Consortia and the OTA Space

Early in November, Mica Dolan, Chief Operating Officer for ATI | Advanced Technology International joined Kevin Jans on the Contracting Officer Podcast to discuss OTAs and the Consortia Model. We highly recommend that you give this episode a listen to learn more about the space and what it means for small and nontraditional businesses.

See the original post and listen to the episode here: https://contractingofficerpodcast.com/podcasts/395-otas-and-consortia-with-mica-dolan/  

Government Contracting and the Buy America Act

-As shared by Hannah Altman

In his first week in office, President Biden signed Executive Order 14005, “Ensuring the Future is Made in All of America by All of America’s Workers.” This executive order calls for a review of, among other things, 1933’s Buy America Act (BAA). Passed during the Great Depression, BAA is designed to show preference to American industry and disincentivize foreign competition in government contracts. While that is all good in theory, what do small businesses need to know about EO 14005 and how it will affect their government contracting practices?

1.      Know your End Product

If you are selling a product or good to the U.S. government, you must consider both the finished product and the components that go into making that product. In order to qualify as domestic, your product must be manufactured in the United States, and at least 55% of its components must be manufactured in the United States as well. Make sure you know where your component parts are coming from, because the percentage of domestic production required will only increase! A new rule that recently went into effect increases the domestic content threshold significantly over the next several years: from 55% to 60% on October 25, 2022, then to 65% in calendar year 2024, and 75% in calendar year 2029. (Side note – did you just find out that you are going to need to find a new component supplier? govmates can help with that! Just shoot us an email and tell us what you need.)

2.      Don’t get too comfortable with waivers

The executive order also cracks down on companies looking for a waiver for the requirements explained above. Previously, an Agency or contracting officer could issue a waiver if the components were too expensive or too scarce to source or from the United States. The Biden administration has added extensive oversight and transparency to the process by creating a Made in America Office – housed in OMB. In order to obtain a waiver, the Agency must submit a justification for the use of foreign components to the Made in America Director. The Director will then publish its decision on a new website, also established by the executive order. If you are a company using foreign components, start the waiver process early! Agencies will likely be reticent to use waivers unless totally necessary, so consider which component parts are critical.

3.      Transparency, Transparency, Transparency

Executive Order 14005 is promoting transparency by establishing MadeinAmerica.gov. The website lets businesses find information on waivers and contact information for points of contact at each granting agency. Agencies will also be required to report to the Made in America Director twice a year regarding their implementation and compliance with the Buy America Act, with an opportunity to share policy prescriptions for improving BAA’s outcomes.

While all of this may create a longer lead time in your process, it helps to ensure the security of products made for and used by government customers. As evidenced by the recent changes to many programs regarding R&D, Manufacturing, etc.., your customers are paying attention. Not heeding the requirements of these Executive Orders may mean the difference between winning new work or not.

Defining the Valley of Death

-As shared by Katie Bilek

What is the Valley of Death? According to the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), it is “a phenomenon faced by many startups when trying to do business with the Department of Defense … where a vendor transitions a prototype or commercially available product to a DoD contract.”

This acquisition gap period typically lasts for 1-2 years, during which time that startup – starved for contracts, cash, and endurance for working on the government’s timeline – may wither and die in the proverbial desert valley.

At the time this post was written, Deputy Secretary of Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks had tasked an innovation steering group to map out this transition process from prototype to contract with the goal of identifying bottlenecks and cliffs that a small business may encounter. In theory, if those milestones are addressed, we can do more tactically to shepherd these fragile startups through the sweltering valley into technology transition and real procurement dollars.

A 2015 GAO report noted the Valley of Death “exists because the acquisition community often requires a higher level of technology maturity than the science and technology community is willing to fund and develop.” While a more recent update from GAO points to progress on this front, the problem still persists.

So, what’s going on behind the scenes during those 1-2 years after the prototype has been completed? Simply put – acquisition bureaucracy. Now – before we all pile onto the bandwagon of bashing our federal procurement system (as irresistible as that may be), this very system has built major programs of record, deployed technologies and systems across decades of military initiatives, and fielded trillions of dollars for industry to support federal missions.

For those of us in industry, we cheekily revert to the phrase that this is “good enough for government work.” But, given our current geopolitical positioning, the sobering reality is that the most mission-critical technologies, developments and initiatives are simply being protracted, suffocated ,and seemingly left to fade away.

The Valley of Death is real – nobody knows this better than those of us in industry. Let’s prioritize mitigating the impact of the Valley of Death so that we can continue to deliver the best solutions and technologies to the warfighter.

