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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

How to compete for and win government contracts

The federal government spends more than $500 billion in goods and services annually on everything from green products to military parts. But just because you make it, doesn't mean the feds are going to buy it.

Snagging a government contract can be a long and tedious process. The competition is fierce, so you need to prepare and familiarize yourself with the procurement landscape to compete effectively, say experts.

"People misunderstand how much time it takes to understand the process," says Judy Bradt, chief executive of Summit Insight Llc, an Alexandria, Va.-based strategic adviser on government contracts. "The paperwork is nothing compared to the research."

There is lots of information out there. The key is allocating enough time to thoroughly research competitors and contracts, she says.

Resources. To assess what the government is buying and access past federal procurement data, including funding agencies and award recipients, a good resource to check out is USA Spending.gov, says Bradt. You can see current procurement forecasts at acquisition.gov/ comp/procurement_forecasts/ index.html and get a general contracting overview at the Small Business Administration's government contracting site, sba.gov/training/governmentcon tracting/index.html.

Next, assess which government agency or department has a need most similar to your "sweet spot" client, suggests Bradt. It helps when soliciting federal buyers if you have a track record in helping solve a problem like theirs, she notes.

Marketing. "The key is to market yourself to the people who need what you have to sell," says Mark Amtower, author of "Government Marketing Best Practices" (AtlasBooks; $24.95) and founder of Amtower & Co., a Highland, Md.-based government marketing consultancy.

Reach out to agencies' regional offices, including any small business liaisons, says Amtower, who offers links to federal procurement sites at governmentex press.com/resources-fedproc. html. For instance, the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Manhattan houses multiple agencies, he says, noting New York is a "major federal hub city."

And under the SmartPay credit card program you can sell products or services worth $3,000 or less to federal agencies without a contract. Keep in mind, though, that to bid on an actual government contract, you must register at www.bpn.gov/CCR, he notes.

Assistance. The process can get confusing, and if you need help, there are local resources, including the Small Business Development Centers at Stony Brook University and Farmingdale State College, and the Government and Private Sector Contracting Assistance Program administered by Long Island Development Corp. in Bethpage.

Steven Restivo, senior vice president of Diverse Strategic Source in Bay Shore, says getting help from GAPSCAP was a primary reason his 2-year-old startup snagged its first government contract in 2009. The company distributes communications devices, medical supplies and machine parts through its affiliate Accurate Industrial Machining in Deer Park.

"They steered us through the process," says Restivo, noting DSS has garnered more than 18 government contracts.

Local buyers. GAPSCAP can assist with all phases of the bidding and procurement process, including locating opportunities, says deputy director Patty Cook. A $35 donation is requested of participants. Cook suggests getting to know regional and county buyers, and small business liaison officers at local prime contractors. Send a short introduction letter and follow up with a phone call. Cook can provide a list of contacts.

Also check out FedBizOpps.gov, which lists contracts for more than $25,000, she suggests. (Click here to connect.)

"You have to be willing to go on the Web sites and do your homework," says Cook.

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