Reading Technical Proposals

A client of mine recently received a proposal from a software developer, and asked me to look it over and let her know if I thought it was “ok”.  As far as proposals of work from an independent developer go, it was pretty good.  It had a long list of bulleted items that would be included, was broken into 4 phases of work, with a separate cost estimate for each phase.  The one thing it was missing, at a high level, was a delivery timeline estimate (would phase 1 take a week? a month?).

But the first thing I noted, in my feedback to her, was that it was very much written both by and for the developer.

I found that it was really good at detailing a bunch of technical tasks I was sure she didn’t specifically request. In some cases, it even detailed some tasks I wasn’t sure she’d actually want performed. Conversely, I recalled several specific features she wanted developed, that I didn’t see listed.

Incomplete proposals are fairly common, it can seem tedious to write out every little detail (and also feel pretty thankless before you’re getting paid), so I asked her, “Do you feel like he truly understands what you want?” and gave her a couple small examples of where his proposal didn’t match my understanding of the product she was trying to get built. One of her responses is what prompted me to write this post.  She said:

“I didn’t see that feature in the proposal either, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe he included it, but just in technical terms I didn’t understand”

To me, that’s not “ok”. Before signing off on any proposal, or any other contract, formal or informal, you should always feel confident that you understand what it says.

So what’s a non-technical reader supposed to do?

Know what you want

You probably have a good idea what you want, and it’s ok that you do not know every detail involved in creating it, that’s why you’re hiring someone.  Being able to spell out what you want may seem easy, but actually this is the bulk of the hard work you’ll need to do. “I need a website” is not sufficient, you need to be very clear about your vision. You need to go into as much detail as you can, and you need to understand any decent developer will likely still have good questions when you’re done. If you get stuck describing, in your own words, what you want, it’s ok to describe it by using examples – as long as you can be specific about what about each example you want (and what you don’t).

Get really practical. List out all the things you can think of, even little things, and even though it may be tedious: “show my phone number on every page”, or “customers should be able to purchase in USD with Visa or MasterCard, but not American Express or Discover”. List out everything you don’t know: “Can I use the merchant account I got from my bank to accept money online, too?”, or “Will the logo I bought for my letterhead work for the iPhone app icon?”

Ideally, you’ll have written all that down before you ask anyone to bid on the work.  That way, when you get back a proposal or estimate, you can look for all the things you asked for.  It’s actually a good sign, in my opinion, if the person bidding on the work asks for a copy of your list in electronic format to use to start their proposal.

If you don’t see some specific thing you wanted listed anywhere in the final proposal, but you know it was in your list, you’re in a great place to start a conversation about it.

Ask Questions

Even talking amongst themselves, technical people often say things like, “I don’t see feature X, can you point it out to me?” in a discussion about whether a written proposal truly covers everything. My client was worried that might be offensive to her developer, but it’s nothing to shy away from.

Best case, they simply forgot to include it, or summarized the information in a way that wasn’t clear to you. That’s easy to resolve, you just ask them to add it in or make that section clearer. Worst case, they intentionally omitted it, but even that can be a huge positive. If they intentionally omitted it, the reason may be because it’s beyond their skill set, or they disagree with it, or they believe it contradicts something else you requested. Any of those reasons can (and should) lead to a good conversation, and is certainly information you’d rather have now, than after a portion (or all) of the work is complete.

No matter how good your list was, how many questions you ask, or how much you ask to be rewritten for clarity, you should not feel bad.  Even people whose whole jobs are writing specs (or designing software) forget things, contradict themselves, and ask “obvious” questions from time to time. The end result, and whole point, is a proposal that you feel confident you understand. You should be comfortable you understand what you’re going to get, and the proposed amount of time and expense it will take, just like any other decision you make about your business.

Free Legal Resources

Dublin Entrepreneurial Center offers free Professional Small Business Advice (including legal advice) every Thursday, as well as ad hoc events on specific topics.

The Ohio State Bar Association offers a “Legal Basics for Small Business” handbook, here:

Of course, if your legal concerns have nothing to do with starting a business, the list of available resources is much longer. Here are several good resource lists that are far broader than business concerns, some resources they post to are free, some depend upon income to qualify for free or sliding scale fees: (see also for state-wide listings)

Creating an LLC

There are many articles about creating a company, including this great set from the state of Ohio.

The first step that many mention is that you will need to decide the type of company you want to create, legally (an LLC, a Sole Prop, a Corporation, etc.).

I had decided in advance, that when I began my company, I wanted it to be an LLC. The process in Ohio is fairly straightforward, and it is theoretically possible to avoid spending money, beyond the $99 filing fee to register with the state, using form #533A.

However, I spent a bit more, and I advise everyone to carefully consider their options, and to consider not going it solo on this process.

First of all, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m a big advocate of always seeking legal advice. So reading the form, the full implication of some fields was basically just fodder to way over think & then feel uncertain about my answers anyway. But, if all I wanted was legal advice, it turns out entrepreneurs in the Columbus area have many great resources available.

But one field in particular really threw me for a loop, Statutory Agent. This is basically the whole second page of the form, so it must be important, right? In fact, the Statutory Agent (also sometimes called a Registered Agent) can be you, but MUST be available at a specific physical address (within the state) during all normal business hours. Since initially I knew I’d be the sole employee of my company, not being able to go meet with clients, let alone take a day off, was a deal breaker.

So if I don’t want to be my own Statutory Agent, what are my other options? I found & looked at several companies. Some offer just Statutory Agent services, and these are the cheapest, as low as $49/year. Many bundle Statutory Agent services with something often called Compliance, where basically, they warn you when forms, filings, and other things are due. The reminders sounded useful to me, at least for the first year, as I’m well aware I don’t know what I don’t know.

I also noticed it’s important to choose a stable company, because any change, even just a change of address for the Statutory Agent must be registered with the state and costs money. Here’s another great page provided by Ohio, discussing Statutory Agents in more detail: Statutory Agents

There was another option I noticed, while doing my research. Their are larger companies that specialize in helping people create new companies quickly & easily, these are the ones you’ve probably heard the names of already. They provide Statutory Agent services, but I couldn’t find a way to only hire them as a Statutory Agent, at least not easily, and I started reading about the full packages they specialize in.

The packages were all similar.  These companies will walk you through filling in the state’s registration form, and then will electronically submit it on your behalf. You can use them as your Statutory Agent, and they all offer a Compliance service, as well as to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) for you. Many also offer a wide range of additional business and legal forms with similar “walk you through it” guidance for completion.

What I found confusing was the pricing.  Online, it was difficult to tally up what a package including all the services I was interested in would cost, so I called several of them.  In the end, I chose Rocket Lawyer.  I chose them, because of the companies I called, the minimum cost for Statutory Agent Service plus filing was lowest versus other large package companies (though it did include extras, and was much more expensive than going it solo plus a $49 Agent).   But one thing in particular that it included was not only an extensive library of legal forms, but also “Ask a Lawyer” service, including up to an hour in each specialty. To be fair, I haven’t tested that aspect yet, if I do I’ll be sure to post about my experience.

In the end, I spent over $400 on the package (including the $99 filing fee that went to the state of Ohio). But I felt very confident that my paperwork was correct and that I had purchased a useful resource pool for other steps I needed to take in the first year, such as creating a Operating Agreement for my LLC (recommended by every expert I consulted, but not 100% required – and only took 5 minutes on Rocket Lawyer) and my business contracts.