The Future of SBIR/STTR Programs

We all enjoy the opportunity to win new work – no one more so than the innovation community. We are constantly striving to create and adapt technologies and processes to create new solutions to support mission-critical endeavors. Recently, I joined a LinkedIn Live panel with other industry enthusiasts to discuss the current state of the SBIR/STTR program as we awaited the vote by the House of Representatives to determine exactly what would happen next. I was invited to join Matt “Mohawk” Denny 🧨, J.R. Mullis, Dr. Dolores Kuchina-Musina, Chelsea Meggitt, and Kathryn Logan 🐘 to discuss our individual experiences with these programs and the ecosystems we each support. You can watch the replay here: The Value of SBIR & STTR

Some key takeaways from the discussion include:

  1. The SBIR and STTR programs allow for government agencies and commercial companies to refine and adapt their technologies via research and development – typically as a solution for a specific agency challenge. Many companies have found success once they discover how the model can best work to support their initiatives. This has brought into light the current discussion surrounding “SBIR/STTR Mills,” or those companies known to produce mass quantities of revolving SBIR/STTR relevant work. As one of the panelists mentioned, some companies identified as possible SBIR Mills find themselves in that bucket unintentionally. They’ve discovered what works for their R&D process and have made it repeatable. They don’t want to be on the constant churn of Phase I and Phase II work, but they find that it is the best way to support their growing endeavors for innovation and technology development.
  2. The SBIR/STTR programs have come under fire recently and some important changes have emerged as a result. Most notably would be the requirements for small business eligibility. One new requirement demands all companies disclose any potential foreign risks, thereby limiting the security risks from small businesses who are utilizing foreign technology, materials, or who have individuals that may have significant foreign interests. The second involves minimum performance standards for experienced companies. The bill states that businesses who have received 50 or more Phase I awards over the last 5 years must have at least two Phase II awards per four Phase I awards or face a limit on the number of Phase I and Phase II awards they can receive in the next year following the substandard performance review. Additionally, where Phase II and Phase III awards come in, the bill would increase the amount of aggregate sales and investments per Phase II awards for those in the 50+ awards and 100+ awards categories.
  3. Many submission programs, government-wide, need an overhaul regarding the user experience. We had several individuals in the live video comments as well as our panelists who identified areas that could use improvement as part of the process as well as those who provided suggestions for future consideration. Many times, the agencies don’t recognize the plight of the user’s experience until it is identified – but more than pointing out a weakness, providing a potential solution may be the key to change.

Following our live video discussion, the Senate passed the SBIR Reauthorization, huzzah for small businesses! Fun fact – they passed it only two days before the program was set to lapse. Talk about down to the wire. The bill now goes to the President for his signature; once signed, the program is safe from expiration for the next three years. The new expiration date for the program will be September 30, 2025.

What does this mean for SBIR/STTR interested businesses? More reporting, so document everything, and more strict requirements on the outcomes of Phase I and Phase II awards. We at govmates are big fans of alternate procurement opportunities because we like to see businesses, especially the small and nontraditional ecosystem, win more work. So, go forth and SBIR!

5 Tips for Conference Season 

-As shared by Meg Kerns.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the….” wait, scratch that, wrong season. But conference season is upon us. I had quite an informative conversation with Chelsea Meggitt of Collaborative Compositions about the best ways to make conference season work for you and your business. You can listen to the conversation in its entirety on the govmates podcast here. From that conversation and my personal experience, I’d like to share five tips that I found to be most actionable for small businesses going forward.  

  1. Have a Plan. There’s no willy or nilly here. You should know where you’re going, why you’re going, and who you’re planning to meet before you even slap down your company card for a ticket to each conference. What does the conference offer your business and how does it align with your future goals? This might be a chance to network or appear in person alongside a unicorn customer or potential teammates. It could also be to learn from industry or government leaders about a specific topic or vertical. Sometimes it’s only one of those and sometimes it’s both – but don’t overdo it. Additionally, “because everyone goes” is not a conference strategy. As part of your plan, reach out to those in your network who are also planning to attend. If you’re traveling cross country, maybe squeeze in a day beforehand if you can to catch up with local people. Coffee meetings, quick, scheduled chats in a nearby lunch location, or quiet couch space may yield better results than ten unplanned booth visits. Tan Wilson (Entellect, LLC) also recently mentioned creating a slack or other messaging channel to connect with peers throughout the event for popular parties, event tidbits, and takeaways. Use the value of connection to get the most out of your event attendance.
     
