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Video Entrepreneur: A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

Your phone rings. On the other end is a potential client. You like potential clients, as they represent

That's the problem with some potential clients. They want to know exactly what you are going to do before you do it. And they want to know exactly what it will cost before they even know what they want to do.

Here's how I handle such a question. Look, I say, every video project is different. It's like asking how much a house is going to cost before you tell me what kind of a house you want to build. How many rooms does the house have, does it have a water view, how many acres of land? Ceramic tile? A swimming pool? You see?

"Ah, of course, I see perfectly" says the potential client pleasantly, "But how much is it going to cost?"
"A million dollars," I reply.

Learn to Earn

This is the time to get some details on paper, usually in the form of a proposal. A proposal is simply a document that outlines what the video is going to accomplish, how you plan to make it happen, and an estimate of what it's all going to cost. Ahhh--we're back to the cost issue.

How can you come up with an accurate estimate of a "potential" video? By learning everything you can about the project. Who will be watching the final video--CEOs of corporations or first graders at the local elementary school? How long is the video? Will you need to shoot on Digital Betacam or is S-VHS acceptable? Are you and your crew going to have to travel to Istanbul or will everything be shot locally?

Be sure the client understands what he or she is getting. If your price is for shooting and editing, then let the client know that scriptwriting will be an additional expense. Or if you do take the job from start to finish, then outline all the steps (selecting talent, scouting locations, production scheduling, shooting, editing, dubs). Make sure the client understands that your price includes these items only.

Before you state a price for the project, see if you can find out what the client's budget is. It may be more than you thought, which gives you the freedom to add more elements to the production. On the other end of the spectrum, the budget may be so small that it's not even possible to accomplish what the client wants. It's better to learn this sad fact early, before you invest your valuable time.

Set the Parameters

Once you state a price, the client will try to hold you to it. Client-human nature is to lock you into a price and then add complexity that will cost you more money. "Did I forget to mention that you could shoot on the warehouse floor only between 3am and 5am? Must've slipped my mind."

This is why you want to be specific in the cost estimating process of your proposal. If you tell them exactly what they are getting for the price you are quoting, the client won't be able to add on more complexity without that price going up.

On simple jobs, I usually break my estimate down into two parts: 1) the Treatment and 2) the Estimate and Authorization.

Earlier, we looked at how you should ask questions to learn about the client's project. With the information you learned through your questions, a natural method of creating the video will probably pop into your head.

For example, a client might be a builder of million-dollar homes. The client wants to show off the many features of the different models. Your treatment might look like this:

Classical music plays as the camera floats past the house with a breathtaking wide shot. The scene dissolves to a closer shot of the front of the house. As the camera floats forward, the front door opens and the camera (who is the viewer) is greeted by a butler. This butler (a professional actor) proceeds to give the viewer a full tour of the house.

The treatment can be as simple or as complex as you like, as long as it serves the purpose of telling your client what the show is going to look like. If the client likes the concept and agrees on the price, you are ready to move into scripting. If there is something the client doesn't agree with, you know it before you discuss money.

Also, if the client loves your idea, they're more likely to go with you than one of your competitors. Of course, the client can always steal your idea and use another company, anyway. The unfortunate fact is you can't copyright an idea.

Author, Author

The second part of the proposal I send to clients is the Estimate and Authorization. On this sheet, I try to be as complete as possible, putting down my best guesses on what each part of the video will cost. There are two schools of thought on this. A buddy of mine, who also produces video, only tells his clients what the total cost of the production will be. He has found that some clients try to lower the price by eliminating parts of the video ("Look, we can save $200 if we re-use a stack of VHS tapes from home...").

Whatever method you choose, the important item is the last line on the page. This is where it says:
Authorization: ____________________________ Date: ________
Have the client sign and date your document and you can get started.

Does this document protect you from a client who want to rip you off? Nope. But neither do multi-page contracts. I know of a disreputable fellow who has run up thousands of dollars worth of video production bills (though not with me, thank goodness), refused to pay, been taken to court, ordered to pay by the judge, and still refused to pay. The last I heard, he had left town--without paying.

If you don't have a good feeling in your gut about a potential client and you think they might be in the sleazy category, back off. Talk to other people in the community who have worked with this person. Are your fears legitimate? A little homework can help you avoid major headaches.

So why get a signature? Honest people (the ones you want to work with) stand by their promises. But even these folks sometimes have short memories. ("I never agreed to that." "But you signed this document saying you did." "I did? I'll be darned.") Leaving a paper trail helps everyone remember these little details.

What Do You Propose?

