b&w)
  2. A title -> client name -> date
  3. A brief Objective section where, in a couple of sentences, you explain the objective of the project.
  4. A bulleted list of deliverables or services that you will provide
  5. (optional) A description of your process — how you will carried out your project. This could also be a bulleted list.
  6. Timeframe of project
  7. Pricing — you should ideally try to give the client 3 pricing options, each one providing more services. This has both practical and psychological benefits.
  8. Terms (payment schedule, payment form, cancellation policy etc — there shouldn’t be too many of these)
  9. A way for the client to sign the proposal. No need for a separate contract to get the lawyers involved. Simple is better — and just as legal.

Will it hurt you to present a design and image heavy proposal?

It depends on how you’re presenting it and who is reading it. If it needs to be printed out, then it’s probably a horrible idea, especially if the client is the one who’ll be printing it. And if the executive reading it wants to get to the important info, the images and design frill could get in the way and frustrating.

I’ll go back to proposal guru Alan Weiss again, who says that a proposal should be as short as possible, definitely no longer than 2 or 2.5 pages. Any longer than that and you’ve probably added stuff that shouldn’t be there, and you run the risk of confusing or boring your client.

So why all the hundreds of design templates?

If what I’ve just told you is correct, why in the world are there hundreds of proposal templates created by proposal software companies?

Because that’s how they get get you to sign up and pay them. By convincing you that your proposal will be accepted based on its design. Wrong.

Clients choose vendors based on skill, experience, deliverables, timeline, price and, most important of all, trust. Timeline, price and deliverables are laid out in a proposal. The other elements are developed during relationship building conversations and meeting.

If you haven’t developed any sort of relationship or trust with the potential client, then you’re better off asking for a meeting then simply sending a proposal that will be added to the pile of other proposals received. You don’t want to be in a pile. The chances of winning in a pile are very slim, unless you’re willing to be the lowest price in the pack or you already have a known reputation.

One qualification

Before you follow my advice, I need to make one qualification to my comments. My experience in proposal writing is primarily with small to midsized companies. I don’t know first hand if my advice would apply to massive, fortune 100 companies, although Alan Weiss uses his 2 page proposal to land multi six figure consultant gigs with those same companies.

But I can only speak from personal experience. The 60 year old owner of a $50 million metal manufacturing company will be happy reading a concise, 2 to 3 page proposal, that clearly presents him the information he needs to make a deal. He doesn’t need graphics, images or colors.

Bottom Line

Don’t knock yourself out searching for a design template that will magically transform your proposal into some sort of irresistible element that cannot be refused. It’s a waste of your time.

Go neat, professional, and simple.

You can do exactly that with propfire. No design templates to mess with. Just concise, professional looking business templates that you can create super fast.

Start a free trial today

 

10 Elements of an Effective Proposal [checklist]

Grab your checklist with the 10 most important things you need for a winning proposal. 
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proposal software

Why I created proposal software in a market crowded with competitors

Why did I create another app to help users create business proposals, where there are already at least a dozen existing proposal software products in the market?

Great question!

Let me explain.

The Problem

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 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 2, from start to finish. Proposals that required a major or complete overhaul could take up an entire day or 2 to get 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.

Potential Solution

I thought I 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 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 6 figure deals. But for the small to midsized companies I was pitching projects that ranged from $10,000 to $60,000, 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 1 or 2 meetings or conversations 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 and 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 the proposal software 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.

Feature Heavy

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.

Why wasn’t I excited by that? For a couple of reasons:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 2 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 doesn’t mean ziltch until you’ve got their payment in your hands. And while I’m not a lawyer (not 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 them or call. 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 get 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 $70,000, 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 20 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 and freelancers 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 almost all of the proposal software out there and I found that they were all almost exactly the same. They all offered design templates that would then need to be modified. The prewritten 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; 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 image 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 can, and 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. How awesome would that be!

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 10 years and had done her share of consulting work. But apparently, the jobs she did were gotten 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 to help them close more deals and make 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 :)

Start a free trial today

proposal app online

Less design makes Propfire different [and better] than the competition

There are a lot of proposal software tools out there, so how is Propfire different, and what about it is better at helping consultants and freelancers create proposals?

No Heavy Design Templates

Other proposal software works by providing you with heavily designed templates that you edit using a custom design interface, which is great if you like fiddling with design, spacing, fonts — all the stuff that can get really frustrating, especially for non designers.

I personally am very comfortable building websites in WordPress with professionally designed templates, but it can sometimes take hours or even days to get a page looking just right. And that’s working within a WordPress interface with a template that I’ve used hundreds of times! The last thing I want to do is go through that same frustration and time loss trying to create a proposal with a proposal software design template.

How We Do It

At Propfire we’ve created a totally different, and super intuitive, approach to creating proposals. All you do is enter your content in a familiar looking text editor. When you’re ready to create a proposal, you simply select the content you want to include and place each content item (we call them snippets) in the order that you want it to appear in your proposal.

