Dear Dr. Freelance: I saw your recent post about estimating projects, “Hourly rates vs. project pricing,” but how do you figure a bid on something you have just vague information on? I was asked to give a price on proofreading new website copy, knowing only the subject and how many pages there would be — but not how much copy might be on each page or what kind of shape it was in. Even the company that asked for the bid hasn’t seen anything. But they wanted a price. I assume they’re looking elsewhere since I have not heard back from them in response to what I did send, but I want to figure out what I *should* have done! — Susan
Dear Susan: Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scenario. (I even poked fun at it with one of my Freelance Follies YouTube video shorts: “How much is it going to cost?”) For whatever reason, many clients believe that there’s some sort of iPhone app that enables estimating projects without any input.
There’s an old saying in the construction business: “You can have speed, quality, or low cost. Pick any two.” That’s the way I approach the vague client: “The more information you give me, the more accurate I can be about my estimate; without much data, I am going to need to bid in a broad range.” So, in this case, I would have presented an estimated range based on the following:
- Number of pages > (known)
- Words per page > (unknown; assuming 250-500)
- Quality of content > (unknown; assuming medium-to-heavy proofreading required)
As you can see, this would generate a very high, conservative estimate — because the critical thing is that you should never commit to projects for which the worst-case scenario would be unacceptable. In essence, I’d be attempting to encourage the client to provide me more information if a more accurate estimate was desired. Even knowing just one of the two other variables (words per page or quality of content) would go a long way toward knowing the scope of the project.
Alternatively, you could pitch the idea of starting at an hourly rate for an initial period and creating a formal bid once the scope is better known.
Failing that, I’d leave the project to someone else, which is effectively what happened in your case. I know it’s disappointing, but I’m confident you avoided headaches in the long run. Not only should a proper businessperson be willing to fully inform a contractor before requesting a bid, but something else you said was a warning sign: They should have responded to your proofreading proposal, even if just to say, “No, thank you.”
Any reader thoughts on estimating projects when you’re in the “no-information” danger zone? Please share in the comments!