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I recently started consulting and I was wondering how does one learn how to write a:

  • MSA (master service agreement),

  • SOW (statement of work),

  • RFP (request for proposal),

etc.

I have a big client but I have no idea how to write a "proposal". I know how to do the technical work but I am inexperienced at the non-technical side of consulting.

How do I get started with writing proposals?

Can you recommend a resource that goes through all those important business aspects of consulting?

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Proposal writing in response to RFPs can be quite a difficult endeavor.

The best way to learn is having a good mentor, who’s an experienced proposal writer. If you know someone has this experience, ask if they will be your mentor.

That said, you can learn how to write proposals on your own. I’ve probably written hundreds of proposals as a research scientist, as a pre-sales solution architect/engineer, and as a board member for a community art center. All forms of proposal writing share similar skills.

As such, my first suggestion is to look for educational material on any kind of proposal writing, such as: Government Proposal Writing 101 or Introduction to Proposal Writing.

The next thing is to collect a set of sample RFP responses. At first this will give you something to mimic when creating your first proposals. Later you’ll use your own past proposals. Everywhere I’ve worked maintained a reference set of proposals, because you’ll see similar questions from one RFP to another. It takes time to craft quality answers, reusing those answers will save tons of time and result in better proposals.

At one point I attended a proposal writing training session at a conference put on by National Science Foundation (NSF) program managers. Listening to people who write RFPs / solicitations significantly changed my viewpoint as a proposal writer. Probably the best advice was most program managers want just as much to see good proposals as you want to make one. Ask them questions to help you make your proposal better!

Last but especially not least, learn from your failures. If you ask, you can often get information on why you’re proposal failed. This is great information for the next proposal. If it’s a recurring RFP this becomes an essential step to improve your chances for next time.

What I’ll say about SOWs is similar to RFPs. Look for a mentor, education material, examples, and learn from your mistakes. Review with your clients at the end of a project what went well and what didn’t, then consider if something added to the SOW could have made things better.

With a MSA (master service agreement), I’ll deviate from a mentor to saying you want a lawyer. I would look at MSA templates. I modified and tweaked one for my small business. That said, this is a contract make sure it is solid by having a lawyer review it.

What Mike and Gab have to say is essential to understanding why you need an MSA. “F* You, Pay Me

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This isn't a complete answer, but a properly written RFP will describe exactly how they want the proposal done (sometimes specifying the font type and size, and page count limits). I suggest getting a copy of a government RFP from municipal, state, or federal levels and seeing what sections they require.

Commercial RFPs will generally have fewer requirements.

Frequently the proposal will become the SOW

I've only seen one MSA and I wasn't involved with responding to it.


In general, a proposal will describe the client's problem, your approach to solving the problem, who will be working on it (with their qualifications), how long it will take (milestone breakdown), and how much it will cost (with a payment schedule). If there is follow up work, the MSA is important to describe what sort of maintenance is included in the proposal price, or how much it will be afterwards.

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