Then you add a few more items such as a proposal title, client name, date, timeframe and pricing and…bingo, you’ve got a proposal that you can either print as a PDF, embed on your own website or share with your client.

You can also start off by importing an editing one of our prewritten proposals and easily edit it.

Since you don’t have to fiddle with all the frustrating aspects of design, you can create a proposal with propfire so quickly and easily that you can do it at a client meeting.

Here’s a common scenario:

You’re wrapping up a super productive meeting with a potential client who you’ve managed to sell on your services. You’ve come to an agreement on what you’ll need to do and how much it’s going to cost. The only thing left is to get him a proposal and have him sign it.

What would usually happen at this point it that you’d head back to your office and spend the next day or so cranking out a proposal. By the time you email it to him it’s already at least 2 days later and your potential client is now too busy with his work to look at your proposal.

And the waiting begins…

Time is of the essence when getting a proposal to a client interested in hiring you. The longer you keep him waiting, the greater the chance that he losses interest or finds another vendor (and there are plenty of those fighting for the same business you are).

Now imagine that you can had your potential client a proposal at the end of your meeting, while he’s still hot on you! With Propfire you can do exactly that. No frustrating design interfaces. just check a few boxes, fill out a few fields and boom — your professional proposal is ready to share, print or embed.

How important is design in proposals?

Hang on…I in no way mean to knock good design. Looks are important, and people do judge books by covers. But when it comes to business proposals, 99.99% of clients are looking for 2 things: what you will be providing and how much it will cost them. They couldn’t care less about images and colors. As long as you’re providing a professional looking document, you’ve met the design requirement for proposals.

In fact, images and colors can actually be detrimental if the client wants a printed copy of your proposal. And most small to midsized company decision makers still want to hold that pdf copy in their hands. Have you tried printing out a webpage with images and colors? It’s usually not pretty, especially if you’re shooting for speed.

Don’t get me wrong. If you are an advertising agency competing for a major Fortune 500 client, then you’ll probably have a team of designers slaving for days on producing a visually stunning proposal, which is also what your competitors will be doing.

But if you aren’t selling creative design services or if you’re targeting small to midsized companies, then you’re better off skipping the design chores and focusing on creating a proposal that is clear, concise and yes, professional looking — and getting it to your potential client as quickly as possible, while they’re interest level is at its highest.

[You can add images, video, tables etc. to your proposals using propfire — but you shouldn’t unless you know for a fact that it will help you get the business.]

Conclusion

Remember, your sole objective in a proposal to tell the client exactly what you’ll be doing for them and how much it will cost. If is not a marketing or sales presentation meant to impress. You should have already impressed the client in your meeting or calls leading up to the proposal.

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.”

Proposals need to be clear and concise, and delivered as quickly as possible.

You can do exactly that with propfire.

Try it for free today.

 

10 Elements of an Effective Proposal [checklist]

Grab your checklist with the 10 most important things you need for a winning proposal. 
(You'll get a download link in your inbox.)
Get Checklist!

 

Create Digital Marketing Proposals Faster and Easier

If you’re a digital marketing agency owner or a freelancer or consultant offering digital marketing services, you probably have a list of different services you offer, including web design, seo, social media, email marketing, content marketing…and more.

When you sit down to create a proposal to present to your client, the content of that proposal will vary based on the needs of the particular client. Some clients might only want seo, while others might want all or some combination of your services. This makes using a single template for all of your proposals impracticable. And you definitely don’t want to have to create a proposal from scratch for every new client.

What you really need, as a digital marketer, is to have a way to easily select and include the specific services your client wants and automatically generate a proposal from it.

As a digital marketing consultant and agency owner myself, I totally understood the need to mix and match specific services for different client proposals and I felt the pain of having to spend hours or even days creating these proposals on Google Docs.

That’s why I created a way for digital marketers to easily select the services they want to include and then generate a proposal automatically.

Here’s how it works:

You initially input each of your services and categorize them. For example, you would create the category of SEO and then input something like – “Perform extensive keyword research.” I call these content snippets.

To speed up the process I’ve created a whole set of content snippets for digital marketers that includes web design, seo, social media, content and ppc. You can easily import the relevant content snippets with a click of a button and then modify them as you like.

Once you have all of your content snippets inputed, you are ready to rock.

When you find out what services your client wants, you simply check off each category (like SEO, Wed Design etc.).

You can then select or eliminate specific content snippets within each category to make sure you’ve got the right services for the client.

After that you’ll only need to add a timeframe and pricing, and BOOM…you’ve got your customized proposal!

Of course, you can then print it out or share it as a pdf or as a link.

But best of all, you can actually embed your proposal into your own website by just copying a few lines of code and adding it to one of your web pages. Then you can share a link to your own domain with your own branding.

It’s really that simple.

Here’s a video that quickly goes through the process:

For more videos please go to our support section here.