The American Express OPEN for Government Contracts Program recently released their third survey of small business owners who are active federal contractors. You can read a summary of the report here or download the report here.
The report notes that in FY2011, the federal government spent 21.7% of their budget on small business contractors, less than the 23% procurement goal. It’s important to keep calling attention to how some major government agencies are not meeting their small business spending goals, but what I found really interesting was the fact that newer federal contractors reported that it was easier and quicker to win their first government contract than those who’ve been in federal contracting longer.
There are two different things going on here – one is that people who’ve been involved in contracting for a long time tend to go after bigger opportunities and therefore have more competition. Anyone in this situation has experienced the phenomenon that because of budget problems, sequestration, and the lack of a published budget, these projects keep getting resolutions; everything gets pushed to the right and it takes longer to get contracts awarded than it has in the past.
So while it may seem that newer contractors are doing better than experienced contractors, if you look at it from a monetary standpoint I’d bet the conclusion would be different. In longer-term contracts you can be in the procurement phase for 10 years and it can take three years to get anywhere. Those numbers don’t surprise me at all, especially when you consider a central theme we’ve pointed out many times on this blog:
Business is about relationships. And relationships take time.
This is especially important when you’re building a project that represents bigger contract dollars, if only because the bigger the revenue, the harder it is for the government to contract with you. A small contract can be issued as a purchase order, while a large contract must be issued as some kind of competition.
This leads right into the next finding in the report – small business contractors are investing more time and money on federal contracting opportunities – 49% more in 2013 than in the three previous years. It is definitely true that winning federal contracts takes a lot of time, and time equals money. A high level of investment is necessary no matter how small your firm.
It’s important to understand that the numbers thrown around in this report represent averages of people who happened to respond to a survey. Take the actual numbers with a grain of salt, but you can clearly make the link that it costs money and time to get to the stage of having contracts.
The last thing I’ll point out today from this report is that federal subcontracting is clearly relatively more successful in priming (working as a subcontractor to a larger business). I say relatively because the data shows that the number of bids to success rates is holding at a steady pace, but that successful bids are much higher for a lower cost to the companies bidding as subcontractors.
Basically, it’s less cost for more return, but with no difference in relative marketing or cost incurred for that increased result. Even though subcontractors lose a bit of their revenue to handling fees paid to their prime contractor, the prime takes on more of the marketing expenses. I wrote about other aspects of the prime versus sub debate in an earlier article.
In a follow-up post, I’ll comment on more of the data included in the American Express OPEN for Government Contracts report; we’ll look at trends for particular types of small businesses such as minority contractors and women-owned contractors.
Following up from my successful presentation for the National Contract Management Association, on August 7th I gave a standing-room only talk at the 2013 National Veterans Small Business Conference (NVSBC) put on by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While the group at NCMA was more mixed between businesses, PTAC people, and OSDBU types, at the NVSBC the audience for my presentation was almost entirely business owners and business development folks. They were about evenly split between new businesses and more established businesses.
Since I’m the type of presenter that interacts with my audience, that made this a very different presentation. There was a lot of lively back and forth conversation. For example, when I talked about the importance of building a relationship with contracting officers, one person interjected, “Wait a minute, I thought we weren’t supposed to talk to the contracting officer.”
Sure you can, you just have to be aware that there are things they can and cannot say. This is a relationship you absolutely need to establish, because this is the only person who can legally sign on behalf of the government. You’re not authorized to do anything until the contracting officer signs.
Your customer is the person who orders the services and wants you to do the work, and will deliver your technical instructions. However, they do not have the right to approve whether or not you are granted the work.
The NVSBC was quite a bit bigger than the NCMA, with lunch settings for 3,000 people. The exhibit hall was expanded so our placement was slightly different than when we registered, but it still worked well for us and our booth was constantly busy with good traffic. So much so that I never really got around to see the other exhibits.
As I’ve said many times, business comes down to relationships, and being in the booth gave me the opportunity to catch up with people I don’t see in person very often, as well as make new connections – including readers of this blog! Several people commented that they appreciate the concrete advice here, and asked for my recommendations for their situation. It was very gratifying to see the impact of this blog.
