How to Start Projects with IT Vendors. Part 1: Presale

10 min.

Me and my colleagues from Itransition have prepared a series of blog posts about what happens at first stages of any IT project and how to behave if you are a client. These tips are great for working with any IT vendor:

  1. Pre-sale;
  2. Analysis;
  3. Start of the project;

At a pre-sale stage, an IT vendor should look into what you need to develop to estimate the project cost and prepare a commercial proposal. It has to be clarified before you sign an agreement — that’s why it’s called “pre-sale”. Here is a list of what you should do during this stage so that the vendor understands you right and you don’t miss something important.

Determine the Business Goal

Perhaps there are people who can manage to come up with a business goal for the client and even achieve it, but personally, I am not a fan of fantasizing about the problems you have in your business. Therefore, my first advice is to decide on what exactly your business goal is.

For example, you want to automate a food delivery service. Before you go to the vendor, consider these points: who is your competition, how and where you will deliver food, how many people will order it. Also, read reviews of delivery services. If after all the completed steps you can say: “Hey, look, people in this area have nowhere to eat, and our kitchen is next door! It’s risky, but worth the investment” — go to the vendor with this business goal.

Understanding what is required to meet your business goal is the task of the vendor. But you need to prepare this goal yourself. We can help you with what software will be helpful, but we will not be able to advise you on how to organize your business.

Bad business goal Good business goal
Make money.

This is the business situation in my region, no competition in this niche – I want to fill it.

“Murder” Instagram.

Stats show that this group of people doesn’t use Instagram. We have an idea of how to fill this niche, but we’ll have to extend functionality.

I like cooking. I think it can be a good business. In this area there is nowhere to eat, and our kitchen is right next door – we want to organize a food delivery service.
We want to be on top of trends – let’s automate something in our company. Right now we print all our documentation, but there is so much of it, it always gets lost. Our accountants and lawyers are ripping their hair out. How do we automate?

Fill in the Form

Once you understand the business goal, the vendor assesses the “scale of disaster” – without this part it is impossible to offer a solution, let alone evaluate its cost. Therefore, the project begins with clarifying questions. Their number depends on the complexity of the problem, the specifics and plans for managing and expanding the business, and sometimes even on a particular vendor’s project management style.

Imagine that you came to us with the task of automating food delivery. At the pre-sale stage, we ask a bunch of questions anyway, before we offer anything. These are the ones I came up with while writing this post:

  • Do you have an approved budget already or do you still need to find investors?
  • Does the delivery cover a certain area, the whole city or country?
  • How are you going to make a profit and promote your services?
  • What features do you want to implement immediately, and what features can wait?
  • How many people will use the system every day?
  • How will you accept payment?
  • With what systems do you plan to integrate?
  • What are the deadlines for development and implementation?

A different business purpose will require answers to other questions, but there are some typical ones that we ask on each project. For example, who is on your team, what is the collaboration model, and is there an approved budget.

I gathered similar questions into the following questionnaire. To speed up the processing of your request, fill it in and attach it together with the business objective to the first letter to the vendor.

Talk to the Vendor

When you have a business goal and a completed questionnaire, you usually need one or two answer sessions to highly specialized questions that are not on the questionnaire. To prepare these questions add an analyst and technical specialist to the team. Use Skype, phone or a personal meeting – any convenient option is suitable, provided you can have an in-depth discussion without distractions. On your end you will need to bring:

The author of the original idea or someone who can explain what the business needs;

An analyst or someone who can explain what is needed in regard to functionality;

A technical expert or someone who can explain how your internal systems work.

This step is necessary to understand what solution to offer you. Some clients have a lot of ambition, but a very vague concept of real opportunities. For example, if you want a food delivery system that services several continents, automatically creates seasonal menus, takes into account the preferences of people in different regions and gives nutritional tips, it will take too long and cost too much for a start. We suggest to begin with less: limit the covered territory and only deliver dishes, for example, adding other functions later.

Sometimes it is not immediately clear whether it is possible to realize what the client wants. Let’s suppose you want the system to automatically check how fresh the products are by their appearance. This task is not trivial. For starters, we will offer to make a prototype and see what limitations this solution would have, and whether it would even work in practice. If you are satisfied with this trial, we will develop such a system. Better safe than sorry.

Some clients come with a ready technical specification. But even in this case, we ask questions to find out what needs to be done now, and what can be done later.

Project plans are different for everyone, but they should always be discussed before the start, and then documented properly in a commercial proposal. That’s the vendor’s job at the pre-sale stage.

Check the Result

To write a commercial proposal and make an assessment, the task is broken up into subtasks. I call it “divide the elephant”. When you serve the elephant whole, it is difficult to predict how long it will take to eat it. But if you cut the elephant into pound-sized pieces, it becomes immediately clear how many steaks you can make, which parts are better for frying, and which ones should go into a stew.

In the same way, we break up the main task of the project, and estimate individual “pieces”, or subtasks. We know from experience how much time it takes to solve a typical problem. So we can estimate how long a task will take based on how long a similar task took. And that’s how we arrive at a final estimation.  

As a result we get a commercial offer, which usually includes:

  • Our understanding of the task – what needs to be done;
  • Our technical approach – what technologies will be used and who will be on the team;
  • Our approach to development – what will the work process and client-vendor interaction be like;
  • The detailed price – how much each part will cost separately and the sum total;
  • The timeframe of the project and its stages – what parts and at what times will be ready;
  • Description of additional services – what else will be useful on the project;
  • Relevant work experience – our past achievements on similar projects.

Formally, the pre-sale ends when a similar document for your project is ready. But before you agree, show this commercial offer to another vendor. And the other vendor shouldn’t just criticize it for the sake of it. The criticism should be constructive and detailed: here you skipped a vital aspect, here you overestimated it, here you need a different strategy, and here you should use a better newer technology.

We all make mistakes, and we may overlook an obvious point just as easily as our competitors may unintentionally ignore a blind spot in their commercial offers. If these can be found and corrected before the start of the project, everyone will definitely be better off.

To illustrate my points, here is an example of a commercial proposal. This document will be different on your project, but in essence it will remain the same.

What’s Next

After the pre-sale it becomes clear what we are doing, how much it will cost and what the plan is. At the next stage you should discuss in detail how to implement this plan. Learn more about client-vendor interaction at the analysis stage in our next post.