You don't need to be Boeing or Raytheon to land a government contract.
“People think about government contracting in terms of defense contracting,” says R. Alan Higbee, managing partner of the Tampa office of law firm Shutts & Bowen LLP. “But the government buys toilet paper and paper plates, all the same kinds of things that every other kind of company buys.”
Yet government contracting isn't something a business can just jump into. The first step is to research which government agencies or departments buy what you're selling — and who else is selling it. Websites like fpds.gov, fbo.gov, and demandstar.com can help you learn what kinds of opportunities are out there and who has filled them in the past.
A business should have some experience behind it before deciding to go into government contracting. “We get a lot of people who want to start out in the federal government space,” says Karen Krymski, government contracting specialist at the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida's Port Tampa Bay Building. “The best thing for them to do is to have some success in private business. If they think getting a private business contract is tough, it can take a minimum of two years to get any traction in the federal government. You have to have a way to keep yourself going.”
Those achievements come in handy when filling out requests for proposals, which often ask for input from former clients. “We rely on past success a good deal,” says Michele Demperio, who handles business development for Sarasota-based Sweet Sparkman Architects, which does a lot of work for city and county governments. “But what matters above that is your service and performance. If past clients aren't giving you good recommendations, how do you expect that the government is going to hire you?”
Government contracts can sometimes be set aside for certain types of businesses, like women- or veteran-owned firms. See if your company qualifies for any of those classifications and then get any necessary certifications.
Consider starting out as a subcontractor rather than prime contractor to learn the ropes. “You can't take on a $5 million contract if your company has never done more than a $50,000 contract,” says Krymski. “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.” Getting experience at the local government level can also be helpful before going for a federal contract.
And when it comes to filling out RFPs, follow the instructions to the letter. “If the government tells you you can't have any more than 15 pages and you have 16 pages, your response goes into the trash,” says Krymski.
Make sure your firm can handle the time and effort needed for government contracting, which doesn't come with any guarantees. “Each RFP represents a good 40 hours of work,” says Demperio. “It's not just something that you slap together.” And occasionally that hard work can be for naught as RFPs can be canceled for any number of reasons.
“None of this is insurmountable,” says Sally Woodward, a partner in Shutts & Bowen's Tampa office. “Government contracting can be lucrative work and the base of many people's companies. You just have to go in with your eyes open.”
— Beth Luberecki