If you’re in the Washington area, there is another learning opportunity happening next week. It’s called the Summit for Success, and it’s being put on by American Express OPEN Forum (OPEN for Government Contracts division) – they have a good track record for delivering solid information.
The event takes place on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 from 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. at the Grand Hyatt Washington in Washington, D.C., and includes four breakout sessions, hands-on learning opportunities, and networking with other small businesses, large prime contractors, and government officials and buyers.
This is a free event that is well worth your time. You must pre-register, so don’t miss out!
As I wrote in an earlier post, in 2013, the federal government has limited travel and canceled many industry trade shows. Unfortunately, conferences have gotten a bad rap lately, with overspending and more focus on entertainment than education.
Luckily, conferences like the National Contract Management Association’s World Congress, held last week from July 21-24, 2013, still hold the focus on education. Speakers included the top subject matter experts in the world of contract management. The NCMA even offered certification exams for the designations of Certified Professional Contracts Manager, Certified Federal Contracts Manager, and Certified Commercial Contracts Manager – right at the conference!
If you’re going to attend a conference, it’s important to choose one like this that’s based on educational opportunities. It’s getting harder for government employees to get funding to attend conferences if they can’t justify the educational benefits. Even for this stellar conference, some of the government attendees funded their own way there. We at TAPE were very grateful that so many were willing to do this!
Attendance was down a little bit as a result of this change in the conference landscape, but it definitely meant that everybody who was there was very motivated. So although there was less traffic in the exhibit hall, we had a lot of very good interactions, and people were definitely there to do business.
As for my presentation, “The Fish Don’t Jump in the Boat” (my favorite topic!), we had a very good group, a mix of people from PTACs, who were there in force, several small businesses, and it was wonderful to have Alice Williams in the group as well. She is the Associate Director, Office of Small Business at Army Contracting Command, and also shared the stage with my wife Louisa Jaffe, President and CEO of TAPE, on a panel discussion.
We reviewed a lot of the topics that have appeared in this blog, and it was great to see how a new audience appreciated the content. There was even one question about mid-tier issues (another favorite topic!). (P.S. The session was recorded – if the NCMA releases it to the public I will definitely post a link here in the blog.)
If you’re considering adding conferences to your marketing mix (read this post first, from TAPE’s Director of Marketing and Communications), be sure to choose conferences like the NCMA World Congress that are well oriented to education, because those are the ones where you’re likely to find the most government people.
As with all things, you have to go where your customers are. Even if you don’t think contracting officers are your customers, they are the people who talk to your customers and put out your contracts, and that makes them your target audience. At my presentation, we talked about the importance of establishing a relationship with your contracting officers.
The location of the conference added a lot to our experience as well. As I tweeted from Nashville, the Gaylord Grand Opry Hotel and Convention Center was like a city in itself!
There is another good education-based conference coming up next week. From August 6-8, 2013, The Department of Veterans Affairs will host the 2013 National Veterans Small Business Conference (NVSBC) in St. Louis, Missouri. NVSBC is VA’s largest nationwide conference (they’re expecting more than 4,000 attendees) and is specifically designed to put veteran-owned small businesses together with procurement decision makers in both government and commercial industries.
At the NVSBC, I’ll be presenting another version of “The Fish Don’t Jump in the Boat,” bound to be a unique discussion based on who is in the room. Will you be there?
I’m proud to be participating in the 2013 World Congress of the National Contract Management Association in Nashville, Tennessee from July 21-24, 2013. I’m presenting a breakout session called, “The Fish Don’t Jump in the Boat,” to share the best lessons from this blog.
According to their website, “The National Contract Management Association’s World Congress is hailed as a must-attend event because it’s the most comprehensive training event for contract management, procurement, and acquisition professionals.
With over 20 educational tracks, content is offered for professionals at each and every stage of their careers—and with over 1,500 attendees, there are vast networking opportunities!”
If you plan to be at the NCMA World Congress, please check out my session and let me know you’re a reader of this blog!
TAPE’s CEO and President Louisa Jaffe is also presenting at the NCMA World Congress. Here’s how to find our sessions:
The Fish Don’t Jump in the Boat (Session D08), Bill Jaffe, Tuesday, July 23, 2013, from 11:15 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
This session will bring you best-of-breed business development tips and strategies to use in pursuit of work within the federal marketplace. Topics of interest are tips on navigating through the Small Business Administration, stages of growth, risks and rewards of IDIQ contracting, marketing tips, proposal writing tips, capture management strategies, and internal infrastructure improvements.
How Asset-Based Thinking Can Help Create Collaborative and Productive Relationships (Session G05), Louisa Jaffe, Wednesday, July 24, 2013 from 9:45-11:00 a.m.
This session will help attendees identify the assets within and between key stakeholder groups (i.e., government customers/contracting officers/industry) in executing the procurement process. By applying asset-based thinking (ABT), attendees will learn how to generate concrete strategies for building stronger, more collaborative relationships. This interactive session will teach participants the fundamentals of ABT and how to apply them so they can maximize the potential of their relationships while minimizing miscommunications.
I recently learned about ChallengeHER, a combined initiative of the SBA, WIPP, and American Express OPEN designed to bring more women-owned businesses into the federal government’s supply chain.
After reading the initial press release, I got more details about the program from Benjamin Stone, Director of Small Business and Start Up Development at American Express OPEN.
1. What’s the first thing a woman-owned business should do in order to win a contract with the federal government?
In order to do business with the government, there are a few steps that women-owned businesses should take:
- Register your business in a portal called System for Award Management (SAM). Registering with SAM is required of any business looking to do business with the government and helps you get noticed by government agencies. Registration is free but requires specific company data, e.g. DUNS number, NAICS code, etc.
- Get your business certified by visiting www.sba.gov to determine if your firm qualifies for the WOSB certification as well as others. Women-owned small businesses may either self-certify or submit a third-party certification.
- Learn which government agencies buy your type of products and services before responding to any solicitation. Successful government contractors visit USAspending.gov, where they can find out who the federal government buys from and for how much.
- Use all available resources to find information that will save you time and money. Visit the government contracting section on the American Express OPEN Forum site to access how-to articles, guides, videos, and tips on how to do business with the government. Business owners can also participate in free monthly webinars hosted by Give Me 5, a program for women-owned businesses seeking federal contracts created by Women Impacting Public Policy and American Express OPEN.
2. The press release mentioned live events where organizers will be playing “matchmaker” to pair up woman-owned businesses with federal contract opportunities. Is this also available to people who can’t attend these events?
Woman-owned businesses should continue to visit the ChallengeHER section of the WIPP website for continual updates on events and tutorials throughout the year. Business owners that are unable to attend events should take advantage of free resources from the Give Me 5 program, which offers free webinars on a variety of government contracting topics.
3. What tips can you offer for accessing the System for Award Management (SAM)?
Registering your business with SAM is crucial as this portal will help your business get noticed by government agencies with contract opportunities. While registration is free, it does require the following “must haves”:
- DUNS (Data Universal Numbering System) number
- TIN or EIN (Tax ID or Employer ID Number)
- Product or Services Classification Codes (NAICS) http://www.census.gov/eos/www/naics
- Communication links Points of Contact (POC)
- Company website
Give Me 5 outlines more tips and tricks for navigating SAM here.
4. How can people find out more about new events and trainings as they’re announced?
For now, women business owners can visit the ChallengeHER page on WIPP’s website, http://www.wipp.org/?ChallengeHER. The website will provide timely updates about ChallengeHER events throughout the country as well as upcoming webinars. Small business owners can also follow WIPP on Twitter at @WIPPWeDecide.
The next ChallengeHER event will be held in Phoenix on June 12, 2013, where women-owned small businesses will learn how to take part in the WOSB Federal Contracting Program. Interested business owners can get more details about the Phoenix event and register to attend here.
5. Is there anything else you would like Bill’s readers to know?
Doing business with the government requires motivation, persistence and patience. It’s important to keep a few things in mind when venturing into the world of federal procurement:
- Don’t get discouraged – persistence pays off! According to an American Express OPEN survey of active contractors, it took nearly two years of trying to win the first federal contract. But persistence pays off – active contractors win almost three contracts per year. Staying proactive is a key to success.
- Team up to win contracts – Our survey reveals that SBOs who team win 50% more contracts. Teaming enables businesses to partner with one another to qualify and meet the contract requirements since one small business can’t provide all of what’s required. Also, teaming with an experienced government contractor with federal past performance will help novice government contractors build past performance. Learn more about teaming here.
- Government contracting is something small businesses should at least consider. Why? American Express OPEN research shows that government contracting can help boost a small business to become a high-growth company – 47% of small businesses active in government contracting reach the $1M revenue mark, compared to just 5% of small business overall.
Thanks, Ben! You’ve given women business owners some really useful tips and resources for success in federal contracting.
One of the biggest financial barriers to success as a federal contractor is how to make payroll while you’re waiting for the government to pay you. If that’s true in your case, you might be looking for financing to pay your employees. One option to consider is something like Sterling National Bank’s Payroll Finance program, where you turn over both the collection AND the payroll processing to them in a 2-for-1 process:
On the financing side, they can:
- Finance up to 100% of payroll cost (100% is unusual, but in this case it’s payroll only),
- Invoice the client or the government – Federal, state, and/or local,
- Help collect payment, and
- Provide all the internal and reporting controls so management can concentrate on building the business.
On the payroll side, they can:
- Collect payroll data from employees remotely or through the company,
- Calculate the payroll,
- Pay by means of ACH, pay card, and/or check, and
- File and pay the necessary taxes, deductions, information and forms.
A solution like this means that in addition to the available cash flow support for payroll, you can concentrate on operations and obtaining more and larger contracts, while you let somebody else manage your invoicing and payroll tasks.
For more details about this program, check out http://www.snb.com/payroll. There are also many different programs to explore, such as the ones in this post and this post. The key is to find an innovative one that fits your needs. The less financed your business is, the better, obviously, so payroll financing might be just the ticket to limiting exposure and interest/fee cost. Alternatively, the factoring folks provide more funding, but at a much higher cost, obviously because their risk/exposure is higher.
When you are the prime contractor, often your subs will ask for a “lock-box” type of banking approach that pays them immediately without the actual cash going through your coffers. Understand that your sub is just minimizing their risks. A strong and positive working relationship is more important than fighting over this. Agree to the request, set up the system, and then let it go. You need them to be on your side in so many other ways, this is just not worth fighting over.
And finally, don’t despair over the size of your interest and fees. Everyone starts out this way, and as soon as you can grow into qualifying for a regular bank line of credit, your financing costs will drop and you will have some great stories to tell about how you grew out of that phase.
This is a guest post by Richard Lewis, Financial Engineering Counselors, Ltd.
When you work with the federal government, invoicing and payment cycles can be long. That typically means you will have spend money to do the work, before you’ve been paid for the work. This creates even more challenges when you’re the prime and you have to take care of your subcontractors as well.
In a previous post, we learned about some financing alternatives for federal contractors in this situation. Today, our guest blogger Richard Lewis is back to tell us about four more options. Richard is a government contractor financing consultant with Sterling National Bank.
Commercial financing/Asset-based lending – This is a common type of financing provided by most banks and commercial finance companies. The primary asset used in this type of lending is your company’s accounts receivables, although inventory, fixed assets, and in some instances, intellectual properties may be used to collateralize additional long-term financing requirements. With asset-based lending your credit worthiness, as well as your customers’, will determine the percentage of the receivables that will be advanced, usually between 75% and 90%. Inventory and fixed assets advance rates are most often significantly lower because these are less liquid assets. This financing is almost always provided on a revolving or an on-going basis, thus the term “revolving credit.”
Leasing and/or sale and leaseback – These financing alternatives can be used to generate capital from fixed assets that are to be obtained or currently owned by your company, such as computers, equipment, furniture and fixtures, vehicles, and real estate. Banks, financing companies, dealers, and manufacturers provide these more specialized services. The specifics of the agreement will determine if these leases have to be reported on your company’s balance sheet or if they can be treated as “off balance sheet” items.
