So you think you are ready to sell to the government, but is the government ready to buy from you?
Government buyers are a discerning group. After all, we trust them to make the right procurement decisions with our taxpayer dollars. Yet, despite the fact that formal goals are in place to ensure that small businesses get their fair share of work with the federal government, winning a share of the percentage of contracts set aside for small business isn’t easy.
Convincing government buyers that you are a viable business partner who can help them achieve their goals requires a different approach that one you’re used to seeing in the commercial sector.
The SBA has many resources that can help you find and do business with Uncle Sam, but here are some extra steps you might want to consider to boost your chances of being perceived as the winning choice, not the risky one:
Collaboration and teaming is very important in government contracting. Often times, set-aside contracts are too big for a single business to handle. Teaming with other small businesses is a great way to provide the collective services that agencies often seek within one contract. For example, IT companies could team with marketing agencies to better deliver against a contract that requires both web/application development in addition to content management.
Teaming provides another valuable benefit too—it gives small businesses the opportunity to build credibility for themselves and show proficiency not only to the government but to other contractors.
Teaming requires preparation and careful management. American Express OPEN has put together a useful guide: Team to Help Win Government Contracts, which includes best practices and tips for raising your profile and building potential teaming connections.
Get a mentor
Mentors are invaluable to small business owners, and in the government contracting world they can make the different between success and failure. If you do not know the movers and shakers, find someone who can help you navigate the marketplace.
Networking events can help you connect with potential mentors, but take the time to consider other mentoring opportunities. Here are some programs and organizations that can help:
- SBA 8(a) Program– Certain small businesses may also be eligible to participate in SBA’s 8(a) program, a business development tool that features contracting as one of the program’s vehicles to help small disadvantaged businesses compete in the federal marketplace. The program also includes a mentor-protégé program that helps businesses compete for government contracts.
- ChallengeHer – The ChallengeHer campaign leverages the resources of the SBA, Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) and American Express Open by hosting events around the country to connect women-owned businesses with decision makers and procurement officials at federal agencies and prime contractors to receive guidance on how best to sell their goods and services to them.
- SCORE– Co-funded by the SBA, SCORE is a volunteer-based mentoring organization that can pair you with mentors across many fields of expertise, including government contracting – for free.
Demonstrate strong performance
When it comes to spending U.S. taxpayer dollars, government agencies want to ensure that they take the minimum amount of risk when awarding contracts. This means that they look for companies with experience and a good track record, including on-time service delivery, reliable goods and on-budget execution. You will also need to demonstrate that your team is qualified (make an investment in those with government connections and experience). Is your industry reputation strong? You’ll need to evidence all these proof-of-performance capabilities when you bid.
Promote government-centric value
This goes for any industry, but in the public sector, a clear understanding of the buyer’s challenges, issues and ecosystem is a must. As mentioned above, what works in the private sector doesn’t always cut it with government buyers. For example, your messaging and proposition needs to position your value in the context of your ability to deliver against clear goals. This is where proof of performance is vital, as is the ability to “governmentize” your sales and marketing collateral. Be sure to talk the talk and walk the walk as a reliable, proven low-risk solution provider.
Any small business that wants to compete in the contracting market needs to be certified according to SBA requirements. This basically means that you are officially recognized as a small business and can compete for small business set-aside contracts. Read more about the process here.
That’s standard process. However, there are other certification programs that can help improve your positioning and increase your chances of consideration for an award. These include:
- SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program – As mentioned above, this is a valuable resource for readying firms for success in the contracting marketplace.
- SBA’s HUBZone Program – Provides preferential access to federal contracts for businesses situated in underutilized urban and rural communities.
- The Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Businesses program – Provides access to set-asides for exclusive competition among service-disabled veteran businesses.
- Women-Owned Small Businesses (WOSB’s) – Gives women entrepreneurs access to certain set-asides designated for WOSBs.
To help you determine if your business is ready, and for advice about navigating the contracting space, get help from your local Procurement and Technical Assistance Centers (PTAC’s), which are part of the Procurement Technical Assistance Program administered by the Defense Logistics Agency. PTAC’s also provide up-and-coming government contractors with services such as training, counseling and business matchmaking events.
Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer and marketing communications consultant. Caron has worked with organizations including the Small Business Administration (SBA.gov) and private companies to promote essential resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley