A race to the bottom: RFP's are broken and what to do about it


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We meet with a lot of companies and startups every week that come from established brands, 1871, 600 West Chicago, LightBank and other incubators and accelerators looking to make their mark in the app universe. In many of these conversations, we are 1 of at least 3 firms that are bidding on their next digital initiative through an RFP (Request For Proposal) process.

Plus or minus an in-person visit, the request goes as follows:

  1. The idea, goals and why
  2. A breakdown of features that should be included in the estimate
  3. An opportunity for written group question and answers

Over the course of several days, we regroup with our team and produce a lengthy document that includes an estimate of effort/costs broken up by tasks, assumptions and hours. The baseline for these numbers end up being a measure of what it would ultimately take to do a good job for all of the listed features.

Therein lies the problem: A business or organization goes to agencies with a list of features so that they can objectively compare those agencies via their costs for building each or all of those features. What few business units realize is that when they begin utilizing the talents of an agency to solve their business goals, the underlying strategy, vision, and identified opportunities will also evolve and crystalize. 

What few business units realize is that when they begin utilizing the talents of an agency to solve their business goals, the underlying strategy, vision, and identified opportunities will also evolve and crystalize. 

For example, a request for login/signup via Facebook could be a basic API integration. Simple? Sure, not a whole lot of man hours. But through the working process, you might identify Facebook activity as one of your core KPI's. Because of that, the app might need a better way to onboard Facebook login users, or modify settings for notifications, or will require copy development in those messages, or integrate tracking, or pull social graph data, and the list goes on and on. Some firms can speak to that implementation in the RFP process, but when you compare the numbers it's hard to tell how one feature means one thing to one team based on their experience and something completely different to another. 

This is the race to the bottom. This is why so few design awards are going to Chicago-built interactive projects. We purposely build rigidity into our process to try to objectively find the right partner instead of choosing a partner based on their ability to strategize and build against our core goals. By contrast, the Valley's access to venture money and experience has helped them execute on not a feature-driven road, but a goal-driven plateau. There is a global understanding where by production value translates to business value. There are agencies in Chicago that are capable of doing great work, but they aren't even given a chance because of this RFP process.

Why? Because objectively you can't justify hiring them. Comparing apples to apples, the teams that execute at a higher level will rarely rise to the surface. One, because they're being conditioned to be as competitive as possible, and two, because they'll never be able to convince you that the potential strategic production value of their work is worth the additional investment.

What can we do to get back on track?

Stay goal-oriented.  Don't put together a list of features you think you might need. Come up with the core thing your app is going to do better than everyone else, and pitch that to potential agency partners. If you nail the core of what your app solves for users, history has shown that users will thank you by telling you the key pieces they feel are still missing. This keeps your team and partners from running around building 15 half-thought-out widgets on a short timeline or thin budget. 

Focus on the end-to-end.  You've probably heard the phrase, "A. players like to play with A. players." True craftsmen tune into a shared vision, only when they feel like the part they are contributing isn't going to be compromised by their peers. With the right team, trust and communication can take a long time to develop. If you're hiring an agency that has a great development team but isn't known for great design, find out a way to fill in that gap WITH your partner. The people you hire, whether in-house or not, must be able to communicate, work and trust each other at a craftsman level. By not doing so, you introduce tremendous rink to the quality and efficiencies you established to keep your production on budget and on time.

True craftsmen tune into a shared vision, only when they feel like the part they are contributing isn't going to be compromised by their peers.

Be open about the budget. If relationships start with communication, having your budget tucked away might be the best way to guarantee your expectations won't be met. It doesn't have to be a specific number, but be prepared to provide a range. In digital, literally everything is possible if the talent is up to the challenge. At domestic agencies, teams are made up of those who have spent their professional lives practicing architecting, designing and developing their dream apps. If they did that slow or always the most complex way possible, they wouldn't last very long on the team. Offer an agency opportunities to work within budget constraints both high and low and see what ideas are introduced to meet the product challenges.

Understand that quality is always in balance with cost. When a team achieves great UX or great development, you and your users shouldn't notice. There are many studios and agencies in Chicago that are capable of building the best apps in the world. With that, be realistic about how much time and money those apps cost to make. If you are citing Instagram, know the rough financials around what it took to build certain pieces of that app. Have conversations with potential teams about the pieces you feel make that experience special. 

Bake autonomy into your vendor relationship.  Try to avoid always dictating the way your site or app needs to be designed and built in your RFP. It's very disingenuous to assert that you want the partner you work with to believe in your vision, then not trust them to bring it to life. Nitpicking the executions has it's place in production and is healthy as a shared team, but those things ultimately won't be what makes your app successful. The best products are the ones where the team executing KNOWS it's just as responsible for the success of your application as you are. If you dictate every implementation before you even start, you take away the teams stake in the action.

The best products are the ones where the team executing KNOWS it's just as responsible for the success of your application as you are.

As the Chicago tech entrepreneurial community grows, it's important that it grows in concert with the teams executing the work. I'm of the belief that eliminating the communication and process breakdowns between our threaded goals is the only way we will reach our ever-growing potential.

The money the Valley has always had is here now. We have a decision to make: Continue to cheapen our projects to the lowest bidder, youngest talent, offshore, and scrap our way to the bottom. Or refocus on great strategy, expertise, quality, and get back to the core of what makes our apps great.  

Together, let's get back to racing to the top.

 

About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. He has helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studios work has been featured in the USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup.

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