A Small Business Quiz. How Well Do You Know the Basics?


Here’s a quick quiz regarding small business relationships with the Federal Government :

  1.  True/False?  Marketing business capabilities to a program/project manager is not allowable by the FAR.
  2.  True/False?  A great idea coupled with great execution is a formula for success.
  3.  True/False?  Who you know matters more than what you know.
  4.  True/False?  In government business financial models aren’t relevant
  5.  True/False?  I submitted a proposal response to an RFP.  I noticed some inconsistencies  with how the Governments procurement team was handling the Source Selection.  Am I allowed to protest before award?

Our response:

  1.  False.  A small business is allowed to market its capabilities to an agency prior to release of a solicitation.  The agencies purposely release RFI’s and Sources Sought Synopsis to identify qualified small businesses to address its requirements.  See FAR
  2. False.  You need more than a great idea to be successful.  You will want to consider the following during your journey to small business success.  A. Who is the customer and what does he/she need.  Addressing a potential clients needs may or may not be relevant to your great idea. B. What differentiates your product/service from the masses and why will the client buy it?  You sell a quality product or service at a fair/reasonable price and it meets the client’s needs.
  3. True.  In many ways conducting business with Uncle Sam is similar to commercial business.  Building a relationship with either the program office or contracts shop will help in developing trust and mitigating risk.  The relationships yield recommendations and follow on business.  Don’t sell yourself short in this.
  4. False.  Financial model s are tools that provide insight into “what if” scenarios that aid a business in determining what it takes to reduce risk, gain trust and  “make a buck”.
  5. True.  FAR 33.1 identifies scenarios where a Protest may be filed before contract award.

Hopefully you did well and scored “correctly” on all 5 questions.  The quiz is designed to aid the small business to recognize some of the things that often trip up small contractors on the way to becoming a better, smarter more profitable vendor.

Know the Language of Negotiating

The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) explicitly define a series of terms that are relevant to your understanding of the Federal contracting and contract negotiation process.  Here’s a few that may be of value to you:

Clarifications –  The Government’s decision to award with or without discussions will dictate the type of communications that can take place.  If the solicitation states that the award will be made without discussions, the Government’s ability to communicate with offerors is limited, but not entirely precluded.  The Government may still request “clarifications” which FAR 15 describes as “limited exchanges “to clarify certain aspects of the proposal or to resolve minor or clerical errors.  Also, in the “without discussions” scenario, certain types of past performance inquiries are regarded as clarifications.  For instance, the Government will be able to ask offerors about relevant past performance information, or give the offeror the chance to explain adverse past performance information to which they have not had a previous opportunity to respond.  (See FAR 15.306)

Exchanges – These are communications that take place after receipt of proposals but before the establishment of the competitive range and allow the Government to engage in more substantive communications than clarifications.  In addition, FAR 15 limits these communications (before the competitive range determination) to certain parties and only for specific reasons primarily associated with resolution of ambiguities in the proposal or to address past performance information.  See FAR 15.306(b) for the details.

Discussions – These are negotiations in a competitive acquisition that begin after the competitive range determination and are typically associated with the offerors cost/price, technical approach, past performance, and terms and conditions.  Discussions are tailored to each proposal within the competitive range and allow the Government to assess individual proposal strengths and weaknesses.  See FAR 15.306(c) for more details.

Summary – Understand the language being used by the contracting officer in the negotiating process and understand the rules associated with each phase of the source selection process.

–Jim Dickensheets

Developing Your Elevator Speech

Small business owners understand that in order to put your business on the path to success, a comprehensive business plan and a marketing plan are critical.  “Winging it” doesn’t bring results, nor is it a productive use of your precious time.  Both of these plans, if done correctly, can establish a measured approach to growing your business as well as methods to assess how well your business decisions are achieving the desired results.

One element of the marketing plan is referred to as the elevator speech, a brief but hard-hitting verbal bulletin board that describes your company’s expertise in 30 seconds or so.  Why is it important?  Simply put, over the course of a normal business week, you will have many, many opportunities to describe your company and what it offers.  You may actually find yourself on an elevator with a contracting officer, an elected official or other government customer.  Being prepared for these opportunities may make the difference between a business deal and just another missed opportunity.  The elevator speech needs to be thoughtfully created, rehearsed, and skillfully modified on the fly to make the greatest impact on your listener.  Our friends at the Georgia Tech Procurement Assistance Center (GTPAC) have created an outline of the elevator speech that I believe is very effective.  Here’s the outline of items that need to be addressed:

  • Who and what you are
  • What you specialize in
  • What you do
  • Why you are the best at what you do
  • What you want (a call to action)
  • Keep it brief!  Talk solutions that your company brings to the table.

