I came across Terrence L. Olson on some of the LinkedIn proposal group forums. I was struck by how his strong personality stood out among often-stagnant comments and then by his vast experience in construction bid management. With about 30 years’ experience in construction bid processes, in the public, private and U.S. federal sectors, Terrence seemed like just the person to interview to give our readers advice — both on how to properly use proposals to grow your business and just some truly solid advice for doing business and, well, for life.
So let’s jump right in and hear what he has to say! I promise it’s priceless whether you work on construction bids or any proposal project big or small.
Follow the directions and don’t be too big for your britches
The best way to respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP) is the simplest and the hardest — just follow the directions! More often than not, especially in government contracts, everything about how the RFP must be written and how the contract will be provided is right under your nose. For U.S. Federal, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) is your bible. “Those are imperatives. without knowing that they exist and understanding the relationship between those” regulations, it’s a complete waste of your time.
Especially when developing the price chart, he says to “always ask for everything you can get that is in the RFP — less than half read the whole RFP which can be up to 300 pages.” Hidden inside it can be so much.
A friend of Terrence writes for FBO.gov and says that 70 percent of companies listed are no longer in business because they were uselessly trying to respond to RFPs. To develop and exhibit the required capabilities, to use the tools necessary to do that, and to present them properly takes a lot of time and money that many companies don’t have.
For smaller businesses and freelancers it’s the same. Whether a company has released an RFP or if you are simply investigating the company’s needs, listen to what they say. Way more often than not, they will be clear what they want from you. And it’s a waste and money of time to try to bid for things that you simply don’t meet the requirements for.
Terrence says that shooting for the sky is usually a waste. WIthout a foot in the federal door already, he says you need a 6-figure capital investment to even start getting in there. However, the private sector has much fewer regulations and usually costs significantly less to throw your hat in the ring.
Be honest with yourself
We all like to talk a big talk, but, really, know what you can and cannot do. Potentially worse than never getting a bid signed is to have an agreement made and then not being able to meet those expectations. It can completely destroy you and your business’s reputation. Ask yourself:
- Do you have people in your organization that have produced similar results before and are responsible?
- Does your bid project manager have experience in Quality Assurance and/or Quality Control?
- Do you have the on-paper requirements, like the required degree? (The is where the Compliance Matrix is key.)
- What are your business’s core competencies?
- What is your experience? What work have you produced before?
- Why are you applying for this? Where is your business going?
What a first-round proposal should look like
Terrence is not one to use Powerpoint or Prezi to kick off a presentation, but he often uses a five-minute video that introduces the team and shows some visual examples of his construction. Then he pairs it with a binder or brochure, usually no more than 30 pages in length.
“When you are looking at a resume, you have 30 seconds to capture that person’s attention if they want to continue,” Terrence says, advocating on treating your first presentation and offer the same way.
“Any idiot can go to a publisher to get a 200-page document,” but he wants folks to actually read it and to ask questions. To him, most construction bid proposals should include:
- 4-5 pages on capabilities
- 4-5 pages on past projects
- 3-4 pages spent introducing your team
- 3-4 pages of references and recommendations
- a page or two at the front and at the end
He says that for a big project, like in poker, don’t show them all your cards at first. Once you show them the total price, that’s it. Make contingencies clear, particularly in variable-ridden fields like construction.
The intangible necessities of your proposal
“Proposals are being able to write and capture. The essence of what you want to project to someone in a proposal comes from experience and knowing what is required of you.” He says you can’t get that in school, as the teaching of proposal management classes continues to become more popular, at least in the States. He says it’s a mix of experience and just who you are, being able to ask the right questions and being direct about everything.
- Don’t set your goals so high so you can’t reach them
- You have to have adaptability
- You cannot be singularly focused and expect to survive
- You have to be able to be wrong and to learn from that
- Always look at new revenue sources
- Listen! (“People don’t listen anymore,” he says, shaking his head.)
- You are selling yourself all the time. “It’s how you project yourself and what you skills experience and expertise bring to the table.”
“Goals are often defined in a rigid sense — Money. Goal. Deadline,” he says, but in the construction industry, like so many others, things have to be more flexible.
Presenting honestly, not boringly
It’s clear that Terrence is a true-blue extrovert with a natural sales personality, so we had to pick his brain for how to present your proposal to your client. He says you “want to create a person-to-person attitude.”
