For entrepreneurs, it’s part of the central mythology: You launch your own business because you want to be your own boss. To thrive as a business owner, it helps to have an independent streak and be comfortable going it alone.
But when small and mid-sized companies begin pursuing government contracts, it can help — immensely — if they strategically collaborate with other businesses.
There are several ways to make this happen:
- Getting work as a subcontractor is one good possibility.
- You can also seek mentoring from more experienced companies already working with the government and use that knowledge as you pursue your first contract.
- Some companies break into the industry through a true partnership, pairing up with another applicant to submit a joint bid.
“One new entrant might complement a gap or a void that another existing business may have, and together they have a better opportunity moving forward,” says Antonio Doss, deputy associate administrator for government contracting and business development at the Small Business Administration.
What kind of matches can work?
If you’re considering working as a subcontractor, ask yourself: How might your product or service be used by a larger company to help fulfill a contract they’ve won or they’re pursuing?
Building a relationship with a prime contractor “can be a great place to start and learn,” says Lauren Weiner, co-founder of WWC Global. She has worked as a government contractor since 2006.
One key to landing a contract: really understanding the needs of a particular government department or agency, Weiner says. While working as a subcontractor, you can learn about a particular sector and really come to understand those needs – while getting paid.
Going in on a joint bid with another company can give you the same advantage. If you’re partnering with someone who has a bit of experience, it can help speed up your learning curve.
But whether you’re seeking to be an equal partner on a contract or looking to be a subcontractor, the key is building relationships.
Where does a company find potential partners?
Your local SBA office may be able to help you connect with potential partners or folks who would need you as a subcontractor.
SBA district offices do their own training and also do training in partnership with local chambers of commerce and economic development organizations “to help demystify the whole government contracting space,” says Antonio Doss, deputy associate administrator for government contracting and business development.
These training events can be opportunities for networking with other entrepreneurs who are curious about government contracting or already pursuing contracts.
The current administration is making it a priority to increase the number of American small businesses working as government contractors, Doss says, and supporting business owners in networking with others is part of their plan. “Not only can you be a part of that space,” Doss says, but “as a newer entrant into the environment, you can learn from the other people.”
Seek mentors, even among competitors
The SBA points businesses to mentorship through organizations like score.org. But Doss also recommends reaching out directly to companies that are more experienced and thriving in the government space.
You might be surprised how many people – even competitors – are willing to share their knowledge about breaking into contracting within a specific industry.
“Those persons are often a season or two or three further down the path of where you are right now,” Doss says. “Often they’re willing to share with you, because sometimes they’re also realizing that you might be a good teaming partner at some point.”
One way to avoid stepping on toes as you seek advice: Since companies usually choose a particular government agency to do business with, you might learn from a competitor and then target a different area of the government.
As you pursue subcontracting jobs, partnerships and mentorship, Weiner says, keep this in mind: There are as many ways of earning a government contract as there are businesses that do it.
“So don’t get discouraged if another business owner says, ‘it was impossible,’” she says. “It may not be impossible for you, given what you offer.”