Mark Amtower

The myth of the level playing field

Small businesses need to be disabused of such notions

Mark Amtower is partner at Amtower & Company and can be found at This article is adapted from his latest book, Selling to the Government

During the past several years, both sides of the political spectrum have turned up the volume on how important, how great and how necessary small business is to our economy. Fallout from all the talk includes various small business initiatives, changes in government policies, re-shaping the size standards that define small business status and more.

However, most of the talk does little to create traction for small business.

Small business programs have been with us for a long time and are supposed to be designed to help small companies access selected government contracts. Companies that use these programs well can and do benefit. But there are many other companies that assume these programs do much more than they are designed to do.

Further, there has been a persistent myth perpetuated by some seeking to lure any and every company into the government contracting arena: That the playing field is level because of the 23 percent set-aside for small, disadvantaged and minority businesses.

It goes something like this: For a fee, we’ll help you fill out the forms, help you get your GSA Schedule and because you fit one of the set-aside categories and have a GSA number, you’ll get business and contracts will fall from the sky like manna from heaven.

In a recent interview with Scott Denniston, former Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) official at the Veterans Affairs Department and now a consultant and executive director of the National Veterans Training Symposium, he spoke about a military retiree who attended a seminar on small business programs where he was told that, because of his veteran status, the “government owes you a contract.” This veteran started a business with his home as collateral predicated on that statement.

Those already in the market, especially small businesses that have had some level of success, know that these claims are simply not true. But too often others less familiar with government contracting fall prey to these come-ons; inevitably they fail, often losing not simply time invested, but frequently much more.

Small business programs are designed to help legitimate small businesses get started and there are some fairly good resources out there: the Small Business Administration, OSDBU offices (at least those that return calls; apparently not all do), Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (PTACs), Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), and the Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE. There also are many legitimate consultants, seminars and conferences that can help.

But No Level Playing Field

The small companies that leverage available resources, learn about the government market, take their time, focus on their core competency and target agencies and partners that need what they offer are most likely to succeed. Most often the business status component is secondary at best.

Two of the most interesting findings in “Strategies for Success from Federal Small Business Contractors,” a recent American Express study, were: 1) it took an average of 20 months to win a government contract, and 2) during the initial period of trying to enter the market, companies annually spent an average of $86,000 (in cash and resources) pursuing government business.

Bob Davis of HeiTech Services advises small business to focus on no more than two agencies and two prime contractors. They should target agencies based on their need for your company’s product or service and you should target the prime contractors based on their relationship with those agencies. You can also broaden your focus to two small or mid-size businesses that also focus on those two agencies.

A sane approach to government business includes the three R’s required in government contracting: research, resources and relationships. Set-asides can help, but they do not level the field.

About the Author

Mark Amtower advises government contractors on all facets of business-to-government (B2G) marketing and leveraging LinkedIn. Find Mark on LinkedIn at

Reader Comments

Sun, Jul 10, 2011 Jared

Remember, the consultants need to make you think this is oh, so complicated so that you buy their overpriced services. Beeware what is written here.

Mon, Jun 27, 2011 Art Milford Jr SouthEast

First The Government must Get Better people in Place that award Contracts,Second They must elimnate Good Old Boy Network Large does not mean Better! I got away from Government Work It still has a lot of Favortisim invovle and Yes Race does play a Role.the article has Good Point

Wed, Jun 22, 2011 Raul Espinosa

Mark's article does a great job at addressing the myth. Solutions for leveling the playing field are addressed on an OP-ED available on this link, The errors on the Federal Agency reports on their contracting efforts with small businesses have finally been addressed and the actual results are worse than what the Agencies have led us to believe. Their total share has averaged 18.3 - 19.6% over the lasst three years. Each percentage point means $4 Billion! so you do the math. What this means is that the Federal Agencies will have to do a far better job at contracting with small busineses including eliminating the 'barriers' which have been part of the problem. OMB has finally acted on our recommendations - made on a POGO Guest Editorial - on how to bring accuracy to the Agencies innacurate reporting, Daniel Gordon, the OFPP Administrator - in forcing the Agencies to certify their results now - said, “Federal procurement data that is gathered by, reported, and entered by procurement agencies into information systems…is often incomplete, inaccurate, and untimely.” The Umbrella Initiative mission is "to double the number of small businesses contracting with the government by the year 2020." Raul Espinosa Managing Partner Umbrella Initiative

Tue, Jun 21, 2011 Craig Washington, DC

Well said and with over 400 departments and agencies within the federal space alone , being focused on your selected target market and offerings is critical. Those that think that just because they have been awarded a GSA contract, business is going to flow to them, are open to a rude awakening. Recognizing that a MAS contract is simply an invitation to participate and applying BI and continuous persistence in seeking an actual contract award is the only path to true success

Tue, Jun 21, 2011

Boy! He is so far from reality this is unreal. The Small Business Administration has been shouting louder than ever in my field.

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