Most fields are becoming so niche that proposal manager positions are out of reach for newcomers, yet freelancing in the small and medium business space offers transferability – and maybe an opportunity for you to discover the industry you love!
If you follow my content, you know I don’t talk about things I haven’t tried or done. My points here are straight from my personal experience.
From the ultra-niche…
The first time I touched a proposal was working full-time for the aerospace division of a European high-tech company, around four years after getting my MSc in Aerospace Engineering. How an aerospace engineer ended up in proposals is relevant to today’s topic, so let me tell you that story.
I was fresh back in Spain after my last university year in London and joined a high-tech systems company, specifically a group working in Aerospace and Defence. Even more specifically, the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) division (GPS, Galileo, and the like).
I started as a project engineer and worked in the deep, too geeky to detail technical stuff for a few years. I did some project management, some consulting, and finally managed to get into business development. Business development in this industry is a fancy word for a job that’s 90% about winning public tenders with proposals considered a sales function (no debate) and bidding as old as the industry because of its B2G nature.
As you can imagine, winning GNSS tenders is as niche as it gets. I haven’t met anyone working on these proposals who doesn’t come from technical positions in the industry. We used to joke that we knew everyone bidding for our RFPs in Europe, and it was very common for people to jump between a few companies doing similar roles. It is so niche, in fact, that it’s very common for agencies to end up hiring the same professionals to manage RFPs and programs from the buying side.
There are no ‘pure’ proposal managers in GNSS (similar in aerospace overall), just engineers, physicists, and mathematicians who decided to pursue a commercially-focused career. Upper management sees these positions as strategic, something you cannot fill with industry-agnostic profiles.
People hiring in this industry think it’s easier to teach an engineer who already knows the agencies (and is motivated to move to sales) how to bid than to train a top proposal manager who knows nobody in the industry and will need a dictionary for years to navigate the soup of acronyms and tech jargon. Without an industry background, these positions are out of reach.
…to the transferable world
I took a gap period after more than seven years and some big badges. To be honest, at that time I wasn’t even aware “Proposal Manager” was a job. I thought of myself as a business developer; a sales professional who knows how to bid.
Casually, just to extend the gap a little bit, I entered the freelance world and realised small and medium businesses are much more open to working with bidding professionals with no background in their industry.
While they may have a preference, I’ve found it easy to win work in many different industries based on pure proposals experience (including both B2G and B2B markets). This may be due to a lack of candidates or just the flexibility that characterises small business – but it’s curious how, in this space, it’s indeed the consultants who benefit more from niching down their clients rather than the other way around.
From my personal experience as a freelancing bid manager serving SMEs, you can win work to manage proposals for RFPs in industries as diverse as biotechnology, software and IT, logistics, entertainment, shipbroking, environmental disaster recovery, janitorial services, and lifeguarding services. These are all real examples and confirm my belief that bid management is one of the most transferrable professions out there. You can change industries and do very well as a bid professional, and it’s going to be way easier if it’s for a medium-sized business instead of a big enterprise.
By the way, that ‘gap’ gig became my full time thing for the next five years. I still run it as a services business but now focus on being a testing ground for AI in bidding (sort of the lab for my proposal AI tech endeavour).
This article was written by Javier Escartin.
Javier is an aerospace engineer who has climbed the corporate ladder from engineering to business development. He is a fulltime freelance Proposal Manager and has recently launched a business to make our work easier with artificial intelligence.
He is the founder of DeepRFP.com, runs the proposals newsletter jescartin.com, and manages proposals for worldwide technology companies as a consultant.