If you haven’t given much thought to your elevator speech, take a 3 x 5 card and jot down the elements that address the outline questions above, then rehearse it.  I know it sounds silly, but a few rehearsals will help you to polish the speech so that the first impressions are lasting.  Again, you will be surprised at the number of opportunities that will materialize in your normal business activity where you can put the elevator speech to use.  Be prepared!

What All Small Businesses Should Know About Winning Contracts

Winning a federal contract is by no means an easy thing.  Though there are numerous publications of instruction available, none will guarantee you the award you are seeking.   Planning, patience, preparation, attention to detail and flawless execution are just a few of the attributes to be employed as you maneuver through the procurement process.  Mastering those elements that you control is certainly a first step, i.e. scrub the RFP, ask questions to resolve disconnects and clarify grey areas, follow the instructions in section “L” and ensure you address the evaluation criteria stated in section “M” .  Additionally, we can’t overlook the benefits of working early in the process and establishing relationships with the procurement personnel on the other side of the table.  You will also want to work on any leads you receive while identifying opportunities and follow through until you either max out the leads or you are asked to “cease and desist”

If managing federal contracts is new to you let me assure you that you will experience any number of setbacks on your road to contracting success.  Don’t be discouraged; get back up, dust yourself off and try again.  Be persistent.

The following lists several tips to help you get off “top dead center” in your efforts to identify, bid and win federal work:

  • Shore up your capabilities package, rehearse your elevator speech and update your marketing presentations, web sites, social media (Linked in) profiles
  • Avoid the shot gun approach.  It helps to be focused as you seek out business opportunities.  Center your search efforts on agencies and organizations that have an interest in what you are selling.  In other words, focus on the specific “needs” of the select agency/organization.
  • Seek out ways to establish a dialog with the targeted agency small business representatives.  Ultimately you’ll want to interface with the lead program/projects manager, the decision makers in the organization.
  • Develop partnerships and teaming arrangements if you find you are short on past performance or specific skills and abilities.


Try to applying these tips as you seek to identify business opportunities, market your company and build competitive proposals.   Practice to improve your skills and be ready for the success that will knock at your door.

Advice From Tom Stover on Subcontracting

Here’s a video of the late Tom Stover, founder of Stover & Associates, on subcontracting-

Video – Founder Tom Stover on Subcontracting

Winning that first Government contract is a real challenge for a small business.    A good place to start is subcontracting with a larger or more experienced company, where you and your employees can gain first-hand experience in some of the ins and outs of managing a contract.  A successful subcontract will give you a basis on which to build the “past performance” required when bidding on future contracts with the government.

What can you expect as a sub?  Or, from a sub?  You may be bidding on a contract where you’ll require a sub to complete the deliverables — how can you be sure the sub will understand what’s required of them, and be sure you won’t lose money on the deal?  Do you really need a subcontractor, or will a vendor be able to fill that gap?

Looking for subcontracting opportunities?  The SBA (Small Business Administration) has a listing by state of federal contractors who may need to use subcontractors in fulfilling their contracts.


Sometimes What You Know Can Hurt You

I ran across an article in the Washington Business Journal by Lee Dougherty, Attorney, General Counsel PC that showed an example of where “Incumbent Ego” can lead to losing a competition.  Mr. Dougherty cites a recent GAO Protest Decision where the incumbent contractor’s proposal “failed to provide adequate support” for their exception to the stated range of personnel required for performance of the sample task order, and as a consequence was rated as marginal.

I decided to read the decision to learn more, and this is certainly a case of ego getting in the way of success.  The RFP specifically instructed offerors to provide a complete explanation of why any exception was taken, what benefit would accrue to the government and its impact, if any, on the performance, schedule, cost and specific requirements of the RFP.  The incumbent’s proposal stated, “Because Team Piton’s partners are the current incumbents executing the work described in STO1 and understand intrinsically the current contractor support required, we take exception to this given range of 23-31 CMEs.”  They went on to state that the Government would experience significant savings due to their use of 18 CMEs.

Apparently, this contractor assumed that because they were the incumbent, the evaluation team would place great weight on their knowledge and insight and wouldn’t require an explanation of how they could perform the work requirements with a significantly smaller staff than was called for in the Governments own published estimate!

