A robust small business environment is not without its challenges

Views from the Corner Office is a new show designed to talk to the private sector leaders that influence and impact the federal market. The goal of this monthly discussion is for federal executives, lawmakers and other industry experts to gain insights and a better understanding into the trends, the challenges and the evaluation of the technology, acquisition and leadership in the federal market by the executives who lead the federal practices of government contractors.

LaJuanna Russell, the president and CEO of Business Management Associates, sat down with Federal News Network’s executive editor Jason Miller at the station’s studios in Washington, D.C.

Here are some excerpts from that discussion.

LaJuanna Russell is the president and CEO of Business Management Associates.

State of the Federal Market

JM: Is it a good time to be a federal contractor?

LR: I think it’s a great time to be a federal contractor if you’re really into IT, cloud and security. Our business is more on the professional services side related to the softer side, human capital. So when you’re looking at those markets, human capital, grants management, it’s a little less robust, but I think that it ebbs and flows. When we have certain political leaders in, they’re going to be more Defense Department, more IT, and then you have others in who will focus more on the human skills and other areas. So to me, it’s always a great time because it’s a market that is somewhat predictable and not at the same time. That makes it a lot of fun.

JM: If you think about the recent event that happened at the White House back in September, they talked about the reskilling and the need to upskill the federal workforce. And add to that the effort recently by the Office of Management Budget with the President’s Management Agenda to talk about moving from “low-value” work to “high-value” work, I would think it would be a better time for those soft skills.

LR:  Exactly. It’s definitely getting to be a better time. I think right now there’s so much discussion and so much that we’re all trying to figure out. What are those skills going to be because not everyone can learn blockchain as easily or artificial intelligence. Not everyone’s going to have those skills right away. So how do you, one, get people interested because I may not want to learn blockchain if I’m an individual, and then, two, have that kind of mass training. What would that training look like to be acceptable across the board so that many agencies can pick those skills up.

A slow shift toward the customer

JM: As you respond to requests for proposals has there been a change that’s been happening, maybe in the last two or three years or even longer, where that user piece and the focus on who is the agency’s customer and what their needs are?

LR: I think it depends on who you’re supporting. When I look at the law enforcement agencies, especially of course, when you get to the very timely issues like talking about the hurricanes, they are very focused on the citizen. They’re very focused on mission. There are other agencies that we might support who, unfortunately, they’re not really focused on mission. They’re focused more on themselves and creating those processes just internally for pats on the back potentially. I don’t know why, but the citizen is sometimes lost in some agencies. But we love when we’re able to work with agencies who are so mission focused, focused on the citizen, focused on getting the work done. That’s the biggest joy.

JM: Why are citizens lost in the mission? When you go to talk to them, what are they missing?

LR: Sometimes I see decisions are made because this leader and that leader are either in cahoots or not, and so they’re making those decisions based on their personal wants or whims or elevation within the organization versus, ‘okay, if we bring systems A and B together, so what? Then what? And what does that mean? What are the outcomes and can we just focus on the outcomes and get to? Well, if that’s the outcome, maybe system A and system B don’t need to be together at all.’

There’s a lot of focus on outputs, metrics and numbers. We need 450 of these done. Well, what’s the qualitative around that? Because that’s the quantitative. We need 450 of these done and that will give us something. We want to hope part of that you get because contracting has become so difficult and convoluted. When you’re looking at pricing, it’s much easier to price 450 of an item versus we want the item to have shades of blue around the outside. Well I like blue. Is it turquoise blue? Is it navy blue? What kind of blue is it that’s going to happen on the outside. Then you know you have this objective conversation and no one can decide the shades of blue that’s going to have, so there’s no outcomes. It’s 450.

A small business perspective

JM: Business Management Associates is a small business. Discuss what you are seeing from that perspective.

LR: It’s somewhat harder to be a small business because there is more increased competition and when everything was all lowest-price, technically acceptable (LPTA), it was near impossible to have a quality small business offering because anyone could jump into the market and say, ‘yeah, I’m a small business and I’m going to give you this service for 39 cents and you’re going to love it.’ Now that that is changing and we’re seeing more and more, even the small business set asides, coming out as best value, that allows small businesses who have been around for more than five minutes to start talking about their value again and being able to really present bids that are going to add value to the space. For us, one of the things that, that’s the challenge is of course all of the things to bid, all of the governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) and all the other contracts, and where do we go? It’s just very complex. It’s almost like if you’re small, you can sometimes maneuver. If you’re large, you can definitely maneuver. If you are a mid-sized business you have a very hard time of maneuvering. So there are many like us who purposely try to stay under our primary North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code, or start strategically figuring out can we go to a bigger NAICS code so that you can just remain small.

JM: A lot of people would look at that and say, well, why would you want to limit your success?

LR:  It really is a challenge because when you’re focusing as an entrepreneur, your first goal is to go out and find the work and win the work, that’s what you do, that’s why you started the company. So when the team is saying, ‘well, how does that fit in with our strategy of staying within our current NAICS code for a while?’ It’s really a challenge and I think it’s trying to make sure you grow healthily as well because you can grow yourself right out of business. So even if we do decide that we’re blowing the NAICS because we’re already hitting up against it. So if we’re going to just blow through it, I want to make that a conscious decision because it changes your lifestyle. It changes everything.

RFIs do lead to work

JM: How do you create those relationships with the government?

LR: It’s interesting because I will hear large businesses say, ‘I don’t care about RFIs, I don’t care about sources sought and I’m not going to do them. I’m not going to bid them. It’s a waste of time.’ Small businesses are the opposite of that because that is how a new agency will see who we are and understand that we have capability and it opens that door for us to go in and have a conversation before there’s a bid on the street. We’ve had several, several instances where we’ve responded to a sources sought and then the agency calls us and says, we want to talk to you more about that. Even when you’re not 8(a) anymore, they can’t do the set aside, but it’s still open. At that point there’s no solicitation so they can say, ‘hey, can we talk about that?’ We did get a woman-owned business set aside with an agency that I won’t name, based on an RFI response.

A lip sync battle, anyone?

JM: Tell me something about yourself outside of work. What do you do for fun?

LR: If I must admit it, if you had a karaoke machine and here right now and you played Bon Jovi “Living on a Prayer,” give me that mic because I’m going down and I’m going to have the whole crowd with me and it’s going to be awesome.