“Our responsibility is to provide you with the opportunity, not the contract. We provide you with the opportunity to compete…” So said Dan Sturdivant, II, Assistant to the Director for Outreach & SDVOB Coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security.
If I had to sum up everything I’ve learned about doing business with the government into 100 words, that same sentiment would be at the top of my list. There may be set-asides and goals to deliver 23 percent of Federal government contracts to small businesses, but as Sturdivant pointed out at a government contracting event recently, government contracts are “…not a gift. You’re going to have to work hard.”
In a no-nonsense keynote at the excellent Victory in Procurement event put on by American Express OPEN in Miami on Jun. 16, he went on to give an inside view of what it really takes to win government business. I’d like to share several tips and factoids based on his comments and presentation, for those of you who were not able to attend:
Goals for awarding contracts to small businesses are goals with teeth
The Federal government has a goal to award 23 percent of prime contracts to small businesses. While this goal is not a requirement per se, “The reports on meeting goals go the White House and to Congress…Meeting the performance goals is even in the performance appraisals of a lot of high level government people.”
There’s no cookie-cutter approach to marketing to the Federal government
You have to market individually to each agency and each component within each agency. Sturdivant gave this example: “Every Federal agency buys information technology, but every Federal agency does not buy it the same way. And the divisions with each Federal agency do not buy it the same way. I can guarantee you that the IT needed by Customs and Border Patrol is not the same IT needed…by the Coast Guard.”
You can’t expect to sell to government agencies unless you’ve first read their Forecast of Procurement/Contracting Opportunities.
“This is THE bible for doing business with every Federal agency,” Sturdivant said. “Every agency is mandated to have one, either in hard copy or online.” He made it clear that small business execs looking to sell to the government should do their homework first, and read this document before contacting government officials to ask questions about what the government agency does or what its needs are.
Do some online research to identify which government agencies buy your product or service
Hint: know your NAICS code for your business! Your NAICS code is key to matching which agencies are buying what you offer. There are several websites that enable you to look up opportunities or receive notices of government opportunities, including: FPDS.gov (to identify who buys your product or service); FedBizOpps.gov (get notices of government requirements for your NAICS code); FedBid.com (compete online for government contracts in your NAICS code); and MBDA.gov (register in the Phoenix database to get free contract referrals).
Focus and allow yourself time
Julie Fajgenbaum, Vice President of American Express OPEN, emphasized the importance of getting to know your potential customer. Those are not just words—they make focusing a practical necessity. For instance, Homeland Security has 22 different organizational elements each with its own needs, and eight of them have procurement authority. “There’s nobody who can market to the entire Federal government—nobody,” said Sturdivant. “Focus on one or two agencies. Allow 18-24 months for relationship building—not contract getting, but relationship building—there’s a difference.”
Create a tailored Capabilities Statement
Once you know your target agency and know you can meet their needs, write up your capabilities in a written Capabilities Statement. “Keep it brief. Secondly, keep it relevant to the agency you are marketing to. I want to know what you can do for Homeland Security, not what you did for DoD. And know the agency’s mission. If you don’t know the agency’s mission, it’s impossible to tailor the Capabilities Statement to that agency,” Sturdivant said.
Take advantage of one-on-one agency counseling sessions
A lot of agencies do periodic one-on-one counseling sessions in regions across the country. For example, Homeland Security offers Vendor Outreach Sessions where an official will meet one on one with small businesses. Visit each agency and see why kind of outreach programs they may have.
Develop a marketing plan and strategy for government contracting
This is key. “A marketing plan and strategy is not ‘hey Dan, what does DHS buy’,” he noted. Build your marketing plan and strategy around one or more of these approaches: subcontracts; prime contracts; teaming or joint ventures (key in the 21st century); mentor protégé agreements; or pre-existing contract vehicles.
Don’t just look at the amount of money an agency spends; look at the agency’s track record of awarding contracts to small businesses
The Department of Defense buys the most in total dollars of all agencies ($292 Billion in 2010). But the top five agencies in terms of awarding the greatest percentage of their contracts to small businesses are, in 2010 order: Department of Agriculture (55.2 percent); Department of Interior (49.7 percent); Department of Veterans Affairs (37.5 percent); Department of Homeland Security (32.4 percent); and General Services Administration (28.7 percent).
These tips and quotes barely scratch the surface of his pragmatic advice. As Karen-Michelle Mirko of American Express OPEN noted not long ago, finding a way into the Government market is challenging. But armed with a strategy and determination, it is very possible to break in and start delivering your products or services to the government—and get a steady reliable source of business.
The Web makes us fortunate, in this sense: never before in history has so much information and free help been available to small businesses. Yet, it’s still up to the determination and vision of each business owner to make use of the resources. I simply point you to the section here at OPEN Forum with government contracting advice and resources for more: openforum.com/governmentcontracting.