SBA loan – The SBA offers numerous loan programs to assist small businesses. It is important to note, however, that the SBA is primarily a guarantor of loans made by private and other institutions. The Basic 7(a) Loan Guaranty serves as the SBA’s primary business loan program to help qualified small businesses obtain financing when they might not be eligible for business loans through normal lending channels. It is also the agency’s most flexible business loan program, since financing under this program can be guaranteed for a variety of general business purposes.
SBIR and grants – SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) is a federal government program administered by 10 federal agencies for the purpose of helping to provide early-stage Research and Development funding to small technology companies (or individual entrepreneurs who form a company). Each agency has various needs and flavors of the SBIR program and you can learn more about them by visiting their sites: SBA, DoD and NIH.
None of the alternatives mentioned above are mutually exclusive. In many cases, combinations can be very effective. However, there are significant legal and operational differences in these financing arrangements. The terms of some borrowing agreements may limit your ability to take on additional debt and they should be entered into only as part of a coherent financing strategy. Do not be alarmed when the lender asks for your personal guaranty. Personal guarantees are virtually standard for all but the most credit worthy and/or public companies.
A note from Bill: TAPE’s own history mirrors the choices we’ve outlined in these two posts. First we did credit card financing that was tied to the company and our demonstrated cash flow. This is not really a recommended approach, but the bank was willing to extend limit that was limited in comparison to our current line of credit, but seemed big at the time.
Next we converted to factoring and followed that through two separate vendors, one of whom we still maintain cordial relations with. Finally, several years ago, our CFO obtained bank line of credit financing, and we’ve been there ever since, through three separate banks.
Richard Lewis is a consultant with Financial Engineering Counselors, Ltd. FEC is a diverse financial advisory firm that assists government contractors in obtaining their working capital needs. You can contact him at 703-992-8988.
This is a guest post by Richard Lewis, Financial Engineering Counselors, Ltd.
“While poor management is cited most frequently as the reason businesses fail, inadequate or ill-timed financing is a close second.” – U.S. Small Business Administration, “The Basics”
The good news: Your company has landed a new government contract, one that will result in a significant increase in revenues.
The challenge: In order to fulfill this contract, you must commit to additional people (payroll), training, materials, and related costs. This commitment must be made in advance of receiving payments from your customer (the US Government).
The solution: By planning ahead, you can get a loan from family or friends, use your credit cards, get an equity infusion (very costly and time consuming) or arrange delayed payment to vendors. However, you might negotiate specific terms into your customer agreement to dampen the impact of this challenge (e.g., extended delivery dates, or partial payment upon order placement).
You can also plan ahead in considering your financing options, which can include:
Your existing bank or lender – If your company has an existing line of credit or borrowing arrangement with a bank or other lender, try to negotiate an increase with them. A responsive lender may provide all of the short-term capital needed until the government agency begins payment. Of course there will some repercussions to consider, such as loan covenants or higher interest rates. It’s best to have this conversation as far in advance as possible, and to present a full financing/business plan.
Factoring – This is the sale of your customer invoices (accounts receivable), to a bank or finance company (the “factor”), as opposed to using them as borrowing collateral. The factor will advance a percentage, usually between 75% and 90%, of the invoice amount; the balance is refundable upon receipt of payment, less interest and transaction costs. Some factors may also provide other funding options. The factor will, through the Federal Assignment of Claims provisions, notify the federal government agency customer that the invoice has been financed and is payable directly to them. There are several advantages to factoring; much of the A/R bookkeeping, customer credit worthiness, collections, and credit risk become a shared responsibility with the factor, and the initial approval process can usually be a matter of days.
Although sometimes more costly, it is a viable alternative to traditional bank financing because of its increased flexibility and because the primary credit criteria is based on your government customer, rather than your credit history.
Contract financing/Purchase order financing – You may be able to negotiate financing based upon your federal government customer purchase order(s). Some lenders provide purchase order financing based upon the credit worthiness of your customer (in this case the US Federal Government). PO financing is easiest when your products or services are well established.
A note from Bill: Be aware that financing cost is not “allowable” under DCAA, those costs come straight from your bottom line. But nothing will derail a small business easier than not having the ability to pay the people and get the infrastructure in place. Listen to the experts and get help.