When you get to the point in response to the RFP and are giving a presentation, the things that you want to do is you want to have answers to questions,” he says, but that you don’t want to come off as having all the answers — you need to make your client sure that you have the ability to find the answers. You need to work to exhibit your experience in what you’re doing and to come off as confident and stable, without seeming arrogant.
Terrence also says you got to be ready to take your hats off and the conversation outside, being able to ask the bold question: What are you willing to do? He says, “Everything is a negotiation in life, so be prepared for it. People going into life and going into business without effort are going to get left behind standing on the corner with your thumb out.”
He’s definitely a look-em-in-the-eye and shake-his-hand kind of guy, but it’s been a long time since he’s taken a handshake as an agreement — “For years, it was a handshake, but now I get every detail documented,” he says, advocating on behalf of writing a proposal that makes the contingency budget very clear, as, especially in construction, things like changes in soil can dramatically change numbers. “They should be setting goals that aren’t win or lose, they should be thinking about adaptability.”
For Terrence, his style is all about being direct with clients and potential clients. “You never have to guess where you stand with me and that’s how I do business,” he says.
“I believe in going out there. You have to provide a level of distinction and confidence, to communicate one-on-one.” He calls being able to articulate and make presentations is a lost art. He’s looking to work with other bid mangers who crave the face-to-face and hate cell phones, rejecting emailing bids without conversations first.
Life ain’t easy and neither are bid processes
Having been in the business for decades, including running his own company for nearly 24 years, and working in the constantly changing construction biz, Terrence has met all kinds of folks. One thing he’s found is that “a lot of people think everything can just fall into their lap.”
You know what happens what you assume… “I just think that what we’re seeing today is a lot of people who have been in business for so long, and their ideology and methodology is out of date. In construction, specifically, what i see is what’s happening in the federal market, I just think it’s a tragedy. People are so misdirected in what they think they know,” he says.
Keep on learning
Terrence says that when he has learned all there is to know in the construction bid business, then it’s time to retire — which he can hardly even envision at all. And it’s in his blood, “My father worked construction for 45 years, sun up and sun down,” and that’s how he does his projects, with hardhat on, outside the office and in the field.
While he says you can’t be taught the construction bid process — and even though the government loves new blood, they aren’t going to teach you either — you can study, study and keep on learning. He says his job, like many bid managers, is all a learning process, things are new all the time.
It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know
Terrence’s focus for the last three years has been helping smaller companies in the Small Business Association to bid for work in the federal sector. He has had government contracts ranging from $20,000 all the way up to $365 million. His government contracts has been “because of my past performance and I’ve established these relationships for years.” Because, once you have a trusted customer, it’s much easier to make future deals with them.
He says it’s nearly impossible to get your foot in the door with the U.S. government without connections. But that’s true in the entire business world, where you just need to network — ether in-person, via reference and network, or on LinkedIn. So get out there and start shaking hands!
Why bid software is essential
While Terrence hates Excel, he says absolutely, he couldn’t live without bid management software. Most of his proposals require the use of proposal software, having worked with Timberline, Primavera, Oracle, Re-fit, Bin and Dr. Checks.
He believes proposal software is a great way to avoid mistakes or missing something. “A lot of proposal software are intuitive, you don’t have to be an expert,” he assures. “It will lead you step by step through the process and won’t let you move forward if you aren’t doing it right.”
Searching for your next big step
Terrence himself is looking for his next professional adventure, sick of consultancy and looking to run operations from the inside, but he is being picky, as only those with his kind of experience can. His values hold very strong as he looks for a medium-sized company looking to grow — with the money with which to do it. He wants to help a company grow and mentor the up-and-comers, but he needs a company open to it. Terrence is looking with a company comfortable to make changes and to look outside its comfort zone.
He says that so many companies nowadays are using the crisis to go for the lowest bid even with hires. “People are using economic issues and stuff to base their hiring protocol on it,” he says. This is all about the culture of fear and “take a number, we can get anyone to do this job.” Terrence wants to see a company with vision. When he’s hiring, he wants someone overqualified for the job, the best, not someone to settle on. if you don’t have the right team, how can you have opportunities?
He’s met with companies that haven’t even paid their employees, but were offering him huge salaries. To him, a great leader and a great CEO puts his or her employees first, which especially means paying them first. This is the same sort of narrow-minded company that, particularly in the crisis, doesn’t understand why they aren’t getting work.
It’s for things like this that Terrence has turned down four VP positions in the last 30 days. He’s looking for progressive, forward thinking. He reminds us that, “Everybody’s time is important, whether digging the ditches or writing the checks.”
Construction photo: Fotolia