“Gov’ner, I demand immediate access to this information!”

Freedom of Information Act

A while back, my team submitted a proposal to Chesapeake County, Virginia for a disaster recovery mobile application that the county was looking to create. I’d never built a mobile app so I put on my HR hat and found InfinixSoft down in Buenos Aires. These guys are rockstar iPhone/iPad app designers and we quickly struck a deal to bid on the project. Two short weeks later, we’d submitted a bid for just under $30,000 to build the app.

A month following our submission, a received horrifying, yet vastly insightful news. Not only did Chesapeake County decline our bid, they awarded the contract to a company who priced their services at over $150,000! We were wayyyy off the mark in terms of pricing, but because I was able to get a hold of the winning contract that our competitor submitted, we never underpriced our services again!

As you can imagine, knowing the pricing, deliverables, and layout of a competitor’s winning proposal for a large contract is extremely valuable for any entrepreneur. Lucky for you, this information is available 100% of the time if you’re doing business with a public municipality or government entity.

It’s called the Freedom of Information Act and thanks to Fabiola Fleuranvil over at Blueprint Creative Group, I found out about this gem of a law a couple of years ago. The Freedom of Information Act states (in my un-lawyer-esque interpretation), that all American citizens may request full or partial disclosure to certain unreleased information and documents controlled by the federal government. Now, this is a pretty serious piece of legislation with lots of mandates, exemptions, and idiosyncrasies. I won’t even begin to try and explain everything, but I will explain how this law makes accessing competitor proposals on municipal/government projects a synch.

It’s widely known by municipal/government agencies that the winning proposal that they select for any of their contracts is public domain. Therefore, drafting a simple email or making a quick phone call gets you access to this information painlessly. While the FOIA may or may not be the right law to collateralize when trying to get your hands on this information, I do know that there is a version of this law for almost every state. Knowing this, and because the Federal FOIA sounds scholarly and legit, I throw it around like pigskin at a tailgate.

Let’s take a step back and think about why we’d want a competitor’s proposal that was submitted for a government project. Remember, this disclosure law entitles you to thewinning competitor’s proposal, so you’d be receiving the info well after the contract deadline has passed. Nonetheless, if you spend a few of reconnaissance by compiling a list of winning contracts for your services, you could extrapolate a winning formula for you next proposal submission. So, aside from simply knowing who the winning competitors are in your industry, seeing a series of these winning proposals gives you:

  1. Instant market research on pricing (i.e. the market rate for your products or services)
  2. Guidance on the best way to format and structure an attractive proposal
  3. Insight on the best use of tonality and verbiage (i.e. vendor focused or customer focused proposal?)
  4. Value adds that you may have never considered (maybe competitors are offering a supplemental service that’s very attractive to the municipality/government)
  5. Etc.

The list goes on and on, but hopefully you realize that this strategy should be incorporated if you intend to sell products or services to large, public agencies.

IMPLEMENTATION
Let’s now explore how you can get your hands on this information. The first step is finding contracts that were recently put up for bid. Because it’s more difficult to hunt down contracts that were closed 6 months ago than it is to find contracts that are open for bid today, I suggest finding contracts from around the country that are active and will be closing in the coming weeks. You can do this in two primary ways.

1) You can register as a vendor with municipal/government agencies that match your customer profile. This is pretty straightforward. Write out a list of all agencies that you feel needs/wants your product or service and methodically go about signing up as a registered vendor for each of the agencies. The sign-up process can usually be done through the agency’s website or by contacting them via phone and mailing in the application. Once registered, most agencies will automatically notify you when they have a need that your company may be able to fulfill. For other agencies, you may have to manually check their website on a routine basis to see if there are any outstanding contracts in which you can bid.

2) Scour a national database of government contracts and Requests For Proposals (RFPs). These online databases house hundreds if not thousands of active contracts waiting to be awarded by municipal and government agencies. A couple that you may want to check out are RFPDB.com and BidSync.com.

Once you’ve found some contracts. You’ll have to wait until the submission deadline passes. You’ll need to wait about 1 month on average past the submission deadline before you can expect to receive a copy of the winning proposal. When that time comes, simply email (or call) the point of contact for the contract and state the following:

“Good morning, Mrs. Sanders.

I hope that this message finds you in good health and spirits. Under the laws of the Texas Public Information Act and Federal Freedom of Information Act, I’m writing to request a copy of the winning proposal for this RFP.  

Will you be sending it by email or courier?

http://esbd.cpa.state.tx.us/bid_show.cfm?bidid=98237

Thank you,
C-Payne”

You can see that the email is short and concise. I mention the Freedom of Information Act and a state information law, in this case Texas, for added panache. There’s also a link to the RFP and the title of the RFP in the Subject Line of the email. I recommend adding verbiage about any applicable state laws as this increases the credibility of the request and expedites the process for receiving information. With this approach, my guess is that the receiver senses a demanded adherence to state and federal compliance law and thus acts judiciously in sending over the information.

That’s it! Go out there and snoop on competitors! It may just grow top line revenue by $150,000+ this year.