CJ Evans, Managing Director of American Diversified Enterprises LLC, outlines the 40 most common mistakes that will cause the rejection of an otherwise good application
Having a game-changing idea, concept, or innovation is not enough. Nor is it enough to just add a top-notch team, detailed work plan, and sufficient in-house and outside expertise to move through each of the nine TRL levels.
You need to be able to secure the funding needed to proceed. This is where many entrepreneurs and companies struggle.
It is widely recognised that ample time, allowances for things to go wrong, rigorous care and attention to detail, and expert knowledge are required to perfect a game-changing innovation. However, it is not widely recognised that the same is true of preparing a winning application.
If you have the necessary expertise to do this yourself, great. If not, get outside help, if only to review what you have done to be sure nothing is overlooked.
One or two seemingly small details can make the critical difference between an application that succeeds and one that does not.
A list of 40 common mistakes that will cause the rejection of an otherwise good proposal or application
The list applies to grant, loan guarantee, equity, and debt financing applications.
It includes the common mistakes encountered in preparing applications that the American Diversified Enterprises (ADEnterprises) holding company, its consulting and service companies (American Diversified Energy, 3rd Party Studies, Project Financing Assistance, and Due Diligence & Analysis), other consulting firms with whom ADEnterprises has cooperated, as well as excerpts from ‘SBIR/STTR Phase 1 Proposal Preparation’ by Jim Greenwood of Greenwood Consulting Group (GCG), Sanibel Island, Florida, who provides training, presents workshops, and is an expert in preparing winning Small Business Innovation and Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) applications.
Greenwood’s list includes not only the common mistakes he has experienced in guiding applicants through the SBIR/STTR process, but those regularly encountered and reported to him by the reviewers of applications in the agencies that fund SBIR/STTR applications.
These same mistakes apply to debt financing applications, responses to requests for proposals, and presentations to investors, equity firms, and other sources of capital.
Here is the first mistake that is regularly encountered:
1. Starting too late or hurrying to submit a proposal
It is critical to ensure adequate time to prepare an application or proposal. The more time available, the better the result.
It is recommended that applicants allow at least 60 days to prepare an application, bid submission, or response to an RFP.
Even a one-week delay in startup will impact the application or proposal. The same holds true if you are trying to rush an application or proposal, either because you are applying pressure on yourself or because the lender, equity firm, or other source of financing has said it needs something from you right away.
Quality – and attention to detail – will suffer further with each week of delay. This is because some of the critical steps necessary to prepare the best work product possible will have to be sacrificed to meet delivery requirements while everything else must be squeezed down into less time.
Each day that is lost means less attention can be given to detail; fewer reviews can be carried out; fewer opportunities are available to catch errors, improve clarity, amplify strengths, and mitigate weaknesses; and less scrutiny can be given to perfecting the way in which information is presented to ensure maximum impact.
This, in turn, reduces an application’s ability to attain the highest score possible, make a good impression, and win a reward.
The next common mistakes:
2. Not knowing if there is a market before writing your proposal
3. Lack of awareness of:
- The complexities involved;
- The requirements that have to be met; and
- The amount and quality of documentation required.
4. Lack of proper planning
You need to ensure other work can be put aside or postponed so priority attention can be given to the application, bid submission, or response to an RFP.
5. Starting off with inaccurate or outdated materials
A previous application based on another project or information about an earlier pilot can provide a good starting place for an application or proposal. Before using them – and especially before passing them on to any outside consultants who will be helping with the application effort – be sure you are clear, and can clearly tell consultants, what portions of these materials relate to and contribute to the understanding of the current project, and which portions do not.
It is far too easy to pick up unrelated, inaccurate, and outdated information from a background document and use it in an application – intended sometimes only as a place marker – then, due to time constraints, not go back to update or correct it.
6. Not having the information required to complete the application or proposal
Most companies do not have all of the required information for an application or proposal readily at hand, in a completed form, and fully up to date. Time, therefore, must be allowed to collect, update, fill in gaps, and hone this information for clarity and maximum impact. Going forward with incomplete – or worse, confusing, or incomprehensible – materials can doom an application or proposal.
