Small businesses petition hard for Networx slots
"Even though we have a stable of partners, we're always looking for new partners." ? Roxane Rucker, Qwest Communications International
As the three companies that now hold the Networx Universal contracts continue final preparations for filling orders, executives at other companies are racking their brains to figure out how to get a piece of the action.
Small businesses in particular want in, but those that are not already involved may have a hard time, especially in the early stages of the contract. The bidders all included teams of subcontractors in their proposals to the General Services Administration and will almost certainly want to reward those partners first, industry observers say. And the sheer number of small businesses interested means that everyone won't succeed in getting on one of the teams.
GSA awarded Networx Universal in March to AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. By press time, GSA had not awarded Networx Enterprise, a companion contract intended for more specialized and localized offerings.
The prime contractors' first objective will be to fulfill their commitments to the companies they worked with to win the initial contract, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc., based in Jenkintown, Pa.
"All of the teams have a pretty large stable of small businesses they've made commitments to one way or another," he said. "It's not going to be easy for [more] small businesses to enter the fray unless they have something unusual to bring to the party."
Companies that want to be involved in Networx projects should be contacting the prime contractors now, before agencies begin holding competitions for task orders, he said.
But as the 10-year contract continues to unfold, new opportunities may arise. Now is the time for small businesses that hope to be in on the transition from FTS 2001 to Networx to lobby hard. But after Networx is in full swing, the landscape will almost certainly evolve.
"Following the initial vendor selection and the initial implementation and transition, there's going to be a lot more attention paid to adding new services," Suss said. "There's a lot further to go. There's storage, there's collaboration, there's contact centers. Five years from now, there may be many other services that a small business may be able to provide."Scouting around
Then, as now, there will be no secrets to success other than having a strong technology offering and cultivating relationships with the prime contractors, Suss said. That does not have to be all about Networx, however.
"If these companies are successful at building relationships with the primes on other contracts, it will greatly enhance their ability to hop on" to Networx later, he said.
John Johnson, assistant commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service's Office of Integrated Technology Services at GSA, said that as technology advances and the needs and offerings of the government and business sides of the equation change, opportunities not evident now will arise.
GSA has modified the FTS 2001 contract more than 300 times in its lifetime to accommodate emerging technologies, he said. Networx is likely to be similar.
"Technology is increasingly maturing," he said. "What we'll be looking at is the relevancy of our program to make sure it helps customers fulfill their mission."
GSA has required the Networx prime contractors to funnel some work to small firms ? a total of 37 percent, with some earmarked for specific set-aside categories.
All three Universal primes started talking up the contracts shortly after learning they had been selected. AT&T held an industry day to invite small businesses and other potential partners to contact them. Verizon held a media roundtable, and Qwest hosted a launch meeting to reach potential customers and industry partners.
"Even though we have a stable of partners, we're always looking for new partners," said Roxane Rucker, Qwest's senior director of Networx program management.
Networx will be Qwest's greatest priority for the next decade, she said. The company has gradually grown from a small telecommunications firm serving 14 states in the western United States to a global concern, and it still relies on partners to round out its service offerings. Small businesses that can show a good track record of performance and a stable organization will always have a chance of getting subcontracts, she said.
"For the next two years, there's going to be a tremendous amount of transition activity," said Jeff Mohan, AT&T's director of business development for Networx. Some agencies will move quickly and others more cautiously, but "every one of them will have to move."
To meet that need, AT&T looks to partners to augment its core offerings, he said. "We try to create a teaming environment that allows us to go to a customer and say, 'Yes, we can do that,' for almost anything," he said.
Charles Lee, chief technology officer at Verizon Federal, said the company has a similar willingness to bring partners into the fold. "We've got a large mix" of partners, he said. "We have an open-door policy. We're constantly searching the market."
However, small businesses that approach Verizon must have a solid technology to offer that can expand Verizon's ability to meet its customers' needs, said Susan Zeleniak, vice president in charge of Verizon Federal. "While we're encouraging small business, we won't be flippant about it," she said.Crowded field
A significant problem small businesses face is other small businesses. Even with the scope that the Networx program offers, hundreds of small firms are vying for attention, said Marty Pisano, president of MediaNow Inc. The West Caldwell, N.J.-based company makes video display screens and would like to be part of Networx.
Much of the real opportunity for small businesses under Networx is likely to be commodity services, such as installing cabling in buildings, he said.
For companies with technologies to offer, the right door is often hard to find, let alone open, he said. The telecom firms that would seem to be natural partners for MediaNow are the hardest to reach, he said. "Right behind me are 300 other small firms trying to get that same shot," he added.
Although events like AT&T's industry day might seem like good opportunities for companies to meet the right people at a prime contractor, too often the larger companies have only a small number of people available to meet with a large number of small firms, and they aren't always well-informed.
"We meet overwhelmed small-business reps who provide five minutes of encouragement and a promise to get back to us," Pisano said. "Often, we are led on a yellow brick road with a steel door at the end."Associate Editor Michael Hardy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.