Wading into the competitive waters of government contracting is a tough task all developing small firms in the industry must take on. The road to fiscal success is littered with challenges for a firm lacking a lengthy record of project success or short on high-powered contacts and resources.
One of the best ways for a small company to establish itself as a player on the government-contracting scene is to engage in a subcontracting partnership with a larger firm entrenched in the industry.
The right partnership can serve as something like a “resume builder” for a young or growing company. Think of it as an internship: There is a chance to gain valuable experience, while enhancing your firm’s profile, both with the government and within the business.
But, unlike an internship, a partnership with a major firm is not obtained with an application and an interview. Large firms put a great deal of thought into the selection process to make sure they pick the best-fitting small business.
GovConExec spoke with a number of large firms to get a sense of the different attributes they seek in small businesses and potential partnerships.
Creativity is Key
“We look for the same things our customers look for in us,” said Greg Young, CEO of ENSCO. “We’re a creative organization, an organization that’s nimble and we look for a firm that has a value proposition in the area that we’re hiring or looking for partnership in.”
Many small firms in the business rely on a specialized set of skills, knowledge and experience in a niche area of the market that makes them attractive to larger firms. Companies possessing the ability to provide assistance in a specialized area will impress a potential partner.
“We like partnerships, especially with small businesses,” Young said. “We think it fosters what American free enterprise is all about in terms of starting a business and growing a business. The vast majority of businesses in our country are small businesses, and they start from a one or two person organization, just like ENSCO did in 1969, and they grow to larger entities over time. I think the value proposition is creativity for us because we are a very entrepreneurial company. We focus on technology, engineering, science and we look for business partners who have those kinds of skills.”
The larger firm craves those one-of-a-kind answers to the government’s problems. Not only will it set the small business apart, but it will set the entire product or solution apart, too.
“As a former small-business owner, I can certainly relate to the challenges associated with finding and being recognized by the right teaming partners,” said Tiffanny Gates, senior vice president at ManTech. “I recommend that small businesses who would like to partner with ManTech demonstrate their ability to contribute to the team through proactive partnership. For example, willingness to step in, participation in the capture process and providing unique solutions to our government customers’ challenges make for a very attractive teammate.”
Speed is also a factor. Large firms will need a subcontractor’s best talent right away.
“Another important factor in standing out from the crowd is the ability to provide qualified candidates in a timely manner,” Gates said. “As a solutions provider, providing the best people makes our entire team more successful.”
“Can’t” Can’t be in the Vocabulary
View the situation from the perspective of a large firm seeking a partnership. The companies are under the gun to produce a quality product for the client and need a small business that is able to integrate to the situation quickly and provide solutions, not excuses.
“I look at specific business characteristics, such as customer intimacy the business has developed in the past with a customer because they delivered a niche solution or service,” said Beth Hardison, senior vice president of business development for USIS. “In a perfect world, they should be able to contribute something strategic, like access to a bidding opportunity that the prime would be excluded from pursuing, or cost effectiveness to lower overall pricing.”
When competing with a field of qualified small businesses for partnerships, it is crucial to stand out. An easy way to separate from the pack is to make clear a firm-wide willingness to go above and beyond the call.
“We want to see excellent past performance and the recognition that the business knows that they are responsible for that service delivery,” Hardison said. “And, they should demonstrate enthusiasm and a desire to participate in the pursuit, far in advance of their literal ability to contribute time or money to the proposal.”
Most importantly, be prepared to deliver solutions and answers – never reasons why a goal or task will not be met. Otherwise, the small firm might be out in the cold early in the game.
“Sometimes, we have small teammates who don’t try to understand the scope of the deliverables on a pursuit, or they immediately say they ‘don’t have the bandwidth or personnel’ to contribute because they are small,” Hardison said. “I believe that they always will be small when I hear a ‘no’ or ‘can’t do it’ response so early in a discussion. It is that lack of imagination, zest for winning, and lack of engagement that will keep them small in the end. It takes dedication to win and to be part of a winning team. This means plenty of after-hours contribution, management time and commitment, and overall interest. You have to want it to get it and if a small-business partner can demonstrate to me that they are dedicated to being a valuable member of our team, beyond the small-business quota imposed by the RFP, now that is a winning combination.”
Focus on Building Trust
The core of any functioning relationship is trust. The good news is, the larger firms are eager to build trusting relationships with small businesses.
“Larger businesses oftentimes benefit greatly from working with smaller and medium-sized businesses,” said David Bryant, vice president of civil programs division at Integral Systems. “Smaller organizations tend to be more nimble and are able to react quickly to the demands of the end-customer in ways that are sometimes more difficult for larger, more established businesses.”
But building a quality relationship is a process and takes effort and time.
“In terms of building a partnership with large businesses, the smaller organization should understand that it takes time to build up trust and that they need to demonstrate immediately that they have the expertise and resources to meet the larger organization’s and the end-customer’s needs,” Bryant said. “Once a strong relationship is formed, it can continue to benefit each organization far beyond the initial request.”
After the relationship has been built, it can be of mutual benefit, likely leading to continued success for both firms involved.
“The end-customer significantly benefits when large companies partner with small to medium-sized businesses,” Bryant said. “Smaller businesses tend to have higher employee-retention rates due to the dynamic work environment and attractive benefits. Because of this low attrition and the smaller organization’s best-of-breed expertise, the customer’s need is quickly addressed and can be preserved in the event of a change in the program structure or contract.”
Representatives from other large firms echo the sentiment. There needs to be a quality track record of relationships in place, coupled with a strong meshing between leadership teams at the respective firms.
“The best advice I could give a small business wanting to partner with a larger firm is to focus on building trust with your partner,” said Mike Bowers, senior vice president of homeland security and civilian sector at INDUS. “Of course, for any deal, a small firm needs to fill a specific need—technical expertise, customer knowledge, for example—and also bring a record of strong performance. But in my experience the most productive partnerships are those where the two companies’ principals trust each other. This only comes by working on multiple deals over some period of time and having mutual success.”