When you're looking to grow your small business, one option is to tap into the steady flow of federal contracts offered by Uncle Sam. Doing business with the federal government can provide a reliable revenue stream, if you're persistent and plan properly.
There is a lot of money to be made: In its 2011 fiscal year, the federal government awarded $91.5 billion in contracts to small businesses, according to the Small Business Administration. The government's goal is to award 23 percent of its contracts to small businesses. However, in 2011, it fell short, awarding only 21.7 percent. Billions of dollars that should have been awarded to small businesses weren't, and there lies the opportunity for entrepreneurs, says Lourdes Martin-Rosa, the American Express OPEN adviser on government contracting.
Since the federal government's fiscal year ends at the end of September, the last quarter for government agencies to meet their small business quota "is hunting season," she says. So this is an especially good time to apply. Check the government's small business dashboard to see where each agency currently stands in meeting its quota.
Furthermore, the Obama administration announced Wednesday that it will order federal agencies to speed up payments to businesses doing work for them. Once paperwork is in, Uncle Sam will cut a check within 15 days in most circumstances, compared to the usual 30 days.
Related: 5 Ways to Get Paid Faster
If you are interested in doing business with Uncle Sam, here are three common mistakes to avoid:
1. Don't market to every federal agency. Instead of blindly casting the widest net, take time to understand each government agency's mission by checking the "procurement forecast" on their individual websites. This will detail what the specific agency needs, when it needs it, and what kind of business is eligible.
Another way to see what contracts are available is to check the Federal Business Opportunities website under the "Opportunities" tab. As you scroll down the column showing the "Type" of jobs, look for those that are titled: "Sources Sought." These are potential opportunities the government is researching and it's looking for small businesses that can take it on. Look closely at those postings as they often include an agent's contact information, so you can reach out directly, Martin-Rosa says.
2. Don't pass up a face-to-face meeting. Getting government contracts is about networking and building relationships. There are many opportunities to meet with federal officers who make the contract decisions. Go to them, says Martin-Rosa.
For example, there's a National Small Business Contracting week every year and the National Association of Business Contractors offers information about upcoming meetings and conferences. American Express also hosts a series of free conferences called the Victory in Procurement series and Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) "Give me Five!" group hosts webinars and conferences for women business owners.
3. Don't dress casually. It may seem obvious, but Martin-Rosa says when you meet with a federal officer, you have to dress to impress. "You don't want to walk in wearing a pair of jeans and tennis shoes," says Martin-Rosa. And remember to tailor your sales pitch to the needs of the specific agency you think is the best fit. Approaching a federal agency with the attitude that it owes you the work because it is not making its quota will not fly, she says.
What is your best tip in getting a contract with the federal government? Leave a comment below and let us know.