By Bill Murphy, Jr. journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur and author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with John Burgstone), and a former reporter for The Washington Post.
The SBA brought together government contractors and entrepreneurs for nearly four hours of instruction in how small businesses can go to work for Uncle Sam. Here's what we learned.
Federal spending is up. No matter how you might feel about that politically, it means great opportunity for government contractors. And that in turn means unprecedented opportunity for small and emerging businesses.
Here at National Small Business Week, the SBA set up a total of nearly four hours of training on how to compete for federal government contracts—with panelists including top SBA officials, contractors, and those who recruit subcontractors for the country's largest companies—companies that do a lot of government business.
Granted, there's something a bit meta about the U.S. government running classes on how to sell stuff to the U.S. government. But setting that aside, whether you want to contract directly with the government or carve out a niche as a subcontractor, we learned six key things about getting on the government payroll.
1. Really, truly know your business.
There are currently at least 31,000 federal contacting opportunities listed on the government's clearinghouse website (more on that in a minute). But, in a way, 31,000 is worse than zero—at least if it's your role to comb through them all and figure out which ones you might actually want to compete for.
Well, the No. 1 bit of advice heard at the SBA training was to make sure you know your own company inside and out, and understand exactly what it is you have to offer. That can narrow scope of your search considerably.
"Own your own destiny," said Diane Marsden, manager of the small business office at Booz Allen Hamilton. "You have to get down to a level of granularity. You have to articulate what you do."
2. Be aware of your advantages before stepping into competition.
Small businesses can feel like they're at a disadvantage when competing against larger entities. Sure, you might be more nimble or customer-focused than a big organization with a matching bureaucracy, but playing with big boys can feel like a real fight.
In government contracting, however, that model can be turned on its head. For one thing, the government formally sets aside opportunities run by women, members of economically or socially disadvantaged groups, service-connected disabled veterans, and businesses located in certain underprivileged geographic areas. (Of course, there are a lot of restrictions; see each program for more details.)
Beyond that, the government tries to set aside about a quarter of its contracts for small businesses. That's a goal, not a reality—but it sets the tone.
3. Get comfy with all the paperwork.
If you want to do business directly with the U.S. Government, your company needs to be registered with the Central Contractor Registration database. CCR can also be a great tool for you, as well, because it lets you look at how many competitors in your industry are already doing business with the government. Maybe it will clue you in to what makes a business attractive to the feds, or even give you an idea about subcontractor opportunities.
4. And we mean all the paperwork.
For all the government contracts out there, landing them isn't easy. Another way to get federal contracts is to work as a subcontractor for larger companies. These big contractors usually maintain their own databases of potential subcontractor partners, and you have to register with them separately from the government's site. Check out the big firms' websites of course, but also keep in mind Supplier Connection, a shared database that connects potential subcontractors to 16 major contractors. Included are AT&T, Bank of America, Facebook, IBM, John Deere, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Kelloggs, UPS, and others.
5. Check the government database.
In theory, every single government contract going out for bid is supposed to be listed on www.fbo.gov, known colloquially as "Fed Biz Opps." Again, besides bidding for contracts yourself, keep in mind that this might clue you in on contracts that larger entities might go after. That might mean opportunities to latch on as a subcontractor.
6. Build lasting human relationships.
Sure, government can seem impersonal, but relationships are very important. It's easy to lean too hard on cold calls and databases. So while filling out the forms is a prerequisite, get out of the office, network, and try to meet the decision makers both in the government and in the large contractors. And do it in person, if possible.
"Choose two or three agencies where you think you can do work," suggested Bill Polizos, director of the small business program at AT&T Government Solutions. "Go to the events they hold so you can learn as much as you can about opportunities. As you do that, you'll bump into us."