The Business of Defense

Want to succeed as a small GovCon? Be ready to pay ‘tuition,’ says FTS Federal’s Leigh Ann Hope

Lessons learned during the early years working as a small business supporting federal agencies are akin to paying tuition — so you can be a better company.

Pay tuition? What does that have to do with thriving as a government contractor and, more specifically, how to succeed as a small GovCon on Defense Department programs?

Everything, said FTS Federal’s Leigh Ann Hope. The founder and CEO of FTS Federal views earning institutional knowledge and stockpiling best practices and lessons learned as paying tuition.

“I call it tuition that I’ve learned from scraped elbows and knees, of mistakes made, of lessons learned,” she said of her experiences having now launched two GovCon businesses in the Defense sector.

“I earned a Ph.D. in tuition and running a small business,” Hope said.

What’s the takeaway from that “tuition” that Hope paid over the years? She shared a few during an interview for the American Society of Military Comptrollers’ The Business of Defense podcast on Federal News Network.

Pay tuition Tip 1: Embrace the business aspects of your GovCon work

Often, someone will start a company because they come up with an innovation. It could be a product an agency needs, or it could be a smarter process or strategy, or it might deliver a service faster, smarter, better than the competition.

Great, but it’s still critical to think about the business aspects of working as a partner to a government agency, Hope said.

“That’s the part that’s missing sometimes and that gets lost in all of these regulations and compliance that we deal with uniquely in DoD,” she said. “The mission has to happen. The business has to happen.”

Hope said she’d paid that tuition early on when starting her first company. It’s critical to understand the things the company “can’t slip up on,” she said.

Pay tuition Tip 2: Pick your lane and grow in it

“It is harder than one would think to turn down business,” Hope said.

A small company wants to grow and take on new work but take the time needed to think through potential long-term ramifications, she advised. As an example, Hope shared a story about expanding her first business to take on work at an Air Force base in another state.

It was a costly tuition payment because of the actual costs to stand up a team in a distant location, but it was also costly from the perspective of managing regulations the company had to meet to work in another state.

“We didn’t really think about that when we had a chance to expand,” Hope recalled, adding, “I was like, ‘Yes, expand. Let’s go. let’s do it.’ ”

Today, FTS Federal is in growth mode, but it’s focused on growing in its set lanes of providing identity, financial audit and cloud risk management in DoD. “Today, we would be much more cautious with our capture costs with something like that,” she said.

Pay tuition Tip 3: Take care of certifications, compliance ASAP

What’s a big lesson learned for Hope that has helped FTS Federal perform successfully? Being ready on day one of a contract with necessary certifications and understanding whatever compliance hurdles might lie ahead.

“That was a big one. CMMC certification, ISO certification — in the middle of running the business, in the middle of 45 folks out in the field — that’s a difficult one to learn,” she said. “There’s just loads of those experiences, where you just don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know issues until they pop up.”

It’s OK to make missteps along the way, as long as when a small business must pay tuition, it reaps the knowledge about how to do better the next time, Hope said.

It’s about being up for the challenge at the get-go, she said. Being ready to be strong and hunker down is how Hope phrased it. When someone asks her about starting a business, her response is tinged with a bit of tough love: “People ask all the time. I might just think ahead, ‘Can you can you do this for two years without any revenue? Can you do that? That’s the true test. And if you can, go for it.’ ”

To listen to the full discussion between Leigh Ann Hope, founder and CEO of FTS Federal, and Rich Brady, CEO of ASMC, click the podcast play button below:

Discover more stories about how to thrive as a federal contractor. Find all episodes of The Business of Defense podcast.

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