Estimating projects based on vague information

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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:

  1. Number of pages > (known)
  2. Words per page > (unknown; assuming 250-500)
  3. 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!

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  1. T.J. says

    What’s interesting to me is that this company apparently found someone to submit a bid that was acceptable to them. I hope the “winning” proofreader survived, and I agree, Susan should probably be thankful she didn’t get the job.

  2. says

    I try to avoid this by writing proposals – here’s what I will do and here’s how much it will cost. However, the whole pricing issue continues to bite me in the ass. Again and again. I write the proposal, client accepts, project becomes a headache. Perhaps experience is the only cure!

  3. Dr. Freelance says

    @T.J., that’s one of the weird dynamics of this industry. Someone, usually someone desperate, will always jump into the breach. And I’m hoping the winner got paid appropriately in addition to surviving, though I’ve got my doubts.

    @dava, a detailed proposal is imperative, absolutely. Pricing will always be one of the trickiest aspects of the biz — I’ve been doing it long enough to have learned from every mistake in the book! Like the old saying, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” That’s why it’s also critical to treat your top clients like gold; you can trust that what you’re proposing, delivering, and getting paid for will be in alignment. A good client wants you to succeed, too.

  4. Susan says

    Thank you for this post responding to my question; I throughly enjoyed it. I thought you might be interested in the latest development: although they still haven’t said anything in response to my proposal/estimate, I did hear from them yesterday that they are still developing how their proofreading process will work but they “will need” my assistance and are looking forward to my help! Of course I don’t know how much they expect to pay for my help….

    I haven’t answered yet; have to mull this over!

  5. Dr. Freelance says

    Thanks for the update, Susan. That is a very curious ping-pong game they’re playing…maybe they’re inexperienced in “how to hire a freelancer.” In any case, please do keep us up to date on the saga! And your “oh no!” gravatar face is just perfect for the situation, isn’t it?

  6. Susan says

    Yes, that gravatar face is perfect!

    Latest update is that I responded (on the 18th) to their they-will-need-my-assistance email. And asked for clarification on the scope of work, among other things. (They were considering using several proofreaders because they felt that 200+ pages was too much for one — so I am wondering if they have decided on that…just how much were they expecting to send me, etc.) And asked if they still expected material to start arriving on the 20th.

    No response yet. I still don’t know what’s happening….