  2. Prepare Your Collateral. Business cards, yes – but make them memorable. No one is going to care if it’s “eggshell with Romalian lettering” or the “subtle coloring and tasteful thickness,” but they will care if they’re useful. I always recommend having some space on the back, in a corner, wherever, with a light color that makes it easy for people to take a note. This allows them to directly connect you with the conversation you had for better follow-up. Do this to their cards as well. Write a note about the conversation or how you need to follow up directly on the card, so you’ll be able to better keep things collated. If you have a one-pager or handout, make it memorable and useful – a checklist, a fact sheet, something that they will want to hold on to rather than a list of your capabilities. 
  3. Know the Layout of the Event Space. Print out the exhibition hall floor plan (normally available on their event websites in advance) because it typically has company names and booth numbers. From there I highlight or star the ones I know I want to stop by whether it’s to visit with peers or for business-building opportunities. I go a step further and include the agenda if I can as well. I’ll add important sessions to my calendar with a 20-minute reminder set ahead of time to ensure I don’t miss out on sessions or speakers I intend to attend. Determine how you’re going to get from session to session, where the lunch or networking spaces will be, and how you plan to utilize any downtimes you may have. (Though truthfully, I rarely find downtime at conferences, especially the good ones.)
  4. Pack Smart. You’re going to be in sessions, meetings, or the exhibit hall all day, and chances are if you’re budget conscious, you’re not staying directly on location at the event. If you don’t have a “home base” booth or otherwise for the event you’re going to want to have everything on hand. I don’t recommend a computer unless you know you’re going to be doing dual-hand typing or similar tasks. If you bring your computer all the way to an event and haven’t pulled it out during the day, even once, it’s just an expensive paperweight that is taking up valuable swag space. My go-to is usually a backpack/bag that has my file of important conference information (my agenda and floor plan notes), phone, charger, and/or power bank, headphones for any calls that come up, business cards, a small notebook, and a couple of pens. I would also suggest a refillable water bottle, ChapStick, and your wallet (most likely with your vaccine card these days). More intense tasks such as email or conference follow-up can be done back in your hotel room or home office where you can kick off your shoes and have a snack while you work. You’re there to cover serious conference ground (hello step-counters) not to be an office supply pack-mule. 
  5. Follow Up with a Purpose. I send LinkedIn requests to those I’ve had a quick conversation with at a booth or in passing directly following the meeting. I have a note saved on my phone that I can copy and quickly adjust to mention pieces of our discussion that seemed memorable and relevant. This can be done on the walk between booths or while waiting for new sessions to begin (hence the phone charger mentioned previously). The individualized touch is what makes the connection healthier and more valuable to all parties involved. Post-event I categorize my new business card collection by task value: 1. Those who need specific, direct follow-up come first, followed by 2. Those who have a general parallel or mutual interest but no immediate actions to keep the connection fresh and 3. Those who require a handoff or introduction to someone in the company or elsewhere. Note that I’m not condoning the mass import to your CRM for next week’s newsletter blast, but I would recommend including an earlier newsletter in your follow-up and asking if they’d like to be added to future outreach communications.  

Whittling this list down to just five important things proved to be a difficult task as there are a variety of ways to find value in the conference and networking circuit for our industry. I would encourage you to try out one or two at a time to see where the value exists for your flavor of connection and growth. For more tips, I encourage you to listen to the govmates Next Gen podcast (linked above) and follow the conference savvy connections you may have on LinkedIn (don’t forget to add govmates to that list). We’ll see you on the conference scene!  

Making it Easier for Small Businesses to Succeed in GovCon

-As shared by Stephanie Alexander

I recently wrote an article about why it’s so freaking hard for small businesses to succeed in GovCon. It stirred up a lot of comments including a whole part 2 that we’ll write about in the future. But for today, let’s take the opposite approach. What can we do to make it easier for our small businesses to successfully compete and bid in the GovCon space?  

Here are some non-acquisition changes that we think would help: 

  • Stop handing out Kool-Aid. STOP telling every SDVOSB or minority-owned or woman-owned business out there that it’s the world’s largest market, they have contracts specifically set up just for your category, etc., etc. Let’s educate folks on how to utilize these socio-economic designations as tools in their arsenal, but let’s first make sure they have the business basics in place.
  • Past Performance. We put so much emphasis on whether we’ve done the job successfully before and how we demonstrate it to the government. While we agree this is important, let’s try to connect some dots on how doing work successfully in one area can lead to a higher probability of success in another. Let’s give some of our small businesses some latitude in how they can translate their capabilities into past performance.
  • Moola. It takes forever to get under contract and collect revenue in GovCon.  While we understand that bankers don’t want to take risks, how about being more willing to lend smaller amounts to keep people’s lights on? Business owners must also be educated on what that means….and be willing to take the risk associated with signing up for these loans.
  • Supporting bigger small businesses (size being relative). I think the SBA, PTAC, and SCORE all do a great job of educating newbies to the field. They provide endless resources and can offer excellent advice.  But where people fall down is after they have a few successful wins (say $5-15M in revenue). This is where growth comes into play. The CEO cannot continue to do everything, you are beyond hiring your friends and your relationships have yielded a couple subKs. What’s next??   Providing some next level resources targeted at these companies would be extremely useful as people are beholden to whatever advice that they receive, whether that be someone at a networking event or their trusted advisers. Sometimes it’s not always the best.
  • Transparency and Honesty. No one wants to dampen an individual’s enthusiasm for starting their own company. It’s the American Dream and we are here for it! But there are some folks that either aren’t ready, don’t have the connections, or quite frankly, would be much better players on someone else’s team than starting their own. Some days having the harder conversations or at least providing another point of view is the best gift you can give.  

