4. Links to lucrative partnerships
As a somewhat easier way to build experience in the federal contracting market, experts suggest starting out with subcontracting—or partnering with a large corporation that holds the prime contract—to perform a piece of the job needed. Ridgewells, a D.C.-area catering company, is pulling in around $12 million in revenue from supplying Capitol Hill with its catering services, but it works under food giant Restaurant Associates, which holds the prime contract to provide all restaurant and food court needs. INADEV, a custom and mobile technology company, broke into the federal market through its relationship with Lockheed Martin.
M.R. Crafts found its largest source of business before growing on its own through a relationship with industrial-supply company Grainger. The company was also able to leverage the history of Michael Nevils, Army veteran-turned-inventor and co-founder of M.R. Crafts, in working with the Veterans' Business Outreach Center (VBOC) on strategies and research for winning federal contracts.
One way to jump-start subcontracting is to apply for a mentor-protégé program.
Many federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, employ their own mentor-protégé program. The program encourages large prime contractors—AT&T, Boeing, Booz Allen and IBM in the past—to provide business-development assistance and foster long-term partnerships with small companies. Many of these partnerships result in joint ventures that allow the large and small firms to, as a team, pursue government set-asides for minority-, veteran- or women-owned businesses. These opportunities are limited.
"You may have a pool of 100 small businesses vying for that mentorship program, but they only choose two or three," said Cris Young, president of the National Association of Small Business Contractors/Supplier Council.
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The SBA has its own mentor-protégé program, but it's open only to 8(a) firms—or what's known as the HUBZone, through which the SBA assists businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals (HUBZ stands for "historically underutilized business zones).
However, "[it's] not just a contracting tool," said John Shoraka, the SBA's associate administrator for government contracting and business development. "It's a business-development tool intended to have the small protégé benefit in some way, say, in technical expertise, management experience or overall financial wherewithal."