Mentoring, networking and other resources for government contractors
By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun
8:19 PM EST, February 2, 2013
Catonsville-based Alpha Omega Technologies performs work for one federal agency, and it wants more contracts— a daunting goal for a small company in a time of tight budgets.
But the head of the 25-person software firm thinks he has a leg up after months of assistance from industry veterans, introductions to federal decision-makers, advice about how to get a foot in the door with the National Security Agency, and lots of specifics about how other companies succeeded or got tripped up in pursuing and handling federal work.
"It would have taken me probably 20 years to learn all that on my own," said Efrem Perry, president of Alpha Omega.
The mentoring program in which he participated, put on last year by the Fort Meade Alliance, is an example of local efforts to help companies break into or expand their reach in the often-baffling world of government procurement.
There's never been any shortage of companies eager to get into the game in a state where the federal government spends billions of dollars on contracting each year. But with big budget cuts looming, the assistance looks increasingly valuable.
"This government market is getting tougher and tougher," said Richard Knight, a vice president at WIMSCO, an information-technology and consulting firm based in Bowie. "It's not for the faint of heart."
Knight is co-chair of the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber's government contracting council, one of the groups working to increase networking and information-sharing in the industry. The council organizes several workshops a year — a women-in-contracting session is planned for March,and "How to Win Contracts in the Intel Community" follows in May.But the main event is its annual government procurement fair.
More than 300 businesses, along with procurement officers from 50 federal, state and local government agencies, turned out for last year's fair in November, said Walt Townshend, president of the Laurel-based chamber.
"They can do really in four hours what it would take them months or years to do otherwise — make that one-on-one contact," Townshend said.
Laura Neuman, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, says her agency should be doing more to assist government contractors: "They're a big part of our community."
The first step is gathering more information about the resources already available so the county can at least point contractors in the right direction.
Neuman is trying to get the word out about a new federal effort to make small-business contracting easier — and therefore more competitive. RFP-EZ, which launched in January, runs in its current pilot form until May, with a simplified bidding process for technology contracts worth $150,000 or less.
The project, part of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the Small Business Administration, gives small businesses an opportunity to avoid writing massive bid proposals and instead answer just four questions, said Clay Johnson, presidential innovation fellow for RFP-EZ.
"The questions are: 'Who are you?' 'What have you done in the past?' 'How would you solve this problem?' 'And how much is it going to cost?'" he said. "And that's it. ... All of a sudden, the largest buyer in the world might be a client of yours."
Some of the local contracting help is relatively new as well. The two-year-old Harford Business Innovation Center in Belcamp, a business incubator, is home to six companies performingor pursuing work at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The center also has services for other contractors, including procurement training provided by the state.
"A lot of businesses are concerned about the uncertainty, so they're looking for information," said Jill M. McClune, who works for the contractor Avon Protection Systems and volunteers as president of the Harford Business Innovation Center across the street.
The Fort Meade Alliance's Meade Business Connect Mentorship Program is even newer than the center — it started with its first class of a dozen companies last year. The second year kicks off in March.
The alliance, a group that builds ties between the military base and local industry, received such positive feedback on the nine-month program that organizers are thinking of launching spinoffs, such as aprogram focused on the accountants and other service providers who work for contractors rather than the government itself.
"I would be a perfect person at that session," said Steve Tiller, an attorney and chairman of the alliance's Meade Business Connect committee. "I want to learn more about what keeps them up at night so I can better service them."
The mentorship program runs for 12 two-hour sessions, plus additional networking, at a cost of $1,500 to $2,000 per participant. Last year, the organizers brought in experts to speak on technical subjects ranging from "capability statements" to the specialized insurance that NSA contractors need, along with mentor executives to share specifics about their successes and failures.
The focus is specifically Fort Meade, home toan eye-popping number of agencies — nearly 100. A few, including the secretive NSA, are particularly difficultto start doing business with.
"Because they don't advertise [their contracts] publicly, you have to become part of the community — you have to become a known name," said Ivan Belyna, a program manager at the Virginia-based Delta Resources. "And what the Fort Meade Alliance did was open those doors."
Delta, which provides program management and other services, got a toehold at Fort Meade when one of its customer agencies moved there in 2011. The company sees the base as an important market, so Belyna was delighted by the opportunities to meet procurement officials, pitch to bigger contractors and cooperate with other relative newcomers.
"We have to team up," he said. "Nobody can do this alone, especially in this environment."
Many small or smaller companies in the federal sphere work as subcontractors to bigger "primes," rather than as the prime contractor themselves. That's how Perry's Alpha Omega Technologies landed work writing software for an agency at Fort Meade. And that's how he's going after more contracts now — thanks to the past year of networking.
"We started the program working with one company, and we finished the program on teams with seven," he said.
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