This brings to mind a story Tom Stover has told where an incumbent who had learned that an increase in base personnel may occur within the next year, which would increase the workload of their operation.  They based their proposal on the “anticipated” workload rather than the workload provided in the RFP and subsequently lost.

Incumbents can have a distinct advantage in a competition, but they can’t let “what they know” cloud their judgment.  Superior knowledge does not necessarily translate to a superior proposal!

Proposal Outlining 101

Remember your first exposure to “creative” writing?  The teacher often said, “Make an outline first, then start writing!” — Not a bad idea before you begin committing creative words to the hard drive.

Most well written Government Requests for Proposal (RFPs) will provide just the outline that the Government is looking for to support the source selection evaluation.  This outline is usually contained in a section of the RFP entitled “Instructions to the Offerors” or some similar title such as “Instructions, Conditions, and Notices to Offerors.”  For example, here is an extract from a RFP stating what is required in Volume III of the proposal to be submitted:

L.3.1.3 Required Content Volume III – Technical and Management Requirements

Tab 1:  Technical Approach
Offerors shall provide a Management plan which includes an organizational chart to meet the requirements of Attachment C/Performance Work Statement including the description of all labor categories.  In addition, Offerors shall detail their capability to hire, train, motivate and retain personnel.  [Emphasis added.]

What a great start to the proposal outline!  The Government is telling us just how to structure our proposal.  For example, we could start out this way:


1.0              TAB 1:  TECHNICAL APPROACH

1.1    The Management Plan

1.1.1           Our Organization Chart for this Effort

1.1.2           Our Labor Categories

1.2    The Company’s Ability to Hire, Train, Motivate, and Retain Personnel

You can envision going through the Instructions to the Offerors (ITO) as it describes the content of each proposal volume and building the complete outline for your proposal.  In a perfect world, that is how it is supposed to work.  The ITO reflects how the Government evaluators want to see your proposal to make it easier for them to evaluate your submission.  Nevertheless, in the real world, the ITO may have some strange order to how the material is to be presented.  You can challenge the layout during the time for questions; however, chances are that the pride of authorship will prevail.  Frankly, we do not recommend wasting a lot of time in trying to work a change to the ITO unless there is a substantive problem that should be addressed.  If the Government wants a specific order for the information to be presented, then go with the flow!

Sounds easy up to this point, but…!  There is always seems to be a “but.”

Now is the time to look at the evaluation criteria provided in the RFP under a section often entitled “Evaluation Factors for Award.”  A well written RFP will have evaluation criteria that follow the ITO.  That is, if the Government wants you to address your Management Plan per the ITO, then they will also provide the criteria by which they will evaluate your input.  In fact, the Government can only evaluate your proposal using the stated evaluation factors.  Otherwise, they stand the chance of a protest by not following their own rules.  The “but” is that additional information about your proposal content can be, and often is, introduced in the RFP section dealing with the Evaluation Factors for Award.  For instance, in the RFP used as the example from which the extract was drawn to show the ITO for Volume III, an inspection of the evaluation factor for the Management Plan revealed:


Sub-Factor T-5: Management Plan: The ability to initiate, manage, and fulfill the contract requirements.  The Government will evaluate Offerors on their overall management approach, such as planned management of the project and responsiveness to customer needs, but also on the following specific criteria. [Emphasis added.]

a)       Staffing Plan.  Offerors will be evaluated on its demonstrated ability to staff the project with cleared personnel, provide reach-back capability (or other means) to accommodate surges in work requirements and quick reaction to fill vacant positions.

b)       Subcontracting Plan.  The Offeror shall be evaluated on its plan to subcontract appropriate work (if subcontractors are proposed), and manage vendors to ensure conformance with requirements and performance of operations in an efficient manner.

Hmmm!  Neither subparagraphs a) nor b) were specifically mentioned in the ITO.  Not an uncommon occurrence.  Not to worry – Just modify the outline for Volume III.  For example:


2.0              TAB 1:  TECHNICAL APPROACH

1.1    The Management Plan

Add the Required Topics to Your Outline

1.1.1           Our Organization Chart for this Effort


1.1.2           Our Labor Categories

     1.1.3           Our Staffing Plan

     1.1.4           The Subcontracting Plan

1.2    The Company’s Ability to Hire, Train, Motivate, and Retain Personnel

Off we go.  Now is the time to begin committing creative words to the hard drive!  What’s the lesson learned?  Provide the Government everything they ask for in both the ITO and the Evaluation Criteria!  Remember, you will be evaluated in accordance with the Evaluation Factors for Award.  Make sure they are covered in your proposal!