Hidden in Plain Sight: The Billion Dollar Customer
Imagine this: You wake up in the morning, and like most entrepreneurs, check your email and calendar for the day even before getting out of bed. Right at the top of your incoming emails is a “Notice of Contract Award.” As your eyes race to the full message, you read that you were the winning bidder and have won a $2 million contract to provide a full year of services for a local business, a perfect fit for you and your team and a rocket boost to the growth of your company!
Who needs coffee, because now you’re flooded with energy and excitement, and your mind is spinning with all of the details you’ll need to manage in the next few hours to take the biggest step you could ever imagine for your home-grown company. Breathe deep, because you’ll want to be centered, focused and aware as you lead your company into a bright future.
Sound like a dream? In reality, this scenario happens to thousands of women business owners in a variety of industries throughout the U.S. every year. Their customer is the world’s largest customer, the one that spends more money than any other entity in the world, and that every year buys over $120 billion from small businesses located in every state in the country. That customer is the U.S. federal government.
Now more than ever is an ideal time to consider entering the federal government marketplace. Why? The federal government has set a goal to spend 5% of its annual procurement with small, women-owned businesses. While 5% sounds like a small goal, it amounted to over $22 billion in awarded contracts last year ranging in size from under a few thousand dollars to well over $50 million.
If you’re interested in working with the U.S. federal government, but are unsure where to start, have no worry. Here are four tips to help you kickstart your relationship selling to the world’s largest customer.
Tip #1: Prepare Your Business
When tackling a new, large customer like the federal government, you’ll want to take the time to understand them, which involves researching how and when they buy, identifying important decision-makers, and clarifying the rules and regulations. This will help paint an overall picture for you of their business wants and needs.
A mandatory first step is to register your business at the official free federal government website System for Award Management or www.sam.gov. All businesses, even solo-woman owned companies, must register in SAM.gov to be considered for a federal contract.
SAM.gov is where you will enter all of your important business facts such as your tax identification number, your unique DUNS number, the NAICS codes describing the services or products you provide, the points of contact for your business and bank account information. This website even provides a help desk number/email if you run into hurdles or have questions about registering.
Next, consider getting certified. Certification is possible for small businesses owned by women, veterans and minorities, and for businesses in an economically disadvantaged area known as a HUBZone. While you can certainly do business without being certified, a formal certification makes you eligible for a group of set-aside contracts, and even eligible for other direct award contracts where no competition is needed. You can learn more at www.certify.sba.gov.
Tip #2 Find Your Network
Women are typically good networkers, and the federal market is rich with networking opportunities. These may be government agency-sponsored events, national or regional conferences, local outreach and matchmaking events, or training sessions.
One event that could be beneficial for a beginner is ChallengeHER. ChallengeHER is a national initiative to boost government contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses and was created in partnership with the Small Business Administration (SBA), Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) and American Express. Since its inception, ChallengeHER has educated more than 21,000 women entrepreneurs at 70 workshops across the country and facilitated more than 5,350 meetings between women small business owners and government officials.
Business owners interested in government procurement could also attend American Express’s Summit for Success. Held annually, the Summit for Success is a free event for businesses from all over the country to connect and hear from industry experts about opportunities in federal contracting, tips for going global, and how to expand their client base.
An online source for networking opportunities is FedBizOpps.gov. Once you’ve visited the free site, you will see on the home page a green button called Search Small Business Events. Clicking that button will bring up a list of events sponsored by the federal government, from national conferences to small matchmaking events. What is a matchmaking event? It’s like speed dating for businesses who want to meet and talk with government decision-makers. You’ll have 10-15 minutes at each table, then when the time is up, you move to the next table. It is a terrific way to meet decision-makers and tell your business story and objectives.
Tip #3: Get Noticed
Getting noticed in the federal marketplace is a unique process. As mentioned, you’ll need the mandatory SAM.gov registration, followed by a website, and two important printed pieces: your business card and a capability statement.
A capability statement is a unique document that is similar to a resume—it focuses on the needs of your target customer and tells a succinct story in government terminology. It includes sections called Core Competencies, Differentiators, Past Performance and Company Data. Ideally, this document will be edited to address the specific needs of your targets, and not a generic brochure or flyer.
Your business card should be on a white or light color background, so potential partners or customers can keep notes about you on it after you hand it to them (not needed but super helpful in case the customer doesn’t have anywhere else to write on in the moment!). Also use both sides (front and back) of the card and fill it up with all of the information your government targets want to see: NAICS, DUNS and CAGE codes, your certifications and all of your phone numbers.
Tip #4: Be Persistent
It is important to proactively market to your government prospects. They should hear from you at least once a month through phone calls, emails, in-person meetings and events. Stay in touch with them and build strong relationships so that they know who you are and trust that you can provide the services or products they need.
And don’t give up! You may need to stay in touch with the decision-makers at the agencies, or those prime contractors with whom you may want to subcontract, over long periods of time. It’s easy to get discouraged after the first one or two tries when you don’t get a positive response. Not to worry – it is perfectly fine to contact the decision-makers every month as a follow up. Reach out until you have broken through the gatekeepers.
The U.S. federal government is a marketplace that rewards long-term effort. It will take time to learn the lingo, the rules and processes, and find good opportunities on which to bid. But it all becomes worth it once you’ve earned the opportunity to win hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in contracts for your services and products.
This guest post was authored by Gloria Larkin
Gloria Larkin is President and CEO of TargetGov, Procurement Advisor to American Express, and a nationally-recognized expert in federal contracting. Her clients have won over $5 billion in federal contracts. She may be reached at [email protected]