Growing a small contracting business: 10 pieces of advice for aspiring owners

My company, DSFederal, serves the federal government with IT and software development, data analytics and program management services, mostly in the health IT and biomedical research spaces. We started 11 years ago with one employee (me!) working day and night from a table at a Barnes and Noble coffee shop. Now, DSFederal is a successful graduate of the SBA’s 8(a) program, and we’re entering our second decade with over 40 contracts and over 160 employees in several states.

So how did we establish ourselves as a small business in the federal sector? And how can other small businesses achieve the same thing?

Here are 10 tips:

  1. Network, network, network! Collect business cards, make phone calls, and connect on LinkedIn. Join groups and associations (especially your local Chamber of Commerce and SECAF), and attend as many events as you can. Talk to anyone who is willing to listen, return every call, and respond to every email. Look for volunteer opportunities, too. The small business community (especially the contracting community) is an ecosystem of people who help others, and who receive help in return—be part of that ecosystem.
  2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK! If you’re lucky enough to get a meeting with a potential customer, then treat that meeting as your only shot. Research the customer, and learn everything you can about their problems and pain points, and then be ready to show them what you can do to help them. Know what you’re talking about, and never waste anyone’s time.
  3. Take advantage of state and federal resources for small businesses, especially the 8(a) Small Business Development program.
  4. However, DON’T expect the 8(a) program or agency Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) officers to “take care of you” or hand you a contract just because your business is small, woman-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned, etc. These programs help level the playing field for small businesses, but you still have to play! If you don’t offer a worthwhile product or service, then no set-aside or small business program can help you.
  5. BE PATIENT. Don’t rush to get your 8(a) certification—wait until you have at least one solid contract. Once you’re 8(a) certified, the clock begins to tick, and nine years go by very quickly!
  6. Don’t be afraid to graduate! Some 8(a) businesses see graduation as a cliff, and they’re afraid to fall off. Start planning several years in advance—find teaming partners, position yourself as a trusted subcontractor to newer 8(a) companies, and focus on new contract vehicles. The 8(a) program offers your company nine years to mature and grow, so you’ll have a solid foundation when graduation day arrives.
  7. Invest in your business! Software, hardware, facilities, equipment and, most importantly, people, are all necessary investments. As you grow, you’ll need to invest more in infrastructure and systems (a good accounting system, a professional website, documented policies and procedures). These investments can help your company mature and scale so you’ll be capable of doing more. (See #6—this is how you prepare for graduation.)
  8. Focus on standards. More and more federal government customers (especially in the IT space) are seeking contractors with industry-recognized credentials (CMMI appraisal, ITIL certification, ISO certification, etc.). Although the process is demanding, earning these credentials is valuable for two reasons: Your customers respect them, and the audit and certification process forces your company to establish and stick to processes that will improve your products and services.
  9. PEOPLE FIRST. I often remind my staff that we’re in the people business, not the technology business. You have to build relationships of trust and respect with your customers, teaming partners, vendors, and employees.  Integrity and sincerity are everything, and you can’t fake those qualities. If you’re really committed to service, and you’re genuinely focused on taking care of your customers and employees, they will see it and reward you for it.
  10. Never give up! Small businesses will face challenges and struggles, and maybe an occasional disaster. Keep persevering!

Federal contracting is demanding and challenging (especially for small businesses), but incredibly rewarding. I came to the United States as a student, and sometimes I still can’t believe that I have the privilege of serving (through my work as a contractor) the country that has given me so much. By serving the government, we are also serving our fellow citizens — I consider this both a solemn responsibility and a high honor.

Sophia Parker is the founder and CEO of DSFederal.

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