Business Process

To RFP or not to RFP?

January 19, 2024
To RFP or not to RFP?

A version of this article originally appeared on the Fast Company Executive Board.

You may have seen the show Undercover Boss, a show in which a CEO or company owner decides to “go undercover” and experience the front lines of their business. They usually reward an unsuspecting employee for their loyalty to the company, fix some problems, and terminate someone who is not a good fit.

While the show is entertaining and fun to watch, it also offers us a glimpse into some important business truths:

  • There are always going to be problems to solve inside a business.

  • People play a role in solving those problems (and there is often more to the story than meets the eye).

  • The problems usually fall into several categories, and people are too busy to solve them on their own.

  • The people turn to others for help when they are not able to solve the problems on their own and often write a request for proposal (RFP).

My personal experience is with custom software. My problem categories are most often:

  • How do I increase customer engagement and interaction?

  • How do I boost sales through mobile or digital platforms?

  • How do I improve brand visibility and recognition?

  • How do I provide value-added services to customers to differentiate us?

  • How do I streamline internal business processes?

Why business leaders often turn to RFPs

Oftentimes, a person at a company assigned the task of solving one of these problems will go to Google or Clutch and search for “Best Software Development Companies in the USA.”

Which will lead to 785,000,000 results in 0.45 seconds. Mostly sponsored posts and a mess of links.

A person will often click on a few links, but something else will pop up on their calendar so they will come back to it later. They will find a blog article about how to write an RFP and start drafting it up.

It will look something like this:

Request for Mobile App Development Services Project Brief Objectives. We have two objectives for the project: to increase customer engagement and interaction and to boost sales through mobile platforms. These objectives are important because we aim to enhance our relationship with our customers and drive revenue growth by leveraging mobile technology, ultimately improving our overall business performance.

We have seen hundreds of these RFPs. Okay, maybe thousands. They are all the same. And they don’t work. Just like the Undercover Boss episodes; we know there is more to the story.

Template for a meaningful discovery process with a potential digital partner

Finding a provider to help you solve some of your most difficult business challenges is going to be key to the success of your initiatives. Rather than doing an RFP, we encourage you to spend time on the phone and in person talking to your personal and professional networks. Feel free to use this email template:

Subject: Need your help

Body: Mark, I’m wondering if you would be willing to get together with me over the phone or in person next week. We are trying to find a custom software company that could help us solve our problem of X. You are someone we trust and might know a few providers we should consider. Or at least tell us about the process you went through. Thanks!

3 things to watch out for when vetting a digital product partner

Fire off 3-5 of those emails and you’ll be well on your way to finding a trusted provider. But you are not out of the woods yet, and you will want to watch out for a few “gotchas” in the process.

1. Does the company outsource their development offshore or hire localized teams?

Companies will often have U.S.-based project managers, but will outsource the development to an offshore location or someplace nearshore to help with costs. These firms are probably fine for solving simple development problems, but you’ll likely find yourself frustrated with the lack of responsiveness and accountability.

Offshore firms are often half the price of firms based here in the USA, which can be appealing. However, many projects end up coming back to a fully onshore development company due to issues working overseas. Many of the issues are related to communication barriers, time zone differences, quality issues, and intellectual property concerns.

You’ll want to ask if the company is outsourcing any of the design or development overseas before moving forward with a prospective firm.

2. Does the company use outside contractors (1099) or full-time employees (W2)?

One of the other issues is building a team entirely out of contracted resources rather than full-time team members.

This is more common than it used to be. Once the project is sold, the team is assembled. While this could work in theory, many of the contracted resources have never worked together before, and they could have differing views of what success looks like. You will often find a lot of finger-pointing and not much progress.

Remember those group projects in school when one person did most of the work? This is likely to happen with a team of contractors rather than full-time employees.

3. Do the company’s technical abilities match your requirements?

You will want to ensure your project aligns well with the company’s case studies on their website.

Oftentimes, a firm that offers everything is not great at anything. Designing and developing custom software is a lot like building a house. You wouldn’t want a team of plumbers to offer to do the electrical work; you’d want to make sure you have specialists in each role.

In the same way, you will want to vet out the provider to ensure that if they are doing mobile development, then they understand the tradeoffs of native: Swift and Kotlin versus ReactNative and Flutter applications.


Selecting the right partner is not just about ticking boxes in an RFP, but about engaging in a meaningful discovery process to find a collaborator who can turn your vision into a successful digital reality.

Our managing partners and principal consultants are here to make this discovery process smooth for you. Let’s chat!

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson
Co-founder & Managing Partner

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