It Shouldn’t Be So Hard…
It Shouldn’t Be This Hard…but it is. Let’s face it, selling to the Federal Government is hard. When you consider the over 2,000 federal regulations governing acquisitions (not even including agency specific regulations), the funding constraints, the myriad of contracting vehicles, and simply the culture of silence around procurements, selling to the Federal Government is hard; but it doesn’t have to be. Whether your company is new to the federal space or just looking for a competitive edge here are some things to consider when trying to sell to the Federal Government:
Business Development is important
Just knowing when acquisitions are coming out can help companies position themselves and manage tight bid and proposal budgets. There are software solutions that can help, at a cost, but when considering paying a full-time employee to surf FedBizOpps for opportunities that will probably materialize before you have an opportunity to prepare, they may be worth considering. I hate to admit it, but for those with the resources, who you knows is at least as valuable as what you know. Having team members that are connected does make a difference, and not liking it doesn’t make it go away. Utilizing VAR’s (Value Added Resources) is a great way to multiple your sales force without significantly multiplying your workforce, but make sure they are targeting to real assets. Calling Contracting Officers will almost never get you work. There is no money stuffed in their desk drawers and they are often too busy managing active requirements to generate new ones or hunt down potential customers in the organization. Focus touch points on senior leaders and program managers; these are the two groups that define or write requirements (at a high level) and have the potential for steering resources towards a great idea. That said, ditch the unsolicited proposal, these almost never workout (see reasons above) and cost everyone resources and heartache.
Aim Small Miss Small
Know your nitch; this is true with regard to agency(s) and problem sets. Trying to position your company to be everything for everyone will likely lead to being nothing to anyone. When you consider the costs of developing contacts, bidding on opportunities, and delivering results (unless your company has vast resources) target in on what makes your company special and a problem set you are passionate about solving. The government is a target rich environment and you shouldn’t have to go too far out of your comfort zone to identify needs. Nevertheless, government has a really bad habit of collecting a broad swath of problems into a single requirement (mostly to limit their own exposure to the acquisition process). In doing so a company may often find themselves feeling compelled to bid on a requirement where only part really matches their expertise. I get it, there is a fear of being locked out of the requirement for years. I am sorry to say, this is a real fear, but doing so often results in half-baked solutions that rarely win and when they do performance across the requirement suffers. Consider identifying when this happens to the government and encourage them to breakout the requirement into logical parts. “Spoiler alert” this will almost never work (by the time you are seeing it, these battles have already been fought) but it is worth a shot, especially for small businesses that may be able to leverage anti-bundling rules. Beyond this, the next best approach is teaming with a company(s) that round out your capabilities so that you really can deliver.
Big businesses may have the resources but federal statute requires the federal government to set aside any acquisition where two or more small businesses are willing and capable of fulfilling the requirement, this is known as the “rule of two” and is addressed under FAR part 19. If your “business development” doesn’t provide advanced notice, responding to RFI’s (Request For Information) expressing both interest and capability can help shift an acquisition strategy even if the agency already had its intentions set on going “full and open.” This isn’t a guarantee, but I have seen it happen many times. That said, be weary of being overconfident in your staffing ability. The Federal Government is a fickle customer and changes to requirements are commonplace. This can be great from a revenue standpoint, but if you lack the resources you may end up with a disappointed customer.
Being disadvantaged has its advantages
FAR part 19 also has provisions which allow the Federal Government to “sole source” awards to companies that have 8a status. The Veterans Affairs Agency also has has authority to direct award to Disabled Veteran Owned small business. Even if your company does not meet either of these set-asides, a joint venture with a company that does can position you for a direct award. Other set asides include woman-owned or hub-zoned small business which do not qualify for direct awards necessarily, but can further limit the competitive pool improving your chances. Moreover, direct awards can be made under certain circumstances and so being responsive to RFI’s can make for big opportunities.
GSA Schedules “can” open doors
Having a GSA scheduled can get you into competitions run under FAR 8.4 and make for streamlined acquisitions. Take a deep breath, the process can seem daunting. If you are a small business unfamiliar with working with the federal government, it may be worth while to bring in outside expertise to get you through the process, but be wary of extremely high fees it isn’t really that hard, and it definitely doesn’t guarantee you work. There are other considerations too, such as required past performance and continued success criteria to maintain your schedule. If you sell hardware it is a “must have” but for services a company should consider when it makes sense to make this investment.
Swallow Your Pride
For a small business interested in getting into the federal space there may be a strong desire to want to be the “prime contractor” and really showcase your company. There are a lot of good reasons to want to be the prime, such as for past performance, direct customer engagement, avoiding past through costs to improve competitiveness, and general control over the contract. However, before you dig your feet in on this one, consider that proposing as a subcontractor has its advantages as well. First, if you are unfamiliar with working for the federal government, having a large prime contractor can take a lot of the burden off your company. This is not only in the business capture phase but also in execution. I know it may be frustrating but a small prime can develop past performance for future acquisitions and build strong relationships and reputation within an agency if you deliver. Second, as mentioned above, government requirements change and it is easy to find yourself overwhelmed or under water. Having a partner with a strong bench can be useful in ensuring successful delivery (which is what this is all about).
Ask hard questions
This one goes to companies large and small; ask hard questions! The government has no ability to punish you if you hurt their feelings by asking really hard questions during the acquisition process. If you see a mistake or inconsistency, trying to guess what the government intended will almost always backfire. I promise you will not be blacklisted from an acquisition, that is not a thing. Even if the person who wrote the document did take it personally they are rarely on the evaluation board and even so they are surrounded by a group of peers and an enormous bureaucratic structure that rarely would allow such pettiness into the process (yeah win one for bureaucracy). I know the temptation is to save face or protect your strategy from potential competition too, but that is a major gamble. Asking a hard question that clarifies what the government really wants will help you more than “tilting your hand” might ever harm you. In fact, by not clarifying, even if you guess right your solution may be out of scope of the written requirement; the result, even if the government is impressed with your approach they may not be able to accept it (at least not without modifying and restarting the process).
So there you have it
Yes selling to the government is hard, but understanding how the system works can save time and money (and hopefully help win some opportunities). No this isn’t all of the hacks, but hopefully this can help a few companies avoid making some major mistakes and even more importantly help the federal government by getting great solutions delivered to the American People!