How to Create a Winning Freelance Project Proposal

One of the things I struggled with the most when I first started freelancing was how to win clients. Maybe you find someone who is interested in you, or you get an inquiry. That’s great! But how do you seal the deal? So much of that comes in at the proposal.

As a freelance designer and developer, I worked really hard to fine-tune my proposals over the years. I sourced from tutorials and templates. And I got a lot of help from other freelancer friends.

At the end, I had a pretty solid proposal template that won me the client almost every single time.

Now that I’m back in the saddle and have had to dust off my proposal templates, I remembered all the hard work I put into them. And I wanted to share my tips!

I should say that depending on your line of work, the way you write proposals may look different. Maybe you need to tweak some things and ignore some of my advice. That’s totally fine. The best proposal is going to come from you and be optimized for your style, your industry, and your client’s needs.

But the tips I’m about to share should be useful if you’re a web designer, branding specialist, developer, logo designer, or anything in that vein. If you provide services as your product, there is bound to be something here that you find useful.

I’m not going to give you a templated version of my proposal that you can take download. Every proposal for every freelancer should be different. I believe you’ll find more success using these tips to improve your proposals, rather than copying what I do directly.

Discovery call

The first step to writing a kick-ass proposal is to gather the information you need to write it in the first place. You might be able to create a proposal purely based off a project or role description. But my favorite way to cultivate that information is with a Discovery Call.

The Discovery Call is kind of like a first date. It allows you to learn about each other and feel out whether or not you’ll be a good fit. There are tons of tips for holding a productive Discovery Call – could be it’s own blog post!

Basically, you and your client get on a call and discuss the project in front of you. It’s important to give the client time to share their goals and expectations. But you should also be asking targeted questions that will help you write your proposal.

Questions like:

  • What does success look like to you?
  • In 6 months or 12 months, what would this project have to earn in order to be worth the investment?
  • What is your biggest fear or concern regarding this project?
  • What is your budget?
  • What is your timeline?
  • What do you have done already, if anything?
  • Who would I be working with directly on directions and revisions?
  • What is your preferred method of communication?

All of these questions will not only help you get a full understanding of the client’s needs, but will help you identify what pertinent information to include in your freelance proposal.

Identify the Problem and Solution

Now we get into the juicy stuff: actually writing the proposal.

A proposal is what the client will look at to determine if you can meet their needs. But before you meet those needs, you need to understand what they are.

No one needs just a website. If they say they do, what they really need is an online solution to get them from point A to point B. It’s your job to understand what point A is (their problem) and what point B is (the solution.)

At the beginning of the proposal, provide brief problem and solution statements.

The problem statement is where they are now. How they are struggling or being held back by not having the thing you intend to create for them? Use measurable language, focusing on sales, conversions, reach, output, etc.

An example of a good problem statement is: “The client lacks a website that is converting and bringing viable customers into the pipeline. As a result, sales over the last 2 years have declined at a rate of 2% per quarter.”

The solution statement is where you get to shine. Share exactly what you are going to do to address the problem. Sure, they know you want to build a site for them. But how will your skills and services site solve their problems?

An example of a good solution statement could be: “By conducting market research and performing A/B tests on content prior to launch, I will build a brochure website that uses intelligent design and rich content to increase conversions and bring warm leads into the pipeline.”

Make sure not to over-promise here. You cannot guarantee sales!

Providing Smart Options

Now that you’ve proven you understand the client’s real needs, you can spell out in more detail exactly how you can solve their problem.

One of the best tips I was ever given about writing freelance proposals comes in here.

Many freelancers will spell out in the proposal what a site build includes and how much it costs and stop there. Or worse yet, just regurgitate their packages into the proposal.

Instead, build three project options that your client can choose from.

Option 1 should be the bare minimum. The cheapest option, the fastest option, the most basic option.

Option 2 should be a more robust option, that includes everything in Option 1 and then some. This should be the closest option to what you client shared on the Discovery Call.

Option 3 should be the most expensive and fleshed-out option, including everything from Options 1 and 2 and more.

Sounds simple enough. But here’s how to make this section of the proposal really work for you.

  1. The services in Option 2 should be most appealing. Option 1 should omit one or two small or low-priority things that the client requested. Option 2 should include all the things your client requested. Option 3 should include anything that will take lots of time and effort – like an e-commerce shop on top of a website – or some additional things that weren’t even mentioned on the call.
  2. The budget amount that the client shared should sit somewhere between options 1 and 2. Most people will under-estimate the amount the share in a call because they want a good deal. They will most likely go for Option 2 if it means they get everything they wanted for just a bit extra.
  3. If they do go for Option 1, you can offer the possibility of completing the additional options laid out in Option 2 at a later date. Sometimes clients are looking at the budget they have right now and not thinking about later. Let them know that Option 2 features can be added later when they have more funds.
  4. Option 3 should surpass their shared budget by a fair amount. There is a chance they will go for this option, but by comparison, Option 2 will look much more doable.
  5. It’s useful to provide information on Option 3 in the proposal because it means they know what you are capable of. Once the project is complete, they very well may come back to you and ask to get the services from Option 3 they didn’t get.

All in all, offering these 3 options structured in this way will drive the clients eye toward that second option.

Timeline

For each option, offer an estimated delivery date. Be generous here and identify that any dates you provide are estimates– this is not a contract.

Again, utilize Option 2 as your ideal package. Option 2 should meet the timeline the client needs. Option 1 should be done prior to that deadline and Option 3 will take longer.