These are just a few ideas on how we could make it a kinder, gentler place for small businesses within GovCon. This is not a place where you can “get rich quick,” but you can build a thriving, successful business if you have the right tools in place. Let’s open the conversation. What ideas do you have? What have you seen be successful? 

How Technical Companies Win Proposals

-As shared by Meg O’Hara.

govmates previously co-hosted an exclusive training and education session on the topic of writing compelling proposals with SME Tan Wilson of Entellect. We had a lively discussion that brought about some points that I believe our technical industry, as a whole, might find interesting.  

The biggest thing I’ve noticed when talking to companies with highly technical and very innovative solutions is that they want to talk about the process of their “thing.” Whatever it is that they’ve created. They’re spending most of their discussion time talking about features instead of benefits. The proposal discussion should be on providing solutions and answering questions that the customer is asking, not demonstrating how cool the tech is. We’ll get there; cool your jets.  

Here are a few things for you to know before you jump full force into a proposal.

Know Your Customer: First, you need to build a profile of your customer, so you’re better prepared to answer questions about who they are, what keeps them awake in the wee hours of the morning, and how you can better their lives while allowing them to keep their nest egg intact. Much like humans in general, system integrators want to know “what’s in it for me?” While that may feel harsh, take their perspective into consideration quickly. They have a problem that is dominating their tasks and outputs, they see a few companies that can help them solve it, and time is usually of the essence. Let’s not waste that time with a song and dance when a quick coffee meeting or zoom call could demonstrate capability in less time.  

Know Your Competition: Sorry to say, but the likelihood that someone does something similar to you, especially in this space where we know and understand the innovative needs of the government, is remarkably high. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a niche that your company fits perfectly. There will also be things that your competition does, claims, or believes that you can highlight as a vulnerability. As Tan says, “Don’t be afraid to throw a little shade.” Customers don’t like risk, so if you can highlight something that’s not necessarily a strength, don’t be afraid to do so, professionally.  

Know the Time and Place for Metrics: Much like you wouldn’t add the frosting to a cupcake before baking it, don’t lead with the metrics. Let them support your past performance and your experience rather than being the driving force. When you’ve done the work to provide a helpful solution that the government has requested, THEN it will be time to add your proof points into the mix. Don’t jump into it too soon as you might miss your best opportunity.  

So, how does all of this help technology companies to win proposals?
Hopefully, it reminds the technology-minded people in our industry to focus on the requirements and the expectations for an RFP. Proposals aren’t the time to get creative with your approach. Save that for your website, slide deck, and marketing collateral. Do the customers and contracting officers a favor and simply follow the directions they’ve outlined for you. It should also be noted that customers and contracting officers don’t often have the same technical experience as those developing the solutions being presented, so keeping your vernacular at an industry-standard level is appreciated.  

Go forth and win!  

The Role of Systems Integrators in GovCon

-As shared by Katie Bilek.

At govmates, we know a thing or two about teaming.  Since our inception, we’ve made over 32,000 matches and nearly 8,000 teaming introductions; a majority of those introductions were made to large systems integrators or primes in seeking of non-traditional or small teaming partners across defense and civilian programs.   

Systems Integrators (SI’s) exist to help the government solve large, complex problems, and to integrate multiple systems and technologies that may not typically communicate with one another.   

That role has evolved over time – some traditional defense primes have evolved to include the role of an integrator their offerings (in many cases, via acquisition of smaller, mid-tier organizations).  Other private equity-backed platforms have emerged to be a more agile, innovative integrator with all the structural benefits of a robust organization while still maintaining a lean mindset.   

The SI’s that will emerge as true leaders in the federal contracting community are those that embrace a forward-thinking mindset. They invest in their relationships, and ensure their partners have access to all the resources needed for success.  They incorporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion into their processes, engaging partners in underrepresented communities.   And, they use their size as a force for good – one that can benefit both their government customers and their teaming partners. In teaming partner speak, we call that a win-win.   

