Government contracts are a ripe opportunity for small businesses, but navigating those opportunities can be daunting for even the most seasoned business owner. At a recent American Express OPEN for Government Contracting: Success Series event in Miami, experts shared their advice to help companies win contracts with the government. From solicitation to execution, here are the dos and don'ts of perfecting your plan—straight from those who have done it.
1. Do set a target.
No one can be everything to everyone. Casting a wide net when it comes to contracts can leave many businesses paralyzed at the starting gate. Rather, focusing on specific agencies in a targeted, concentrated way will help to speed up the process. “Don't take a shotgun approach," said Lebolo Construction Management owner Randy Lebolo, whose company received their first contract within four months of their 8(a) certification (a Small Business Administration program aimed at small socially or economically disadvantaged businesses). “We concentrated on the General Services Administration (GSA) market [which constructs, manages and preserves government buildings]. We met with every General. We drove them crazy." For Lebolo, small chances eventually led to larger opportunities.
But just designating that target can be tricky in and of itself. “Ask, 'Who buys what I sell?'" said Denise Rodriguez-Lopez, American Express OPEN adviser on teaming. “The answer is not always obvious or intuitive." What agency buys the most security guard services? Surprisingly, it's not the TSA, but the State Department, said Rodriguez-Lopez. And who buys the most milk? According to Rodriguez-Lopez, it's not the Department of Education, but the prison system.
2. Don't underestimate your capabilities.
Though many businesses looking into contracts are familiar with the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), the standard used by federal agencies in classifying business establishments, what they may not realize is that not all contract codes are easily decoded. Rodriguez-Lopez advised small businesses to set up alerts for contracts within their capabilities via NAICS codes, but emphasized that the codes should be as specific—and as creative—as possible.
Rodriguez-Lopez recalled a business she worked with that had extensive experience selling generators. When a contract came up for someone to teach government employees how to work with generators during emergency operations, the company missed out on a large contract when the contract was classified under “educational training," not “generators."
3. Don't neglect your business relationships.
In today's email age, it's important to remember the value of face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice) contact. “You have to visit these people. You have to develop the relationship," said Patricia Bonilla, owner and president of Lunacon Construction Group. “It takes money," she said. “You have to travel, you have to hop on that plane. You have to knock on doors and go to events." The ELOCEN Group's Necole Parker agreed. “Don't pick more than three to five clients to go after," she said. “Make sure that you're known on a first-name basis."
For Rodriguez-Lopez, it comes down to a simple reason: timing. “In July the budget office will find out what they have left to spend for the fiscal year [which ends September 30]," she said. “They're going to give that money to people they know. They don't have time to vet at that point, they go with who they trust."
4. Do be prepared.
Both Martin-Rosa and Rodriguez-Lopez stressed the importance of preparation and research. Rodriguez-Lopez said she has a simple answer when people ask how to handle contract solicitations that require a five- or seven-day turnaround. “I say, 'You knew it was coming,'" she said. “You have to be ready."
And whether you're attempting to win a contract or servicing one that's in progress, government contracting experts stressed the importance of following directions. “You cannot come back from a badly-submitted proposal," said Rodriguez-Lopez. “It will taint your company."
Following instructions is critical. “Don't even use the wrong font," she said. “The instructions were made to eliminate people who cannot follow directions. Read it four times. Have someone else read it. Proper proposals are responsive and responsible."
5. Don't overstate your capabilities.
“Getting the work is easy, serving them to the expectations that they want is the other step," said Bonilla. Quality Support Inc.'s owner Wayne Gatewood echoed that notion. “Do not overstate your capabilities," he said. “Don't bid on anything you've never done before. Performance is key and once you perform you're well on your way."
6. Don't be invisible.
In addition to making sure that you have a Small Business Administration profile page, which allows SBA members to share information on their business and services (“Skipping that is the worst thing you can do," said Martin-Rosa), keeping it updated with correct information can be more important than you might think. “During hunting season [the May-September period during which most contracts are awarded], contracting officers will do a dynamic small-business search," she said. “They will get the top 25 in order of most recently updated. Just touching that profile will put you in the top 25."
Disappearing after a lost bid is another bad habit Martin-Rosa said she sees often. Instead, she suggested requesting a “formal debrief," where a group of contracting officers will walk companies through their proposal and show where the bid went wrong. And though losing out on a bid can sting, a debrief can bring at least one positive aspect to the experience. Said Martin-Rosa, “It will get you in front of a group of contracting officers."
OPEN Forum: Government Contracting is a program designed to connect small-business owners to government contracting opportunities, which are an often-overlooked revenue stream. To learn more, visit openforum.com/governmentcontracting.