ID=24706671Nearly 35 percent of contracts with the Department of Homeland Security in 2014 were held by small businesses. Of the 9,400 small businesses working with DHS, 1,800 were contracting with the agency for the first time.

The lesson: "Newcomers are welcome," said Kevin Boshears, director of the DHS Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, during a keynote address at the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference on March 10. "You don't have to have DHS past performance to secure a contract."'

Boshears, who has been helping small businesses break into the DHS sector since shortly after the agency was established, offered four tips to small businesses looking to get their first contract with DHS, or any agency.

Most of these tips came directly from conversations with small businesses that have succeeded in selling to DHS.

"That's where I get all my stuff," Boshears said. "I get it from people who have actually done it."

1.) Do Your Homework

Research the potential client. Vendors can easily get sidetracked if they're not properly informed about the agency they want to do business with, Boshears said.

He cited one instance where a representative called DHS for information about an FBI program, wrongly thinking the agencies were under the same roof. Boshears was able to set him on the right path, but the gaffe could have been avoided with some simple research beforehand.

"There's a wealth of information available these days, many times in electronic form," Boshears said. "It's easy to get off track if you don't do your homework."

2.) Know Your Contract Vehicles

Understand the difference between different contract vehicles, because that awareness "helps you position yourself," Boshears said. Smart vendors know which contracts their desired customers favor and do all they can to get their products onto those vehicles.

3.) Participate in Networking

Business opportunities are often borne out of relationships, Boshears said.

"In some way or another these firms [with DHS contracts] participate in some kind of network," he said. "The key is getting information that's of use to you."

Networking opportunities can come in many forms, he noted, from conferences like the one he was speaking at to informal email chains.

4.) Understand Facets of Teaming

Boshears suggested thinking of "teaming" as an umbrella term for any partnership, not just between small businesses.

"Two small businesses could simply team up and work together and submit an offer and a project," he said. "A small business seeking to submit a prime offer can approach a large business. A large business prime contractor with a subcontracting plan can say I'm looking for small businesses to do this type of work. Formal joint ventures might be part of the mix. A formal mentor-protégé program might be part of the mix."

The key, he said, it to expand your thinking and be open to opportunities.

"These four things, when you package them together all lead up to positioning yourself to participate," Boshears said. "I'm very confident you can do it. The evidence is everywhere at DHS."

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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