Why is Working in GovCon so [email protected]#n Hard?

-As shared by Stephanie Alexander


When I talk to someone who says they are starting a government contracting firm, I immediately ask them, why?!  For those of us who have been in the industry long enough, you may also have this knee-jerk reaction.  Why in Pete’s name would you want to enter this industry and deal with all the things that we do??
 

Intellectually, I know it’s because it’s one of the biggest industries in the world. It has steady, longer contracts and it helps serve a mission.  

While all of that is great you should also know the following: 

  • Lead time.  Our procurements take FOREVER.  Like literally forever (or so it seems).  They get pushed out, they get extended, they get cancelled for no perceivable reason, they get protested, they get overruled, they get out of favor with the latest political appointee, they get unfunded in the budget.  In short, it’s one of the most stable industries in the US yet its subject to all of the above!  There is NO quick and easy procurement.  Know that you are building business for years out and that it takes longer than you think it should to actually see revenue (and therefore cash!) coming in the door.

  • Data.  We are one of the most heavily documented industries in the US.  We have notices for what’s been awarded and to whom, what’s coming out, what’s funded, who the contracting officers are, etc.  Yet with all of this data, it’s still a matter of deciphering what the data means before you can navigate the waters, and this takes time.  It takes a couple hard losses to realize that something seemed wired for the incumbent.  It takes a few bad teaming agreements before you realize your prime was just taking you off the streets.  This industry is super transparent however you have to understand what isn’t written down or included within the RFP as much as what’s in the RFP.
     
  • Margins.  They aren’t sexy.  And if they are, you are going to raise some eyebrows!  While we all understand that inherently, we should use the taxpayer’s money to its best advantage, this is often translated to lower margins for contractors.  Some government customers think margins are a dirty word.  They most likely haven’t had to have enough money to cover payroll before.  But regardless, you are capped in what you will earn on your work.
     
  • Talent.  Let’s face it, government contracting just isn’t known as the coolest industry in town. Yes, we are mission driven and sometimes that’s appealing.  But often for the younger employees, it’s being able to work on bleeding edge tech and learn and do cool stuff.  News alert: we aren’t known for being the risk takers and trying really new stuff.  Never mind that we’re subjected to the labor rates provided in a proposal submitted years ago, and we can’t just offer what the tech companies do.  This makes recruiting and retention particularly hard.   

We love govcon.  All day, every day.  To the point where we are pretty useless outside the industry.  But for those entering, come on in, but have clear eyes and clear expectations as you enter. 

Artificial Intelligence & Ethics in GovCon

-As shared by Hannah Altman

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the way we interact with the world; the applications seem limitless. But as with any nascent technology, its growth is moving faster than the speed of regulation. This is especially concerning when world leaders – the United States as well as its near-peer adversaries – are actively harnessing the power of AI for military applications. The way we treat and regulate AI as an offensive tool will have a profound impact on the space for decades to come, as other countries and even non-state actors follow suit in adopting AI into their security strategy. As the use of AI as a tool for lethality increases, the United States must lead the space by creating guidelines to prevent bias and advocate for the responsible use of AI.

Very basically, artificial intelligence refers to a computer or computing system trained by humans and designed to execute tasks. The more complex the task, the more hours people will need to spend on training the machine. No machine is designed to be unethical or biased – the people programming it bring with them their own personal biases and worldviews, intentionally or by accident. A prominent example of bias in artificial intelligence is the use of facial recognition in law enforcement settings. People of color – women of color especially – are more likely to be incorrectly identified by facial recognition software than their white counterparts. The cameras themselves don’t house inherent bias. But having a homogenous group of people (with a similar background and demographic) as the coders and decision-makers for the machine will lead to bias of omission. If the group of coders is not inclusive, if they do not themselves contain a variety of different perspectives and experiences, we cannot expect the AI to do that either.

So where does U.S. Artificial Intelligence strategy go from here? In 2020, the Department of Defense published its Ethical Principles for Artificial Intelligence, which stated that AI must responsible, equitable, traceable, reliable, and governable. Accomplishing this will necessarily need people and a lot of them. At govmates, we like to talk about the human element – goals are best accomplished when technology complements the work done by people and vice versa. Creating ethical AI means focusing on the people doing coding and the people working alongside the technology. In order for the data sets to be complete, they need to be inclusive. We need voices and perspectives that are currently being left out of the conversation. We need transparency in algorithms. The data is only as good as we make it, and right now there is room to make it a lot better.