7. Not making a commitment during the application/proposal development period to have ‘all hands on deck’ with as- and when-needed access after office hours, during weekends, and during vacations, if necessary, to company executives, technical and financial staff, and vendors and suppliers to resolve problems and questions that come up
8. Not addressing key questions that need to be answered
9. Not recognising the importance of nit-picks as well as substance and merits tests
10. Not proofreading for typos
Here are the next five common mistakes:
11. Not understanding – and not writing your application or proposal to address – the three steps of review
Once you pass the pre-screening step in number nine, your proposal will go through two more stages of review:
- Technical/substance review
Not only does a proposal need to address each application/RFP requirement, but it also needs to do so in a way that is:
- Easily understandable;
- Easy to follow;
- Inviting to read; and
- Engaging and compelling.
- Underwriting/scoring/selection of winners
Each part of a proposal will be given a numerical score, based on the merit review or scoring criteria laid out in the solicitation. The scores assigned by each reviewer will be correlated and weighted (with the final score for technical quality making up 30% of a proposal’s total score, for example).
Each proposal will then be ranked in order from the highest scoring to the lowest scoring. The funding requested by each of the top-ranking proposals will be subtracted from the funding available. When the available funding runs out, the selection process will end. You need to be sure you have done everything possible to rank high enough to get an award.
After substance, presentation is paramount. Proposals must be written so that each sentence contributes to meeting – or exceeding – requirements, making a strong positive impression on reviewers, and gaining the highest score possible.
12. Not getting an outside review
13. Not making it clear what data are from the company and what are from other sources
14. Not citing sources for data, not ensuring that data being used and cited is accurate and up to date, and not explaining and putting the data you are citing into context
15. Not applying for funding opportunities in the proper sequence or at the proper time
25 common reasons cited by reviewers for an application’s failure to gain their enthusiasm:
16. Not relevant to the agency’s mission or lender’s or investor’s financing guidelines and areas of interest
17. Not significant to agency’s research or a convincing match to a lender’s or investor’s requirements and areas of interest
18. Unconvincing case for commercialisation/societal impact
19. Lack of clarity, consistency
20. Vague workplan
21. Lack of technical detail
22. No statement of the feasibility, risk, or solution measures
23. Lack of detail in the feasibility test/research/execution plan
24. No recognition of pitfalls
25. Problem is more complex than the proposer seems to realise
26. Overly ambitious work plan/vision/expectation of outcomes
27. Lack of credible, defensible, sensible cost proposal
28. Relevancy of tasks to objectives is not clear
29. Methods unsuited to the objectives
30. Direction or sense of priority not well defined
31. Lack of focus on the hypotheses, aims, and/or research plan
32. Proposed model system inappropriate for proposed questions
33. Relevant controls not included
34. Insufficient consideration of statistical needs
35. Driven by technology or vision rather than a problem or pressing need
36. Too much background
Stick to provable and demonstrable statements and citations from credible sources. Do not include information that is unrelated to the application requirements – no matter how near and dear it is to your heart – especially if its inclusion comes at the expense of descriptions of the substantive steps you are going to carry out to complete your proposed project.
37. Lack of evidence – or convincing evidence – of innovation or uniqueness
38. Lack of credible principal investigator (PI), project manager, or team
39. Investigator(s) inexperienced
40. Lack of alternatives if the primary approach does not work out
Ensuring that each of these mistakes is addressed is why many applicants turn to professional grant writers and firms with grant writing, government application, and project financing documentation expertise.
Every investment made in improving the quality, impact, and scoring ability of an application or proposal will pay dividends by saving you from disappointment after months of work and hopes of an award, and reduced options for moving forward with an idea, concept, or innovation.
Even if you do not hire a professional writer or firm to prepare the application, give serious consideration to hiring one prior to submission to review, provide feedback, and give advice on how to improve your proposal.