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Web Design Proposal – What to Look For

Web Design Proposal – What to Look For

Instead of “web design proposal – what to look for” a more appropriate title may be: Web Design Proposals: Learning From Clients That Didn’t Choose You!

The following is a list of things EVERYONE who has ever tried to select a web developer or Internet marketing company NEEDS TO KNOW. If you’re about to go through the development of an RFP, or staring dizzily at a stack of web design proposals – read all of the following. It’s part story, part hard list and will help guide you on your journey. The jewels are at the bottom – you can skip the story part if you want (but it will hurt my feelings)

Recently we had the opportunity to go head-to-head against local competitors for a large project. The project involved initial meetings, a company pitch (presentation on our company), follow up meetings, RFP (request for proposal), and finally the actual proposal. There’s no shortage of guides online about writing web design proposals, but what is much more rare is how – you as a business owner or organization can evaluate these.

I’ll save my rant about RFPs in web development for another post, but instead I wanted to share some insights that were birthed about learning from failure – and hopefully provide a “lifting of the curtain” to demonstrate the kinds of people we are Atilus.

The Project We’re (About) to Lose

We probably aren’t going to win.

We’re up against 5 other competitors and I’m almost positive we’re in the top 2 as far as costs. I knew (relatively) what the budget was prior to the proposal, but we ignored this. Instead we concentrated on how much it’s going to take to get the project done right, make sure the client is satisfied, make sure we have the resources to service them over the lifetime of the project (potentially years) and have a little left over as profit.

I’m confident in our decisions. But, as Phil our director of marketing has said – “That’s the most frustrating thing with sales… You can only concentrate on what you can control, but it’s not all under our control.

We decided to completely ignore the budget for the above reasons, but also for a few that might not be immediately understandable:

  • Experience
  • We Don’t Need It

Experience – We’ve worked on similar scale project (we’re talking $30k+ here to give everyone a relative idea on size), as well as similar technologies and organizations. All of these are stacked against us and the organization in question. It’s a highly technical project, lots of contact points, politics to navigate and a number of potential decision makers (or at least behind the scenes decision makers) – all of this adds to the complexity of the project and can only be classified under “experience.”

We Don’t Need It – Wow, I sound like an asshole don’t I? Seriously though, experience is coming into play, as is our place as a business. We don’t need (or want) business that isn’t going to allow us to price it at a level to provide the above. I’d much rather lose the job than provide a poor service to a client or a sub-standard product to quickly be judged and dismissed by our peers.

We weren’t always in this position and I respect those still struggling to bring in business and that are hungry enough to take a cut to attain a potentially huge (and very public) project. However (here’s that bloody experience creeping in again) – it’s a dangerous game. We’ve paid our dues, and I would recommend any developers out there reading this, to pay yours as quickly as possible and figure out a way to price and process yourself into a company that is sustainable.

We’ve Lost Hundreds of Bids…

This blog actually has very little to do with the above proposal/project. In fact it’s more about another project we lost years ago. At the time, we couldn’t afford to say “we don’t need it.” If my then self saw what I just wrote he’d slap me down and step on my tail bone as my future self tried to crawl away… (my former self was a mean violent person – or maybe I’m just a time traveling masochist?)

We worked extremely hard to attain an identical project.


I’m not exaggerating this with the word “identical.” I mean it. Same EXACT kind of company, same SIZE project, same number of people and TECHNOLOGY. SAME. SAME. SAME.

I put in extra time at night to help the president and key players at the company understand the technology involved in developing a successful website and Internet marketing campaign. By the time the RFP arrived – I knew we had this in the bag.

However, after my requests for a meeting or a phone call were rejected I realized this wasn’t going to be an easy sale. We did as we were asked, put together a great proposal, did the research, mapped everything out, planned out a new direction and voila….!


We were passed over by a firm that had come in lower. We had even, in our hours of desperation, lowered our own bid to nearly 50% of what we thought it would truly take in order to guarantee the win, we needed the cash, and being such a high profile project we thought it would pay off in referrals/additional business.

Thankfully (in hindsight) we didn’t win. 

We would have lost money, and not been able to provide the client everything they deserve (and we demand!) – service, quality, et al.

I just wanted to write et al…

Years later, I’ve learned the said truth of this. I’ve seen similar projects sink whole companies (cough cough the above project…), leading them to financial and/or marketing ruin. Agencies need to be scared and make damn sure they have the talent, time, and financial resources (in the form of the sale or other sources) to sustain a large project.

Here’s the take away from this portion – companies that come in with low bids on complex  web projects GO OUT OF BUSINESS. Both entities can become embroiled in legal issues and the project can end up costing many times what the initial budget was in legal fees alone. 

Luckily that didn’t happen here. Luckily we lost.

What to Look For in a Web Design Proposal

I promised you jewels my baby birds – and it’s time for papa to deliver.

Fast forward (more damn time traveling zach?) years later, and we’re working on proposing this similar project.

As a part of this process we reached out to the contact person for the project we lost years ago. Luckily they were open to talking. In our conversations they revealed the follow jewels I think every web developer and any person/company who ever looks at a web design/marketing proposal MUST KNOW.

