Spec work for web developers

As a company edgeofmyseat.com don’t need to do a lot of responding to tenders. We sometimes help our design agency clients with their pitches but it is fairly rare for us to get a RFP direct to us. However, when we do get sight of these documents – perhaps because we have been approached directly to do development work for a company that already has a designer on board – I am often very surprised at the amount of work they expect us to do at a very early stage. Just to be able to have the “opportunity” of pitching for the work.

The main issue I have with these tenders is that they directly ask, or at least insinuate, that what should be submitted is an entire proposal for the development of the application. They often ask large numbers of very detailed questions about technology, approach and the finer points of how we would recommend certain features be implemented. To fully respond to these documents would take a couple of days of time for a senior developer – if we were to really do our response justice – essentially a couple of days of free consulting for the company putting out the tender.

As far as I am concerned this is as much spec work as asking design agencies to pitch with concepts. So when we are asking to put forward a proposal for these jobs, then our response tends to be a polite “no, thank you”. Even when the work looks interesting and very much the sort of project we could do well.

If an agency is spending a lot of time responding to tenders then they have to recoup that cost somehow, in our case it would mean having to charge a higher hourly rate for all jobs to cover the non-billable time used in responding.

In addition to the amount of non-billable time these proposals will consume, this work is in reality free consultancy for the person or company requesting the tenders. They can start the process with very sketchy ideas as to how their application should work, get 10 companies to present their concepts and suggestions and take all that knowledge, research and understanding with them to the final build – without paying a penny. When your input is ideas and experience it would be very difficult to prove that the information came from you, it isn’t the same as someone stealing a design concept. There are the occasional instances where an agency could cry foul over an idea that was so unique it would have been unlikely to have also come from another source, but these are unusual. This post from Solid State Group makes for interesting reading.

When it comes to clients with whom we have an existing relationship we are always happy to discuss ideas and approaches prior to a project beginning – that is all part of a good business relationship. However I will not give away days of consultancy to every company who turns up with a large document and a distant promise of a profitable job.

We have found that often these vague proposals expecting a lot of work are because the end client does not have a clear idea of what they want to do. With projects we have taken on we have found that a good approach is to suggest an initial stage of consultancy work. We work with the client and their designer to come up with a specification for the work, often producing wireframes of functionality; making suggestions for approaches and technology; essentially bringing our experience as developers to their ideas. At the end of that process that work is handed over to the client – along with a quote for our development services if we were to continue and build the project. However if they decide to then take the work elsewhere, there are no hard feelings, we have been paid for our consultancy work and we would hope that our years of experience will help to get the project off to a good start.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article we are fortunate in that most our our work comes via long-term partnerships with the design agencies we work with, or from people who have already decided that we are the company they would like to work with. I know that many companies do get a lot of their work via responding to tenders and I would be interested in hearing how other people manage responding to RFPs, and balance that with billable work, and not giving away a lot of consultancy time for free in the process.


Nathan Davis January 31, 2010 Reply

I spoke to someone yesterday who was a project manager. He said the same thing especially for government bodies giving sketchy rfp’s lots of companies spending lots of time to respond then the proj would be put on hold more often than not.

The answer – qualify leads

Nathaniel Davis

Sarah Parmenter February 1, 2010 Reply

I had this problem a few weeks back, an individual approached me with a very sketchy design brief, cagey about budget and demanded to talk “everything through” on the telephone first. All the alarm bells were ringing so when it came to submitting the “RFP” (quotes intended as the budget no way reflected a proper RFP document) I simply put a breakdown of hours, what would be worked on and for how much, I left out all the ideas that I had for the site and basically ensured it wasn’t a consultancy in writing.

I didn’t get the job, which I was relieved about anyway, but when I followed up with the client, after the same old same old of not hearing from them then you following up yourself, he said that all I had provided him with was a “pricing document” and he wanted a run down of how to improve the site and what I would do to improve the homepage etc.

I politely explained that for the budget we were talking about, there was no way I was going to put in hours and hours of consulting time into a document that would then be taken to a design agency with lesser knowledge than myself and carefully worked through bullet point by bullet point.

He explained that 2 other design agencies he had approached had provided him with such a document and that I was the odd one out for not.

I can only assume the other companies that were able to take on the work within his (eventually) disclosed budget were start ups or off-shore dev companies, therefore – haven’t learnt not to do that yet and what it costs them by doing so.

Dave McCourt February 1, 2010 Reply

This is a tricky area. We are a design company and we don’t free-pitch for creative work but we do web development as well and are often asked for in-depth proposals. We do usually do the proposal work but I have been thinking recently it is akin to free-pitching.

We are lucky in most of our work is repeat work with clients we have long-term relationships with, which is the ideal. I’m not sure how we would handle this if we didn’t have that back-up; working for free just isn’t sustainable.

I find a lot of RFPs are trying to jump the gun and clients want and need to know everything that might happen before it has even begun. This just shows a lack of trust and fuzzy thinking. Do clients have no idea what they are trying to achieve or what they will get? It appears that reputation and previous work don’t mean much — nothing can be left to chance. Which is ridiculous as I find most projects (creative to web development) tend to have an organic nature to them, changing and developing over the course of the project.

Edward Marno February 2, 2010 Reply

I am glad that we aren’t the only agency that has this problem! We often encounter this both from a design and from a development poiint of view. To give you an example a PR agency, who were ‘project managing’ the build of a client’s new website, brought us in to actually do all the work (for 40% of the total fee…). They wanted us to produce three or four initial designs and whn we refused, citing the design process we go through to get to that stage, they said it would harm our chances. A standalone freelancer was happy to do several days work for free and ended up getting the job ahead of us, this was 8 months ago and there still isn’t a new web site up. They still have their teletubby-esqe (I kid you not) web design up, I dread to think how much business the client is losing out on as a result. Very frustrating as we had put a lot of work into our intital proposal!

I do find Dave’s comment interesting, although projects are organic, we really liek to nail down the spec from the off as we hate scope creep!

Joules March 6, 2011 Reply

As a start-up web design company, in my ignorance, was delighted with an e-mail asking for a quote. Once I started to read through their ‘RFP’ I got steadily dispondant, surely they didn’t want me to spend hours answering all these questions…..they did! and yes, I had lots of ideas that would help them, and I am sure many other designers will too, but as you say, they could just gather all the best ideas and hey presto. Anyway I decided against it, and now I am reading your article and replies, this has confirmed that i am right not to waste any more time with this. Thank you all for an interesting read.

Happy Frog Media August 24, 2013 Reply

Reading this article and the comments above, it seems everyone is in the same boat. We are a web design and digital marketing agency and I have spent hours on the telephone with various callers such as small sole traders to local government and charity organisations. Im not rude enough to say “Im not telling you how i would do this and that” until an agreement has been made. I think not putting too much detail in your quote/proposal is the key, because they would just steal your ideas and take them somewhere less expensive, even though most of the time the cant even give you an idea on budget. Great article though +1

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