Winning the Business

Mind the Gap

Making the transition from federal to commercial proposals

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In nature, metamorphosis can take many forms. A tree can transition from colorful blossoms to leaves of green, and a caterpillar can change into a butterfly. The same is true in careers. With the ongoing simplification of the federal acquisition landscape, more and more professionals are making the leap into the private sector proposal world. As a marketing executive with more than 10 years of experience in both markets, I’m here to tell you it’s possible to make a seamless transformation, and it’s easier than ever to follow the career of your choice.

Anything Goes

The first thing you’ll notice when switching from public to private proposals is the lack of structure. Compared to the federal procurement market, private proposals are the wild west. Be prepared to respond in a variety of formats and with any structure you prefer. It’s okay to take creative liberties and think about giving your customer something more than just a proposal. For example, a commercial proposal may consist of a long technical proposal, a series of glossy brochures, and a website tailored for the customer. A federal proposal for the same work may be a written task order with no images and a strict 10-page limit.

At the same time, there are no laws governing private procurement, and private RFPs likely contain fewer, if any, acceptance criteria. As a result, unlike federal proposals, it’s common for private procurement staff to stay in close communication with bidders up to the time the proposal is submitted.

Pay attention to RFPs from repeat customers, as the consultants they’re working with may be close to your competition.

Understand Your Blind Spots

As opposed to federal contracting, where a business may specialize in one agency or build a strong relationship with a particular contracting shop, private proposals may be sent to any customer. For example, if you’re a software vendor, you may wish to install your product at retailers, wholesalers, and even hospitality providers. As a result, you’ll be responding in myriad formats and tailoring your differentiators to new customers almost daily.

Private sector awards are also made much more rapidly—some work begins as little as a week after proposals are submitted. This can compress timelines. Less than a week turnaround time is common for a private proposal. Requirements can also change in a moment’s notice. Private customers often request follow-up materials or clarifying documentation at any time, during or after the RFP process.

It’s a Changing Market

Because of the complexity of reviewing and creating RFPs, many businesses now outsource procurement and use new ways of accepting proposals. In many cases, a consultant will write an RFP or help review submissions. Knowing this, pay attention to RFPs from repeat customers, as the consultants they’re working with may be close to your competition. This may impact your bid/no-bid decisions or the questions you ask. Online portals containing spaces to respond to RFP questions in fewer than 1,000 characters are quickly becoming the norm. With such a limited response forum, it’s critical to respond to each question succinctly and to include a value statement in each response.

It’s Time to Respond

Working in the private market offers proposal professionals a wealth of opportunity. The unstructured culture and short timelines require strong project management skills. To keep up, it’s critical to stay organized, using any tool you prefer, and to work collaboratively, online or otherwise. Despite their challenges, commercial proposals offer unlimited opportunities to differentiate and to be creative while you’re doing it. Making the shift is a great way to grow professionally and to learn about the world’s largest companies.

Daniel Walker is a proposal manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He can be reached at

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