In the next post, we’ll explore four other financing options for federal contractors.
Richard Lewis is a consultant with Financial Engineering Counselors, Ltd. FEC is a diverse financial advisory firm that assists government contractors in obtaining their working capital needs. You can contact him at 703-992-8988.
In 2013, the federal government has limited travel and canceled many, if not most of the critical “Business to Government” industry trade shows such as Defense Intelligence Worldwide, US Air Trade and Technology Show, Military Health System Conference, Tactical Wheeled Vehicles Event, GSA FedFleet, GovEnergy, SmartPay and GSA Training Expositions.*
Eileen Kent of Custom Keynotes, one of our guest bloggers, has come up with an innovative potential solution that could bring business and government together in local settings on a regular basis. She calls these gatherings “Industry Solution Jams,” and is encouraging industry associations, SBA, PTACs, Chambers of Commerce and local businesses to consider hosting one of these events.
This solution is a cost-effective way for industry and government to discuss new ideas and present case studies and innovations, and for project managers who are stuck on a problem to see how the marketplace is solving similar problems. “There is talent right outside the federal buildings and bases,” notes Eileen, “but the federal customers don’t have time or the tools (or the budget) to seek new solutions.” An Industry Solutions Jam gives these PMs the opportunity to meet new subject matter experts in a neutral setting.
Eileen also points out that the Federal Government’s FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) 15.201 notes that, “Exchanges of information among all interested parties, from the earliest identification of a requirement through the receipt of proposals, are encouraged.” These events fulfill this type of communication and help the Government obtain quality supplies at reasonable prices, and increase the efficiency of the contracting process.
As a first step towards an ISJ, Eileen recommends surveying the PMs and other end users inside the agency to find out their current challenges, e.g., sustainability, LEED certification, IT and cyber security, etc.
Next, she suggests establishing a facilitator (could be an outside professional, if no one “inside” can assume this duty) to moderate and host the two-hour event, and to publicize an invitation to businesses from within the region who have case studies that prove their solutions for these particular challenges, or who just want to mix and network.
The facilitator, along with the hosting agency and presenting companies, will forward invitations to the small business offices of all nearby agencies, the prime contractors working onsite, local Procurement Technical Assistance Centers and the project managers who may benefit from the topics being presented. Area regional directors and base commanders should be invited as well.
Room rental, food and beverage, and IT costs can all be covered through sponsorship, rendering this a no-cost solution for the agency. Potential sponsors could be small business contractors and advocates, prime contractors, individual facilitators, contractor associations, SBA, PTACs and local Chambers of Commerce – a third-party association/facilitator or Chamber who can bring together both sides of the equation.
An Industry Solutions Jam would have positive benefits for everyone involved:
- Small and local businesses have exposure to their local federal customers without travel expenses
- Agency Small Business Officers will have the ability to meet new local businesses ultimately meeting mandated small business goals
- Prime Small Business Officers will have exposure to new innovations and potential sub-contractors, who can help them meet their mandated small business goals
- The government could save time and money by investing in a local innovation that is discovered at the event
For more of Eileen’s insights into the federal contracting scene, please see her earlier blog posts here at The Fish Don’t Jump in the Boat:
Give Me 5 is a partnership between American Express OPEN (I’ve blogged before about the OPEN trends reports about government procurement) and WIPP (Women in Public Policy) that’s designed to help women business owners get a leg up on contracting opportunities.
While the site does have resources specific to women business owners, it also provides a number of resources that all business owners can use, such as free contracting information sessions delivered by telephone and webinar.
Visit the Give Me 5 website at http://www.giveme5.com.
You can also visit the main website for American Express OPEN’s government contracting program, Victory in Procurement (VIP). There are a ton of resources for business owners at any level – those who are new to contracting and those who have had success and are looking to grow.
The OPEN site offers everything from expert posts, to new procurement research, to contracting success stories from small business owners.
Finally, you can check out and join the American Express OPEN Victory in Procurement LinkedIn group. This is an extension of the VIP OPEN Forum site that provides real-time discussion of contracting news and opportunities.
I hope you’ll take full advantage of these resources from my friends at WIPP and their partners at American Express OPEN.