Dos and don'ts of partnering with large companies

If you want to discover the secrets to success in the federal sector, read this article.

Now that I have your attention, let me start by saying that there are no shortcuts or low-hanging fruit in that marketplace. Think about it. If opportunities of any size were lying around waiting to be scooped up, wouldn't those in the know have already scooped them up?

Misinformation imparted from various sources about doing business in the federal sector leads many companies down the wrong path. So-called experts constantly pop up, hang out a shingle, and begin preying on the unsuspecting and inexperienced. Some of that misinformation manifests itself as the crutch of socioeconomic designations that some companies lean on ? in addition to, or in place of, actual expertise.

If you operate a small business in the government sector, contrary to popular practice and belief, companies designated as "other than small business" don't need you. I'm talking about companies commonly referred to as midtier or large, prime contractors, systems integrators and such. Still with me? Those are the companies that must comply with the Federal Acquisition Regulation's small-business subcontracting program by doing a percentage of their business with companies participating in the Small Business Administration's small-business assistance programs.

There is a belief held by many in the small-business community that larger companies are simply waiting by the phone for the next 8(a), Historically Underutilized Business Zone, Alaska native-owned or service-disabled veteran-owned small business to call so the subcontracts manager can issue an award to them right then.

Those companies are not interested in a "let us get to know you" subcontract award. They want the big one with lots of zeros and a high headcount. Moreover, they believe they are entitled to it. It rarely works that way. Nonetheless, that is a model some companies choose.

In the spirit of operating in the real world and making a good first impression, here are a few things I recommend that small-company executives never say when trying to establish credibility with their large-company counterparts:
  • So what does your company do?
  • Hi, I represent a service-disabled veteran-owned, 8(a)-certified, woman-owned small business and, oh, we're an information technology company.
  • But SBA states that you have to award a percentage of all your contracts to companies that participate in the 8(a) program.
  • I know you don't know me or my company, but we're a certified minority-owned company that...

I think you get my point.

In these days of consolidated contracts, the chance you might be locked out of an agency's opportunities for years is increasingly likely unless you have the relationships to secure a spot on a team and make use of that position.

Relationships still rule the roost, and they can either help you or hurt you. You've heard the saying that people do business with those they know, like and trust. If you are not known, liked and/or trusted and are competing against someone who is, it can make for very long days.

Small companies should apply the same due diligence to deciding which relationships with larger companies to pursue as they do when selecting which agency relationships to pursue. What follows is a baseline of good practices when trying to develop relationships with larger contractors.
  • Before you begin knocking on doors, make a plan. Burning political capital to secure unqualified meetings benefits no one, and the impression you make can and will stay with you.
  • Why are you relevant? Your value might be your relationships, knowledge of a customer or your expertise. Find out.
  • Be efficient. For meetings and conversations, ensure you position your best resource for the audience and content. Don't bring a pocket knife to a sword fight.
  • "Because they have small-business goals" is not a reason to approach a company for business opportunities. It creates a diminished view of you and other small companies.
  • Be sure you fit - technically and culturally, that is. Be as certain as you can that your organization is on the same page with your prime/partner, especially where business philosophies are concerned. The way employees are treated is one reason why some relationships collapse.
  • Understand the big picture. Learn the relevance of the requirements and capitalize on the solution-oriented, outside-the-box thinking that the small-business community is known for.

Those bits of wisdom, coupled with market education and following a plan established by company leaders, will help you attain a level of preparedness. After all, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Guy Timberlake (gtimberlake@theasbc.org) is chief visionary and chief executive officer of the American Small Business Coalition.

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