Often, a proposal is much more than just a few descriptive paragraphs with a cost figure attached. A proposal may become a long, involved chunk of paperwork which explains in detail how you will create a specific video project. It is sometimes written in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP). Government agencies and other large corporations often send out RFPs when they need specific services, be they video production or bomb shelter construction. What they get back from an RFP is a mountain of proposals, each explaining why the proposer is the best choice to provide that service.

How can you get in on the fun of responding to an RFP? One way is to team up with a larger company which is responding to an RFP that calls for a video as a part of a larger contract.

For example, I once worked on a project where a company was creating a simulator for the Navy to train catapult officers on aircraft carriers. These officers stood on a simulated deck and looked at a large screen television showing F-14s, A-6s and other aircraft preparing to take off. The production company I worked for was the subcontractor responsible for capturing the aircraft on videotape.

As a subcontractor, the video company was only responsible for responding to a small part of the RFP. But it was important that the Navy was as comfortable with the information presented in the video portion of the proposal as the rest. If you can convince large companies in your area that you are the person to handle its video requirements, they might call you when they need a video subcontractor.

If the RFP is for the production of a video program, you could respond as the primary contractor on the job. But be aware that these RFPs go out to dozens of companies at the same time. If you don't feel that yours is the right company to do the work outlined in the RFP, you may want to save your energy for a project you can handle.

Why not respond to every RFP you can find? Because creating a proposal is a lot of work. You could conceivably spend all your time writing proposals and never win any of them.

For Example

What kind of information do most agencies expect to see in a proposal? The following is the actual wording of the proposal format from an RFP from the State of Florida.

  1. Table of Contents
  2. Tab 1. Executive Summary - Include a synopsis of the proposal prepared in a manner that is easily understood by non-technical personnel.
  3. Tab 2. Certification and References - the proposer shall provide a list of not less than three (3) nor more than five (5) different previous clients during the past 3 years as references. This part shall include the dates of the previous projects and the name, title and telephone number of a responsible employee of the previous client who is familiar with the project. The proposer must include a certification that in the previous project it was the original provider of the services.
  4. Tab 3. Resumes of Individuals Proposed to Work on this Contract - the proposer shall include resumes of the individual it proposes to assign to this project, specifying relevant educational and work experiences, and shall designate which individual will be the producer/director responsible for the coordination of work efforts of the other personnel assigned to the project. Availability of each individual shall be described, as well as the estimated number of work days of commitment from each.
  5. Tab 4. Description of Creative and Technical Approach - The proposer must provide a description of how it will produce the video programs. This description shall include the proposed production schedule of the estimated working days required to complete each part of each program, the degree of involvement by the Division, and the geographic location where the production will take place. It should also include general information about the talent (estimated number of professionals, semi- professionals, and extras) and a general description of the proposed use of narrative, dramatics, animation and graphics.
  6. Tab 5. Description of Video Equipment - The proposer must supply a list of production and post-production equipment intended for producing these programs.
  7. Tab 6. Work Sample - The proposer must supply a sample in VHS format of a previous instructional or training video program with production values similar to those offered in response to the RFP. The work sample will be evaluated for both production quality and creative treatment of the subject matter.

You Get the Idea

Also requested by the RFP was a Cost Proposal Form, a Proposal Acknowledgment List and a Sworn Statement on Public Entity Crimes. If you think filling out one of these puppies sounds like more work than you are now putting into entire video projects--you may be right. This is why you should feel you have a pretty good shot at getting a contract before you go after it.

The sample above from the State of Florida was an extremely well-written RFP. A video expert was called in to give the writer advice on how a video is put together. But sometimes an RFP is written

requesting strange or unworkable video solutions. It doesn't matter. You must respond to these requests as they are, even if they are bizarre.

Responding to request for proposals is a skill. You have to answer every question, dot every i, cross every t. If you don't, your proposal can be thrown out for non-compliance. It's harsh, but true.

If you can find someone who has dealt with RFPs before, it might be worth it to "partner" with them. It doesn't really matter if this person knows anything about video; that's your job, as long as they understand the language of responding to proposals.

Check with local business groups to see if they know of any retirees who used to work for a corporation. These people might have been exposed to proposal writing and they might be willing to help you learn how. They might be happy to pass on their knowledge to a new generation. If you can't find a real human to give you advice, check your public library for books on proposal writing.

Is responding to an RFP worth the trouble? Winning a contract can be extremely lucrative. But it isn't easy. If you think you can fill the requirements, I propose you give it a try.

Tags:  October 1995
William
Ronat
Sun, 10/01/1995 - 12:00am