5 tips for small businesses to get ahead in 2014

Wednesday - 2/5/2014, 4:23am EST

Lauren Larson reports.

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Vendors wanting to do business in the federal space have got to be smarter than the next guy and do their homework. That was the message to a few dozen small business owners at the fiscal 2014 Federal Outlook Breakfast for Women In Northern Virginia (WIN) committee of AFCEA NOVA on Tuesday.

"A lot of small businesses are just not prepared … We could tell you everything you need to do, we could even give you the ABCs, but most of you will not go out and follow any of the advice we give, because you think you really do know that you can do it better," said Sharon Jones, director of the Office of Small Business at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

Over the course of the discussion, the panel, which also included George Meyers, managing partner at the Meyers Group, and Lucian Niemeyer, a professional staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, identified the following pitfalls that many small businesses fall into and how they can do better.

1. Playing it safe

Vendors must differentiate their company. Jones said many small businesses look the same to agencies. So to get noticed, they have to get out of the "safe zones," such as project management and systems engineering.

Don't be afraid to do research and development, she said. Innovate, she added, and test in the commercial space and bring successes to the table.

2. Joint ventures and teaming

If a company is really small, Meyers said, don't go to the big players. He said the smallest businesses can be better served by teaming with companies who aren't even in the federal space in many cases.

Meyers said there are billion-dollar businesses that want to be in the federal space and would be happy to be a subcontractor.

He also warned not to team with competitors. Instead, find a relationship that is complementary and set the stage for mutual success.

Jones said small firms must remember large business have the same goals as small ones.

"Large businesses need you as much as you need them… Discretionary spending is gone."

She said opportunities once a given for large companies are now given to small businesses.

3. Know the law and benefit from knowing it

Niemeyer said small businesses often overlook the legislation that can give them an advantage. He said a requirement to look at small business set-asides and quotas, including how subcontracting goals are calculated in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014, will have a huge impact on the program.

4. Know your client

"I'm amazed at how many companies try to do business with a military base and don't even read the base newspaper," Meyers said. In addition, industry organizations and lunch groups are important for small businesses trying to land contracts.

"Read the Senate Armed Services Committee website," said Jones. "The Procurement Technical Assistance Center(s) are there to break down the procurement process."

Meyers said vendors should understand what's motivating the federal program manager or contracting officer. For an acquisition officer, that's the letter of the law. Program managers are caught between a rock and a hard place under pressure to cut cost and save jobs, he said.

5. Evolve with technology

In 2015, legislative changes for small business will come to fruition, Jones said. She said the Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZone) program is coming into its own, and the rise of apps offers new opportunities for small businesses. She said vendors should have an IT strategy, an awareness of the speed of technology and continue to refresh that strategy.

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