The Secret of Making Proposals

I submitted my first life-changing proposal to my middle-school principal. In fact, I’m dedicating this article to him – the late Dr. William C. Cooksey. And when you hear my story, you’ll understand why.

Dr. Cooksey had expelled me for smoking cigarettes on school property. This wasn’t my first run-in with the school system (or this principal) – but it looked like it was going to be my last. I had been suspended on 12 other occasions. This was apparently the last straw.

He informed me that I would never attend a Minneapolis public school again. At first, I was relieved. But then reality set in. How would I tell this to my folks?

Each morning after the expulsion, I ate breakfast with my brother and sister … like nothing had happened. I was the only one in middle school at the time, so they were clueless. After they got on their school bus, I hung around the park all day trying to figure a way out of my situation.

“Begging for mercy” was the idea I came up with.

I walked into the middle-school office and asked to see Dr. Cooksey one last time. The receptionist reminded me that I wasn’t allowed on school property, and said if I didn’t leave immediately she would call the police. She started pushing me out the door with her pencil (as if I was contaminated).

Hearing the commotion, the principal poked his head out of his office in the nick of time. He motioned to the receptionist to let me in.

I delivered my carefully prepared speech.

I told him that I was sorry, I was wrong, and I realized I would never again attend a Minneapolis public school. Then I said, “But if you look a little deeper, you’ll see that I’m a really bright, loving, and enthusiastic kid.” (I’m not kidding. I really said that.)

I went on: “If you allow me back into school, I will make a personal promise and lifetime vow to you.”

Dr. Cooksey leaned back in his chair.

“I’m leaving in eight days to spend the summer with my older sister in Colorado,” I said. “I’ll be working part-time, helping her around the house, and having fun hiking in the mountains.

“All summer, I’ll remember my promise and vow to you, which is this: I’ll drop the bad habits and stop hanging out with kids who are up to no good. I’ll prepare myself for high school. I won’t make you look bad. You’ll be proud of me … and I’ll tell my kids about how you gave me a break.”

Dr. Cooksey smiled from ear to ear. “You are really something, Marc. I’m impressed. I’ve never heard anything quite like this.

“Okay. I do think you will turn yourself around. I’m going to lift the expulsion order. But there are only a few days remaining before school is out for the summer. Go home. I’ll be checking on you in high school.”

I was shocked! I couldn’t believe it. I closed the deal! (And, yes, I did keep my promise to him.)

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had instinctively used a tried-and-true formula for making a successful proposal.

Michael Masterson has described the “essence” of a successful proposal several times in ETR:

1. Clearly state what you will do.
2. Clearly state how long it will take.
3. Clearly state how much it will cost.
4. Deliver as promised.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve been developing business proposals for more than 25 years – and I’m amazed by how few businesspeople understand how to do it.

Granted, I’ve written hundreds of proposals that have been thrown in the trash. But over the course of my business career, this formula has opened the door to tens of millions of dollars worth of deals, ventures, partnerships, and other opportunities.

For example, in 1994, after reading an article in The Wall Street Journal about some college kids who were writing website reviews, I wrote to as many publishers as I could find that were looking for reviewers.

I was turned down more than 40 times.

Then I wrote to the editor of a new project called Yahoo! Unplugged. Out of frustration, I limited my letter to three paragraphs. I simply stated what I would do, how long it would take, and how much I would charge. The editor asked me to send him a couple of samples. Two weeks later, I received a contract in the mail with a note that said, “Thanks for the reviews – they were great. Looking forward to working with you. By the way, your proposal was right to the point – rare.”

This deal led not only to tens of thousands of dollars in compensation … but also to a nice little syndication deal.

“Going into business for yourself, becoming an entrepreneur, is the modern-day equivalent of pioneering on the old frontier.”– Paula Nelson

[Ed. Note: If you’re looking to get into a side business but just can’t come up with the right idea, consider subscribing to Marc Charles’s “Profit Center Dispatch” service. Each one of Marc’s weekly reports describes a business opportunity and tells you how to get started, where to find your products, and who to market to. He also includes insider tips to accelerate your success.]