Don't be a Waldo, or how to stand out in the crowd

Whether it is with agency small business advocate or a large prime, do your homework before that precious first face to face meeting or you risk getting lost in the crowd.

Anybody know Martin Handford? Probably doesn’t ring a bell, right?

How about Where’s Waldo? Does that ring your doorbell? Handford produced/drew the popular book series starting in 1987. I have a few in my library. My daughter could always find Waldo before me. So could my wife and son… hell, probably the cat, too.

Great, Mark. What’s the point?

Even though Waldo dresses differently, when he is in a crowd he does not really stand out.

Why? Because he’s in a crowd.

If you are a small IT services firm in the government market, you have the same problem: Standing out from the crowd.

Over the years I’ve had numerous discussions with Offices of Small, Disadvantaged Business Utilization, Small Business Liaison Offices, program managers and senior business development personnel in large contractors about the best ways for small companies to approach agencies and primes in that first face-to-face meeting.

There are several themes that come up in virtually every conversation. Here they are in no particular order. For our purposes our small contractor is TSSIE (pronounced tiz-zee: The Smallest Systems Integrator Ever).

They (TSSIE) don’t know us: TSSIE comes in having done little or no research on the agency or prime. They either don’t know what the agency or contractor needs, they are unfamiliar with the scope of the contracts involved. They are, however, prepared to talk about themselves.

They lead with a non-starter: TSSIE leads with a set-aside status. OSDBUs, SBLOs and program managers don’t care about your status. They care about your skills. What are you really good at- and do I need it for my agency or my team.

They are an IT generalist: TSSIE claims expertise in 10 or more IT specialties, yet only has 5 employees. TSSIE’s response to each question is “Yeah, we can do that.”

They tout a non-strength: TSSIE brags to primes that 60 percent of its employees have security clearances (3 of the 5 employees). Prime responds by saying that only 4 percent of its workforce (4,700 out of 117,500) are cleared.

So how should TSSIE present itself as a differentiated contractor in a face-to-face meeting?

TSSIE should:

  • Present itself as a knowledgeable contractor. Always do research before a meeting;
  • Small companies cannot be expert in many things, so pick a niche you are good at and work hard at becoming better;
  • Small companies need to focus on just one or two agencies and get to know them well. Develop relationships inside the client agency;
  • Whether it’s an agency or prime, look them up on LinkedIn before the meeting to learn more about the people you’ll meet with;
  • When getting ready for an OSDBU/SBLO visit, read the OMB 53 submission, scour the agency web site, search the trade media for any agency information especially about contract preferences;
  • If asked about a peripheral area, indicate whether or not you have done it before, but be honest and say it is not a strength;
  • If you have good CPARS and good client relationships, say so. Both past performance and actually knowing the players are key to moving forward;
  • Develop a list of questions pertinent to the meeting, things that came up during your research. You can use rhetorical questions to ascertain some of your assumptions;
  • Take detailed notes, or if possible, bring someone just to take notes;
  • Have a one-pager (not a dossier) on your capabilities and current contracts. Include both NAICS and PSCs. Include SINs if they are specific, like CDM. If you have a set-aside status, list it.

One of the services I offer my clients is strategic introductions, but I don’t make the intro if the client is not prepared. You may only get one chance for a face-to-face meeting, so you need to make the most of it.

So, what’s the Waldo connection? If you don’t stand out in that first face-to-face meeting, you are doomed to become just another face in the crowd, only no one will be looking for you.