Federal contracting experts offer advice, encouragement to women small business owners

The federal government’s biggest buyer, its largest real estate agent and its strongest advocate for small businesses have some advice for female small business owners: be yourself.

Speaking to a standing room only auditorium of women small business owners, Judith Stackhouse, small business technical adviser for the General Services Administration, said when it comes to getting in on the ground floor of federal contractors, “don’t try to fit a square into a circle.”

“Go with what you’re doing, go where your past performance is strong,” Stackhouse said during the Dec. 14 ChallengeHER event in Washington, hosted by the Small Business Administration, Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) and American Express OPEN.  “If you’ve been doing landscaping [in government], build your landscaping business, but don’t use that contract to try to introduce yourself into IT, because I don’t have confidence in that.”

Janique Hudson, small business specialist for the Defense Department — which has a budget of more than $600 billion — said when it comes to a business getting a leg up on a contract award, it’s more about what they can bring to the table, rather than just sitting at the table.

“I tell vendors this all the time: do not think you have to see or meet with a program office or a contractor officer to win an award. That’s not how it works,” Hudson said. “It’s you and what you bring to a proposal. Believe in yourself and what you’re putting on paper because that’s what the important thing is. When we sit down to evaluate these proposals, what is in front of me? Because that’s what I’m supposed to be evaluating, not a meeting I had with you last week.”

That dispelled myth and business advice were just part of the lessons learned during the ChallengeHER event, which gave federal contracting officials an opportunity to give expert knowledge and suggestions for women small business owners to work with the government.

Earlier this year SBA released its annual report card on small business federal contracting, and the federal government for the first time reached its 5 percent women-owned small business [WOSB] contracting goal since the bar was set in 1996.

The government spent $17.8 billion working with WOSBs, according to the report. The government also surpassed its 23 percent overall small business procurement goal by spending 25.75 percent, or $90.7 billion on small business contracts.

Buyers should know you’re out there, Stackhouse said. You need to plan and strategize for when you do get in front of decision makers. But when you do, “remember your reputation goes ahead of you,.”

“You have to treat everybody that you encounter when you’re in business mode with respect, with patience,” Stackhouse said. “You have to engage them because you never know who knows someone else. Don’t name drop just to name drop, let them know professionally that you understand how their business should be working and engaging, and offer yourself as a solution.”

Building a relationship with a buyer is important, but so is maintaining one with your competition.

Amy Kim, woman-owned small business program manager at SBA’s Office of Government Contracting, said that your competitors are not your enemy, especially when considering the Rule of Two [when a contracting officer expects that two or more women-owned small businesses will make an offer, that officer can set aside a requirement for WOSBs].

“It’s very very important to establish a friendly relationship with your competitors,” Kim said. “I know that you’re not going to pick up the phone and call your competitor and ask ‘are you going to respond to the Sources Sought [Notice]?’ The only thing I need is two responses from qualified WOSBs to advocate for a WOSB set aside.  It’s not about you winning the contract — of course at the end of the day that’s what’s most important — but your competition has to come in as well to set … the stage of rightful WOSB set aside.”

It’s also possible that relationship could turn into something more in the future, Kim said, and become a joint venture.

And while the near-term future might be murky as the country prepares for an administration transition, SBA District Director Antonio Doss said it’s important not to limit yourself to just one relationship.

“If you’re developing relationships at certain agencies that’s good,” Doss said. “The other key thing is about diversification. The nature of administration changes is such that there’s no guarantee that what was done in one year will continue in another year. So it’s wise for a business owner to not only think about their normal sources of revenue, but consider alternative sources so they can diversify. Basically avoid putting too many eggs in one basket and be able to make it so they can grow their business without concerns of over dependence on one entity.”

Earlier this month president-elect Donald Trump announced former wrestling executive Linda McMahon to his Cabinet as leader of the Small Business Administration, the Associated Press reported.

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