In the beginning
I already mentioned it: cuneiform writing. It's impossible to give you an exact date for the very first proposal, but there is an intriguing anecdote from history that could represent the origin of a proposal:
In ancient Mesopotamia, around 2000 BC, clay tablets were used to record transactions and contracts. Archaeologists have discovered a clay tablet with an inscription indicating an early form of proposal. The inscription contained details of the sale of wool and was written in cuneiform script. According to this inscription, an agreement was made between a supplier named Ea-nasir and a buyer named Nanni. Ea-nasir offered high-quality wool, but when the wool arrived at Nanni it was of inferior quality. Nanni was not satisfied and sent a clay tablet back to Ea-nasir expressing his displeasure and filing a written complaint.
And so you can see Ea-nasir's clay tablet detailing the wool – the specifications of goods – as an early form of the proposal.
From handshake to written document
Long, long ago, business agreements were often concluded on the basis of trust and verbal agreements. A fairy tale surely? Nope. A firm handshake and a word of honor were enough to close a deal. That went well within small communities where everyone knew each other. If something was wrong, they knew where to find you... But with the growth of trade and cities, the need for more formal ways arose. Documents were drawn up to record the terms of a deal and to avoid any conflicts. These early agreements are the basis for the later proposals, which specify details such as prices, quantities, delivery dates and terms.
The Industrial Revolution and standardization
During the Industrial Revolution, the number of companies increased, they became larger and more complex. The printing press produced printed materials such as catalogs and price lists. This provided standardized information about products and services that formed the basis for proposals. Salespeople no longer had to list all kinds of prices and simply referred to the catalog or price list. It saved them a lot of time. Companies developed standard forms in the form of a proposal. Then all you had to do was fill in the blanks on the typewriter. This happened for a long time on the manual and later on the electric typewriter (the predecessor of the word processor). Working on a manual typewriter was almost as difficult as 'writing' on a clay tablet. You had to perform every keystroke by hand and those keys were very heavy. It required quite a bit of force to press each key. There was clearly no talk about RSI at that time. The electric drive, on the other hand, not only made typing less tiring, it was also much faster. IBM was the first to come up with a successful model. They dominated the high-end office typewriter market for a long time. Now they still dominate, but in vintage stores. There are plenty of people, including poets and writers, who love producing their work on these classic machines.
The Digital Revolution
With the advent of computers and the Internet, the proposal was further transformed. Typewriters were replaced by word processors. Documents and therefore also proposals were stored externally on a floppy disk (say, today's USB stick or external hard drive), so that you could adjust or reuse them later. At the time, hard drives had limited capacity, so floppy disks were a huge advancement. But as always - and in Cruijffian terms: every advantage has its disadvantage. The floppy disks quickly became damaged, with all the associated risks. And because you needed physical access to edit the information on the floppy disks, it was difficult to share documents.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Microsoft entered the word processing market with Microsoft Word. And although email as a technology was introduced in the 1970s, sending emails only became popular in the 1990s. Salespeople were able to respond quickly to requests and sent their proposals (created in Word and saved in PDF format) as an attachment by email. No more delays due to traditional postal services. But that wasn't the only thing that changed. The proposal changed from a proposal into a strategic instrument substantiated with a vision, benefits and savings for the customer.
Online platforms (with user-friendly interfaces, templates and CRM integrations) were developed to allow salespeople to create proposals directly in a web browser. A revolution in proposal management! Since the advent of cloud technologies, you can create, edit and share proposals with your colleagues on any device, anywhere and anytime. Furthermore, thanks to the digital and/or electronic signatures, you no longer have to print, sign and return proposals. It is all legally valid and you save a lot of time and (paper) costs plus you contribute to the environment! After this shift, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) opened a new horizon. This technological leap has not only further optimized the proposal process, but has also fundamentally changed the way we create, adapt and offer proposals. It has become more efficient, personalized and accurate. Personalization based on customer behavior and preferences and what about the possibilities in the field of pricing strategies and optimization? It even goes so far that AI follows real-time market data and competitive analysis, so you can always proposal the right price!
From clay tablet to…
From simple handshakes to complex digital transactions. Either from clay tablet and handshake to digital proposals using AI. Each phase is characterized by different needs and technological advances. And without a doubt, the proposal and the way we create it will continue to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing business world.