6 Tips for getting Government Contracts

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 thegovernment’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 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 onwww.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.”

5 Lessons from an Overnight Success

These two entrepreneurs obsessed about failure. But they never stopped to think about what would happen if they succeeded.


When Brittany Hodak and Kim Kaupe launched ‘ZinePak, a New York-based entertainment company two-and-a-half years ago, they knew they had a lot to learn. Apparently, they’re pretty fast learners because this year they were named to Advertising Age‘s 40 Under 40 list and ‘ZinePak is currently vying for the title of the Wall Street Journal’s Start-up of the Year in an online documentary series. But this is the shortlist. In addition to a multitude of honors and awards, these young entrepreneurs have already established partnerships with celebrities like Taylor Swift, KISS, Justin Bieber, and the Beach Boys to sell nearly two million ‘ZinePaks, which are custom publications, in 18 countries.

One of the smartest things an entrepreneur can do is to learn from others who have an established record of success. So I asked Hodak about the most important lessons she and Kaupe have learned along their impressive journey. Here’s what she had to say.

Lesson #1: Always stay two steps ahead.

Being a business owner means always embracing new challenges and looking for new opportunities, even when you’re on a successful path already. Don’t wait for failure or obstacles to arise to begin looking for alternate opportunities. 

Example:  Kim and I founded ‘ZinePak in 2011 with a focus on enhancing the physical CD experience. We partnered with Walmart, believing that music fans would be drawn to owning more CDs if they were packaged in collectible fan magazines with exclusive merchandise, and we were right. Although we grew 350 percent in 2012 and are approaching $15 million in consumer spending on ‘ZinePaks, we know that fans also access their favorite tunes via streaming services. We have to stay ahead of the changing landscape in the marketplace.

Lesson #2: Never be the smartest person in the room.

Focus on being a great leader instead of a great doer. Surround yourself with the best experts and employees you can find so that you’re never the most knowledgeable person about anything other than the future of your company.

Example:  In the beginning I thought the key to success was knowing as much as possible about everything. I spent months trying to master details about print production, retail marketing, PR, sales, and about a dozen other disciplines. But this quickly lead to burn out and poor productivity. Even if you’re great at a lot of things, you should only focus on a few. A company can’t grow if one person is doing the majority of the work. ‘ZinePak’s team now includes six fantastic employees all with their own specialities: an amazing accountant, a great attorney, dozens of incredible freelancers, and one of the best business coaches in the industry.

Lesson #3: It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Whether it’s looking for a more creative solution to a problem or going outside of ordinary communication channels to make something happen, the cliche is true: It is easier to ask for forgiveness later than get permission upfront.

Example:  Sometimes ordinary business channels just aren’t conducive to getting things done. In the past year, Kim and I have employed the “get it done now, ask for permission later” strategy to help green-light projects, get meetings with high-level executives, and score publicity for ‘ZinePak. Whether it’s booking an interview without running it by our publicist or taking a guerrilla-style meeting with an artist backstage without having an official time slot on the tour manager’s agenda, a whatever-it-takes attitude is important for growing a business.

Lesson #4: “No” doesn’t always mean “no.”

Don’t take “no” to mean that you shouldn’t continue to have a dialogue with someone you want to work with. Also, don’t ever take “no” for an answer from someone without the authority to tell you “yes.”

Example: Selling an idea to a junior person just means that he or she will have to spend time pitching your idea up the ladder until it gets to the ultimate decision maker. This isn’t an effective use of time or resources. Go directly to the decision makers whenever possible, even if it’s difficult to get time on their schedules. The extra effort will be worth the work. And if he/she doesn’t say “yes” immediately, keep pursuing the relationship.

Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid of the unknown.

Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers or predict the future. Surround yourself with smart people and commit to making the best decisions you can with the information available to you at any given time. 

Example: When Kim and I decided to quit our corporate jobs and start a company, we spent a lot of time talking about what we would do if the business failed. We never even considered what we would do if the business was successful. We certainly did not think that within two years we’d be leading a multi-million-dollar entertainment company with distribution across the globe! Every day, we are faced with new challenges and new decisions to make. We’ve learned that very few decisions are permanent, and even fewer are impossible to recover from. Lead your team from a place of confidence instead of fear to set the tone for success, even in the face of the unknown.

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