When We Started Writing Proposals

Putting Rainmaker’s Experience and Success into Perspective

In Rainmaker CEO’s Gary Johnson’s book and writing guide Rainmaker on Government Proposals, he discusses the myriads of things that have changed in the world of proposal writing and management since we actually began writing and managing proposals.

To begin this experience illustration and to put 1981 into perspective, let us look at the technology and other things that DID NOT EXIST or were far, far beyond the economic reach of a small business when Rainmaker first began writing government proposals. Following is an excerpt from Rainmaker on Government Proposals:

    • Personal computers
    • Color Monitors
    • The Internet
    • Spell Check
    • Electronic Thesaurus
    • Projectors and Screens
    • Electronic Collaboration and/or Virtual Meeting Sites
      • Teams, Webex, Zoom, Skype, Monday, Google Workspace, Soho, or any other electronic collaboration sites
    • Laser and Inkjet Printers
    • Color Printers
      • It was not until 1983 before first consumer laser printer called the Canon LPB-CX was released
    • Real Time Computer Layouts
      • WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) – a type of editing software that allows users to see and edit content on a computer screen in a form that appears as it would when displayed on an , webpage, slide presentation, or printed document
    • Auto-Correct Typewriters
      • Although White-Out was created in 1966 it could not be used on legal or financial documents which required non-modified originals
    • Email
    • Texts or Instant Messages
    • Facsimile (fax) Machines
    • Computer Networks
    • Conference Calling as we know it today
      • AT&T was not broken up until 1984
      • Prior to 1984, conference calling was only available through AT&T and had to be set up in advance through an AT&T operator and was very expensive per minute
    • Overnight Deliveries (e.g., FedEx, UPS)
    • Cellular Phones or Smart Phones – in car or hand-held
      • Cellular phones were sold and activated in early 1984
      • Smart Phones with limited computer functions were released in the 1990s
    • Regus-type office settings
      • Were a conference room could be rented for the day or a dedicated office could be cost-effectively secured by a small business
    • Desktop Publishing
    • Pretty Much Anything Microsoft including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, Project, Teams
      • MS-DOS was released in August 1981 – five months after Rainmaker was formed
    • Anything Adobe (e.g., Acrobat, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign)
      • Adobe was founder in 1983
    • Anything Government Website that was Online including Sam.gov
      • FBO.gov (FedBizOpps.gov) ended December 2019
      • SAM.gov and FBO.gov were formerly a weekday, paper-only publication knows as Commerce Business Daily (1996 to 2001)
    • The Commerce Business Daily (CBD) listed notices of proposed government procurement actions, contract awards, sales of government property, and other procurement information.
      • Each edition contains approximately 500-1,000 notices.
      • Each notice appears in the CBD only once.
    • And the ability to quickly and easily save a large proposal document to anything portable.
      • While the 5¼” floppy disk was developed in 1976, it was not until 1983 that the 3½” rigid floppy disk was released to the public and it only had a capacity of 500 kb.
      • It was almost two decades until USB flash drives (1999) or multi-gigabyte portable hard drives were readily available to the public.

Rainmaker Was Created 3-Months Prior to the Launch of MTV 

So how did we do it? How was it possible to write and manage 100-page proposal responses to government solicitations without computers, overnight delivery services, conference calling, email and attachments,  and each of the technical advances we take for granted today? I would love to tell you it was overwhelming and terrible, but it was not.

First, we did not know any better. It is hard to miss something that has not yet been invented. Secondly, we had processes and procedures back then that, while different in many areas, are very similar to those we use today. Of course, in 1981, everything was far more hands-on and 90% of a proposal was created by and with people in the same room. I will say that the proposal response process, while considerably more time-consuming in the 1980s, was no less stressful then than it is today.

Rather than bore the reader with limitations and mechanics of proposal writing and coordination back then but it is fair to say that putting together a proposal response using only a typewriter and copy machine was a significant challenge. While a change of a word here and there or the correction of a typo is completed in seconds today, in the early ‘80s it required the re-typing of an entire page of a proposal. Adding a paragraph or moving text from one section to another required the retyping of many pages of a proposal. Templates, as we know them today (e.g., preformatted proposal documents), did not exist as every page of every proposal was typed onto a clean sheet of paper.

Proposal timing was also entirely different than it is today and in the 1980s was a critical proposal management issue. First, there was no way to share documents until the fax machine – in 1984 Federal Express (now FedEx) introduced ZapMail which, for $35 for up to five pages, a person could have a facsimile copy of document delivered across town or across the country in about two hours. Several years later, every small business had a fax machine in their office and the process was reduced from two or more hours to a matter of minutes. Within a decade, we had personal computers, floppy disks and the Internet and email and overnight delivery and eventually files that could be attached to emails, uploaded to FTP sites, or transferred onto a portable hard drive.

For small businesses, teaming was difficult, almost non-existent, in the ’60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and even into the ‘90s. Large firms worked on and knew how to manage government contracts – the federal acquisition system was designed for large firms – they invented teaming arrangements and partnerships to allow them to compete on contracts where they lacked the entirety of the experience and expertise necessary to win the contract and/or to comply with small business and set-aside subcontracting requirements and mandating the incorporation of small business subcontractors into the large business’ operating model.

Many small firms, particularly those outside of the greater Washington, DC area, were afraid of the hassles and skeptical of government payment practices with rumors abound of small federal contractors waiting 60, 90, or 180 days to receive payment for services performed or products sold to the feds. Additionally, only a handful of small businesses had any government contracting experience and those that did were not generally complimentary of the government red tape and requirements, specifically as they related to prompt payments to contractors, or more appropriately the lack of timely payments. While the Prompt Payment Act of 1982 (31 U.S.C. § 3901 et seq.) virtually guaranteed payments to contractors in 30 days, it was not until the early 1990s that working for the federal government, or teaming with a company in search of federal government contracts, was a common business strategy for firms outside of the Northern Virginia/Southern Maryland/DC area.

The bottom line is that while the technology has changed and the processes today allow a company and its capture management and proposal teams to work simultaneously on several concurrent proposal efforts, very little in the way of the proposal writing process is different today from when we started in 1981. The players are the same – proposal/technical writers, subject matter experts or SMEs, proposal managers, cost/pricing experts, and proposal coordinators and support staff.

It is important to recognize that one significant change is the elimination of typists who were responsible for the typing of proposal sections that were hand-written or transcribed by various SMEs and management and/or technical team members and given to the typing division/pool. Today, virtually everyone, everywhere can operate a computer – all technical, management, operational, and financial experts are expected to some or all of a proposal response.

Today, the general need for a dedicated typing pool no longer exists. However, the punctuation and layout abilities of then newly charged technical, operational, financial, and management writers of a proposal were at best remedial compared to those of a professionally trained and experienced typing professional – this resulted in proposals that required significant post-writing review, proofreading, editing, wordsmithing, desktop publishing, and proposal layout actions to be completed prior to the finalization of the proposal submission. This paradigm shift in proposal creation and management has significantly improved since the early- to mid-1990s with the release of the MS Office and, as noted above, the 1983 release of Adobe software solutions and has morphed into the way we write and manage proposals today.