Partnering, or “teaming,” can be a great way to get the experience you need to grow your business and to obtain government contracts—as long as you choose wisely.
Take Karen Barbour, founder and president of the Barbour Group, which provides surety bonds for construction companies nationwide. Hers is a $3.6 million dollar company that grew 45 percent from 2007 to 2010, earning a place for the 4th consecutive year on Inc.'s 500/5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies.
Barbour knows how important teaming is for small businesses on a growth track and is keenly interested in helping women become more savvy about choosing, and being chosen by, viable partners. Here she offers her advice for any business looking to team with a larger company.
Networking and Marketing
Make a good first impression. Barbour suggests dressing up your business with professional marketing materials, such as brochures, business cards and your website. Make sure each includes the most important information about your company, what you stand for and what you do in an easy-to-use format.
“It’s like mating. You have to have all the pretty feathers,” Barbour says with a laugh.
Get your name out. As her own trajectory to success shows, networking effectively meant joining trade associations, participating in seminars and classes offered by government agencies or corporations, getting references from other businesses and doing small contracts to prove your ability. Networking options are many, from small-business groups to those focused on government contracting. Barbour has taken advantage of a variety of groups and advises others to do so as well. Every interaction has a ripple effect, spreading your name and building your reputation.
Get involved in the community. Equally important to Barbour is to become legislatively active. “Work with your local representatives and become a voice for small business,” she says. The legislators will look to you as an advocate and network you into their circles, which can open doors to opportunities.
Ask for guidance. Talk to the small-business directors and government agencies that you’d like to work or obtain contracts with. Ask them which companies they’d recommend as good teaming partners for your business. Outside the government contracting world, you might ask your local chamber of commerce or business and industry associations for referrals. It’s critical to build a team with a trustworthy partner.
“Make sure your teaming partner has a great reputation and has demonstrated a solid record of teaming with minority- and women-owned businesses,” Barbour says.
Build your reputation. Introduce yourself to the key people in the companies that have good teaming reputations, build relationships and show them why you are the best choice. Be sure to share the certificates or awards you’ve earned as well as jobs already completed.
“With women-owned construction firms, the more education and experience you have, the more impressive you will be,” Barbour says. “And the less hand-holding your teaming partner thinks they have to do, the more likely they are to choose you.”
Advocate for Progress
Barbour is an advocate for small businesses, for women and for legislation that will help small businesses get ahead. She testifies before Congress, heads up local government commissions that support small businesses and mentors others, particularly women-owned construction businesses.
Theresa Daytner, founder of Daytner Construction Group and a successful competitor in government construction contracts, credits Barbour with helping break down the barriers for small businesses in government contracting. “Karen Barbour has been an amazing champion of small business,” she says. It’s clear that her advocacy has had a double effect: It has helped small businesses, especially those led by women, and it has increased the recognition and reputation of the Barbour Group.
The Cautions of Contracting
Unlike other areas of federal contracting, construction bids usually have the smaller business as the prime contractor and the larger company as the sub-contractor. The smaller business gives the team a bidding edge through its certifications as women- or minority-owned, and is responsible for everyone’s performance, including that of the much bigger subcontractor.
But because of the size difference —and power difference—the smaller business risks “becoming a non-entity if a dispute arises,” Barbour says.
She has been vocal in criticizing the ways in which some larger companies use small businesses with certifications to get a contract, only to undermine the small business later. She is outspoken in her belief that small-business owners, especially women, need to be savvy when teaming with bigger companies to go after business.
A new American Express OPEN survey has documented, for the first time, the degree to which small businesses are used by larger companies to get a contract and then are locked out of the actual performance of the contract. “Nearly one-third (29 percent) of active small business contractors have been ‘stiffed’ by large prime contractors,” the survey says. Further, the survey shows that the likelihood of this happening increases over time.
The bottom line, according to Barbour, is to make your company attractive to good partners and learn what larger companies have the best reputations for teaming with smaller businesses. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from mentors like Barbour or groups like Give Me 5, a partnership of Women in Public Policy (WIPP) and American Express OPEN to provide education and access for women in federal contracts.
OPEN Cardmember Geri Stengel is the founder of Ventureneer.com, which provides values-driven small businesses with the insights, strategies, techniques, and solutions to succeed—both as businesses and as social-change agents.
For more resources and tips on how to pursue federal government contracting opportunities, visit http://www.openforum.com/governmentcontracting.
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