merging businesses too-often shy away from considering doing business with the Federal government — or with the State government. "There's too much paperwork and red tape." "It takes too long to get paid." "With bureaucrats, you never know who the decision-maker is." "We don't want to be beholden to one dominant customer." "We just can't compete with the Big Boys."
There may be some truth in each of these admonitions. It is also overwhelmingly true that the government can be an excellent customer for the emerging business; their needs are vast and varied, their credit is always good, and — once understood — their labyrinthine regulations often serve to benefit and protect the smaller supplier. Our entrepreneurial ego should not allow us to ignore this important market opportunity.
Two aspects of doing business with the Federal government warrant consideration. First, it is mandatory that the complex rules concerning doing business with the government be mastered — period! And second, it is important to exploit certain advantages available to the smaller business working with the government.
First, the emerging business seeking sales with the Federal government must be prepared to devote a substantial effort to this task and understand that immediate success is unlikely. For example, all forthcoming government work is announced publicly, it will be bid competitively, and the ultimate award of the contract will be made to the lowest qualified bidder. The Federal Business Opportunities — FedBizOpps is usually the first step in this process.
FedBizOpps lists notices of proposed Federal procurement actions, contract awards, sales of government property, and other important procurement information. It is published by the US Government Printing Office (GPO) and presents approximately 500 to 1,000 notices every day; each procurement notice appears only once. FedBizOpps is available by subscription through the GPO; the US Trade and Development Agency also offers the FedBizOpps in electronic form (online and FAX) through at least a dozen private services. The emerging business seeking to work with the Federal government must screen the notices in the CBD every day to identify intended procurements for which it may be qualified. Even this initial step is tedious and time-consuming work.
Once a notice of interest is selected, a Request for Proposal (RFP) must be obtained from the responsible Agency. These are invariably long and very detailed documents explaining every aspect of the proposed procurement including pertinent product and/or service specifications; the exact form and content of the Proposal and other bidding information will also be provided. Large corporations have specialized contracting offices that are skilled in the interpretation of arcane RFPs and the preparation of responsive Proposals. It is wearisome work, but this is a skill that must be mastered by the owner/manager of the smaller business aspiring to Federal contracts. Care must exercised that nothing in the RFP is overlooked or omitted; bids must conform explicitly with the RFP.
Following award of a Federal contract to the smaller company, checklists or other procedures should be employed to assure that every aspect of the contract is being scrupulously fulfilled — and that the Federal contract officer is apprised of this accomplishment. If any glitches develop, it is best that they be identified and remedied quickly. Not only is the work or service to be performed in thorough conformance with the contract, but it is essential that requests for payment be presented in correct form — otherwise, needless delays can be met.
The secret of successful Federal contractors is having thoroughly learned the "rules" and followed them unerringly. This takes time and study and patience, because the rules can be voluminous. Focusing in a narrow market where it may hold some comparative advantage, the well-prepared emerging business can compete effectively against the large corporation for attractive Federal work.
Further, many emerging businesses take legitimate advantage of specific Federal programs to assist the smaller business. The Small Business Administration's §8(a) Program is implemented by most Federal agencies to alleviate onerous burdens on the emerging business, e.g., the requirement for performance and payment bonds on construction projects. The Federal government maintains a laudable program of procurement set-asides for emerging business. The largest Federal buyer, the Department of Defense (DoD), publishes the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS); Part 219 (Small Business and Small Disadvantaged Business Concerns); this may be turgid reading, but it spells-out the procurement set-aside programs for the emerging business that can be most helpful. The key to success for many emerging businesses has been found in the proper understanding and exploitation of these legitimate advantages.
Learning to dance with an 800-lb. gorilla may take some time and it is imperative that the rules be followed meticulously. But, for the owner/manager of the emerging business willing to learn the dance and follow the rules, the rewards can indeed be bountiful.