Marketing & Growth

Government Contracting 101 for Small Business Owners

By Caron Beesley

Ever considered government contracting? Pitching your products and solutions to the world’s biggest consumer—the U.S. government?

The business of selling to the government (more formally known as government contracting) can be a lucrative opportunity for businesses of all sizes. The government spends ~$500 billion each year on everything from paper clips to jet propulsion engines, and that’s not all: It even supplements its own workforce with advisors, consultants, website developers, and even bloggers!

The Federal Government “Sets Aside” $$ for Small Business

The government’s approach to buying from small business is strategic and deliberate.  Each fiscal year, the government sets aside a portion of its annual budget to purchase from small businesses. This serves several purposes:

  • It ensures not that there is a level playing field and that large businesses don’t “muscle out” small firms.
  • It gives the government access to new ideas and innovations.
  • It supports job creation (small businesses are the main job creators in the United States).

These “set aside” contracts take many forms. They can involve certain tasks on a larger contract (known as “sub-contracting“—a great way to get your foot in the door) or an entire contract (“prime” contracting). These contracts can also be set aside for women-owned small businesses (just recently, for the first time in history, the federal government finally met its women’s contracting goal), service-disabled veteran-owned businesses, small, disadvantaged businesses, and more.

Getting a Share of Those Government Contracting Dollars Isn’t Easy

Sounds great! But wait. Selling to the federal government requires know-how, commitment, and patience. The government buys its goods and services in very different ways compared to the private sector. Businesses must qualify and register to do business with Uncle Sam, you must understand the bidding process, and you must comply with the rules and regulations that apply to different kinds of purchases. You’ll also need a skilled team of experts who know how to navigate and manage contract vehicles.

Your government marketing engine needs investment too—the government speaks a different language from other sectors and they have different pain points and challenges. They look for a strong track record and solid proof of performance. Throwing commercial marketing materials at the feds won’t help your case.

It’s a complex landscape and one that deters many businesses, but don’t be dissuaded. There are many resources that can help, and government agencies are pushing hard to spread awareness among small businesses about the process.

Start with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)

The SBA is probably most well-known for its loan programs, but it also advocates for small business government contracting and works with several agencies to help ensure small firms get their share of contracts. As such, the SBA runs numerous programs that help small firms grow their government business through training, counseling, workshops, mentor-protégé programs, and more. Here are some worth knowing about:

  • SBA Online Resources – The SBA’s Contracting Guide on SBA.gov walks through the ins and outs of doing business with Uncle Sam and explains what it takes to get started. If you prefer self-paced training, explore the Government Contracting Classroom, a free, online, multi-part course. SBA also maintains a contracting topic in its blog network.
  • In-Person Help – SBA has on-the-ground Procurement Centers that can assist you in navigating the process. It also has many other offices across the country: district offices as well as women’s and veterans’ business centers.

Resources from an Indispensable Provider of Procurement Services

One of the most ubiquitous government contracting vehicles is operated by the General Services Administration (GSA), an independent federal agency that oversees billions in U.S. government purchases each year. GSA Schedules are a popular government-wide contract that aim to make it easier for buyers to buy and sellers to sell. Right now the GSA is undertaking a big push (known as the “Small Business First” campaign), part of which is a video series on Doing Business with the GSA which includes an overview of federal contracting, marketing tips, and more. The longest video is seven minutes.

If you’re not sure is GSA is right for you, need help becoming a GSA vendor, and more. You can also check out GSA’s Assistance for Small Businesses resources.

What’s your experience of small business government contracting? Please leave a comment below.

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