Things to Look Out For in a Web Design Proposal


  • We (Can) Fool You With Beauty
  • The Most Attractive Company is Not Always the Best
  • Reply Times Are Extremely Important
  • Holistic
  • Honesty
  • Pricing is Weird

Proposals ARE Pretty

Proposals (and the sales process for that matter) is like meeting a hot guy or girl in a smoky hazy bar after a few drinks. The flashing lights, exciting music, fancy clothes, and alcohol all fool you into believing you’ve just met your next mate. But, just like the singles scene – it’s important to flip on some lights before making any kind of commitment. If you take this stranger home in your excited state – with these stimuli stacked against your better judgement – you could wake up the next day with a wife and kids and a horrible marriage:

Joking aside – these are the documents we use to sell! They’re meant to paint us in our best light. It’s only IN a project that you get a complete sense of a company, their process, and their ability to truly perform the duties required of the project. I think Atilus has done a decent job with proposals, but I admire clarity and precision over fluff. The best proposal (in design) is not usually the best proposal… or the best company. Look at the details. Have your own details been noted (those things you mentioned in your meetings)? Have your desires and goals been expressed?

A great proposal will parrot back the things you mentioned in meetings & in the RFP and combine them with some technical details. It should also set a precedent on how your two organizations will work together and help guide you on process and next steps. I could (and will) write a whole blog about web design proposals, but for now just understand this is supposed to look amazing and paint the company in a positive light.

The Best Visuals ≠The Best Company

Much like the above, I know a number of companies that go out of their way presenting an amazing image. From their brochures, to their presentations, everything is spotless. But their record, and ability to perform, or provide customer service, or provide actual results – is lacking. To me all of the previous is fine. In fact – I’m learning all the time about the importance of first impressions and that as humans – we ARE inclined to make snap judgments based on a limited set of criteria or information. But, take a step back. Ask yourself – do they put the same amount of time into their work? Do they have current/past customers I could speak to in order to get a sense for their process? Where does the money for this flashy office come from?

Reply Times

This is one of the major things we learned from the job we didn’t win. In fact – it was something our potential client DIDN’T EVEN KNOW they needed. How quickly can the company you’re about to pay a bunch of money – get back to you. It’s anything from simple stuff, to complicated stuff – with all of the technical details (phone call, email, text, times open, etc. etc.).

Your Web Development Company Must Know (a little bit of) Everything

Another note from our never client – selecting a firm that’s “holistic.” Now, I’m not suggesting you select a company that does everything – marketing + web design + IT work… in fact I’d caution AGAINST such firms as this Internet stuff alone is so complicated and so fast moving (compared to any other industry I can think of) that it’s virtually impossible to integrate all three. However, a web dev shop + internet marketing shop MUST be able to point you in all directions. There’s a dfinition of intelligence as:

A lot of knowledge in one subject & a little bit of knowledge in lots of subjects.

Your web dev company should aim for this. At Atilus we have respective roles and areas of expertise. I come from a Internet marketing & Design background. Ashley specializes in Front End Development (HTML, CSS, JS) and Harry specializes in programming and database design. Every week we rotate and take turns teaching the team a particular subject we know a lot about.

Honesty & Integrity are Important

Closely related to the above honesty & integrity is very important. And, unfortunately I believe it’s only experience/references that can communicate this to your organization. This isn’t going to be communicated during a presentation or a proposal – it will only be revealed by you – the one investigating a web company and analyzing a proposal – actually investigating.

Honesty is important for any number of reasons. A nefarious company could steer you into technology that doesn’t make sense, that’s ridiculously expensive and locks you in as a customer/client. Or they could highjack your intellectual property and own or control your web presence doing with it what they will. On a smaller level, simply making updates to social media that aren’t congruent with your company can be damning. And finally, an honest company will share with you the above – what they’re extremely good at, what – through their intelligence – they can help you with – and finally connect you with partners who specialize in a particular topic when or if your project requires something outside of their expertise.

Pricing Sucks

Pricing in our industry is literally insane.

We re-did a website some years back for about $5000. The original version of this site cost our client over $100,000. We provided more in 1 month, with 1/20 of the budget then they ever received from the previous company… they were duped. 

I’ve worked over the years to write guides all on the web on how much websites should/do cost, but even then everything is variable.

Unfortunately – much like a mechanic, there’s no way to REALLY know what’s going on with a website without getting under the hood – and getting your hands dirty – all of which takes time and money upfront.

Many companies aren’t willing to accept this.

To give you an example of a process that looks simple – take transferring a website from your old provider to another provider. There’s a bunch of factors that come into play:

  1. Is there software powering your site (CMS)
  2. What language is your site built with?
  3. Is there a database?
  4. Where is your domain registered?
  5. Where is your current hosting?
  6. Do you have a relationship with your current developer/host?
  7. Are they willing to provide login information to your server, FTP, Control Panel, etc?

Tech mumbo jumbo aside – something as “simple” as transferring a site can take anywhere from 10 minutes to months depending on complexity.

Then there’s the matter of whether to price on value or price on time. Typically we price on time. We work hard to compare and analyze previous projects and grow better and better at estimating and I want us to make a fair profit – even if we provide an insane value to clients in higher margin markets. Some firms however price on value – the website will provide $1,000,000 in return or saved time over the next year – so they charge $200,000 – for a project that will take 10 or 20 hours. I understand the thinking, but disagree.

Some misc. pricing tips I would keep in mind:

  • High price doesn’t equal highest quality
  • Lowest price is usually a red flag (depending on the number of proposals you’re looking at) – use this with caution though
  • An upfront fee to assess current state of your web dev project is very reasonable and should be something you consider before jumping into a larger project.
  • Your own knowledge/availability will be important in pricing your project. The easier you are to work with – and the more you’re willing to defend your web company’s process – the less expensive the project will be. We evaluate the circumstances for all projects. A project with a governmental or municipality is VERY different from a small business website – even when the projects are technically the same (the same kind of website is created).
Kristen Bachmeier
Kristen Bachmeier
Kristen Bachmeier is Atilus' Director of Operations and helps to oversee all client accounts and day-to-day operations. Kristen also has a background in digital marketing, and has been working in the digital marketing space since 2012.

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