It’s a good idea in the proposal to set generalized milestones. You don’t have to build a full gantt chart for each project. Simply identify important checkpoints in the process so that client can get an idea of how you work and what to expect.

Cost

Now the fun part – they money!

I’ve always been a fan of activity based pricing rather than purely hourly pricing. This makes building quotes based on packages or options much easier.

Again, Option 2 should fall just a bit above their budget. Option 1 should be beneath that number and Option 3 should be above.

In this section of the proposal, identify any specific payment structures or methods you require. For example:

  • Do you ask for 50% up front? Is that deposit non-refundable?
  • Do you only take payment in a certain method? When do you accept alternatives?
  • What are your late fees or policies?
  • If you’re dealing with international clients, identify how you handle conversions or unique payment methods.
  • Does a part of the money go toward resources? How much?

People are most concerned about money when they are looking to hire. Unfortunately, online freelancers can have a bad reputation for being dishonest about money. Assuage any of those fears here. Answer all their questions in this section and lead with confidence.

Additional Services

It’s never fun to try to sell yourself (unless you’re into that kind of thing.) Most freelancers I know – including myself – find it awkward and weird to hawk our services. Especially ones people didn’t ask for.

But chances are, by not mentioning the additional services you may offer, you’re leaving money on the table.

I’m not saying sell for the sake of selling. But rather, find reasonable opportunities for upselling.

For example, you may offer web design. In your proposal, make sure the client knows you offer complementary services. That could be:

  • Custom plugin design
  • Graphic design
  • Copywriting
  • SEO
  • On-going maintenance
  • Reseller hosting

Chances are, you offer something they need anyway!

Important Things to Consider

I like including this section in my proposals. It’s one of those extra-mile things that can help set your proposal apart. It serves a lot of purposes.

Let me identify an example first. If this client needs a brand new website, there are costs associated with that project they may not be familiar with.

In this section, briefly outline things like hosting, domain name, SLL certificates, and stock photography costs and options. This is a great time to use any affiliate codes you may have.

You also assert yourself as an industry expert by including this information. You show that you know what you’re talking about and you understand the full context of your work.

Not only that, you show that you are on your client’s side. You aren’t interested in springing any surprise costs on them down the road and you aren’t leaving it to them to figure it all out themselves. Maybe the client kew all this already. But if you caught something they forgot, that can go a huge way.

Terms

Your proposal is not a contract. Please have a good, strong contract.

But in your proposal you can take the opportunity to briefly set out a few important terms so that the client knows what they are getting into. This can include information about:

  • Cancellation/termination/late fees for the project (Under what circumstances can you terminate the relationship?)
  • Your contact preferences and hours of availability (Don’t want Twitter DMs about the project? State that here.)
  • Turnaround times for emails (Set expectations that you won’t answer every email immediately, or even same-day.)
  • Holidays during which you are not available (Not everyone takes the same holidays off!)
  • Required formats and terms around deliverables (Do you provide AI files of your logo designs?)
  • What services are not included that you definitely do not provide, but that are required?
  • How do you handle scope creep?

At the very least, set out the terms for this document. How long do they have to accept before the offer expires? Is the proposal subject to any negotiation? What happens if they accept, then change their mind? What should they do if they have questions or want to accept your offer?

About you

Yes, I know, selling yourself again. We all hate it, but it must be done!

At the end of your proposal, it’s a good idea to include a brief section about you and the work you have done. You want to personalize this section and really make who you are as a person stand out in the client’s mind.

This section could include:

  • A short bio with your work history
  • Some portfolio examples that are most similar to this project
  • A headshot/photo of you!
  • Your social media profile links in case the client wants to do a bit of stalking

While the client is really going to make the decision based on all the other factors in the proposal, if they like you, that can be the deciding factor at the end of the day.

Next Steps

At the very end of the document, include a brief section for next steps. Answer the question, “I want to work with this person and I want to start now! But what do I do?”

Simply provide instructions on what they should do – that might be sending an email or scheduling another call. Either way, even if it’s simple, make it crystal clear what they should do a) if they want to accept or b) if they have questions.

Formatting and style

Don’t obsess over making your proposal beautiful. But there are some things that you should keep in mind.

  • Use an easy to read and large body font.
  • Use 1.5 line height or more.
  • Number each page for easy reference.
  • Use a descriptive with the document title so your proposal is easy to identify in a group.
  • Utilize your branding, but don’t go overboard with distracting colors or imagery.
  • Be consistent – if you use bullets for one list, don’t use dashes for another.
  • Deliver in PDF format.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread!

Some of my personal preferences for formatting and styling my proposal are:

  • Including a table of contents at the beginning of the document for easy reference.
  • Adding my contact info to the footer of each page in a light gray text.
  • Beginning each section on its own page to make the document feel less cramped.
  • I personally don’t like having a title page. I think it’s superfluous, but it’s up to you!

What did I miss?

Everyone writes proposals differently depending on their style and industry. What proposal must-haves did I miss that you love to include?

One comment on “How to Create a Winning Freelance Project Proposal

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  1. Thanks for sharing your detailed proposal structure. I always get questions about my proposals from colleagues, and I’m sure this article will be helpful to many freelancers.

    I agree on the importance of giving prospective clients all the information before agreeing to work together, but I’ve put all the non-custom information into a separate PDF guide that I send them with my response to their inquiry, before we book the initial (or discovery) call or meeting. That way, they can see what my terms, general time-frames, and fee ranges are even before we discuss any details. The proposal then contains only the information about their project. YMMV!

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