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How to Research Your Government Contracting Competition Here are some smart ways to find out who's selling in your space and what kind of money they're generating from their federal government contracts.

By Mark Amtower

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Research is a key component when entering any market. How and where you do it in the vast government market seems daunting to most, but it isn't that difficult if you have a few good tools. In this article, I'll show you a few of my favorite web tools.

Google has an excellent government search tool called U.S. Government Search. This tool helps you track down a ton of information that can help you decide whether or not you should enter the U.S. government market. If your decision is yes, the Google tool remains an ally in that it can help you locate information on your competition, prospective buying activities and more.

The General Services Administration (GSA) schedule are the most popular contracts for selling to the federal government. More than 40 percent of all purchases occur through these contracts--total sales for fiscal year 2005 were $35 billion--but GSA schedules only represent 15 percent of the total amount the government spends annually. (And when you're speaking in the hundreds of billions of dollars, this ain't chump change!) When you're trying to determine who's selling what in your category, the GSA schedules are a great barometer.

So where do you begin? First, here's the Google link:

In order to determine which GSA schedule your products are on, type "schedules e-library" in the search line (and leave it in quotes). The first result, the GSA "Schedules e-Library," is where you want to go.

Clicking on this link will take you to an introductory page, where you need to click the "VISIT THIS WEBSITE NOW" link, visible on the upper right.

Now you're at the e-Library. Look for your product or service category in the "Category Guide." If you don't see the product or service you sell there, then use the search function to try to track down the information. In order to walk you through the process, let's look for "dispute resolution" services and see what we find.

Type the words "dispute resolution" in quotes in the search line, and leave the search criteria as "all the words." As the government often uses different phrasing than common business practice does, the search will work better for you this way than clicking on "exact phrase." Now click the "Search" button and await your results.

In our example, "dispute resolution" shows up in two GSA categories. The "source" number on the left is the code for the GSA schedule, and for this, we get "738 X" and "00CORP." Inside the schedules, there are subsets of categories (SINs, or Special Item Numbers).

Click on the appropriate SIN number, and you'll go to a page that lists all contract holders that sell this service. So for 738 X, SIN 595 13, you'll see eight companies that sell this dispute resolution services. Schedule 738 X looks to be exclusively for dispute resolution, as opposed to the 00CORP Schedule, which lists dispute resolution as one of many services. For our purposes, we'll limit our research to Schedule 738 X.

After you click on the SIN (595 13), you can click on each of the vendors to get the GSA Contract number of that vendor as well as their address, phone number and web address. You'll also often get a company contact name. The results also list all the GSA schedules awarded to this vendor, so you may find other categories that pique your interest. I always click through to the vendor's website to see if they're highlighting the fact that they have a government contract. This will indicate the level of sophistication of the vendor--the less "government friendly" the site is, the less likely it is they're a serious competitor.

So now that you know who your competitors are, what's next?

One of the most useful tools I've found on any government website is the Schedule Sales Query tool on the General Services Administration website. This tool allows you to determine how much money passes through each GSA schedule (or SIN) and provides the total dollar amount by vendor.

So let's go to the Schedule Sales Query site and migrate through the maze.

First, in the left-hand navigation, click "Create Report." This will take you to a non-mandatory registration page. Click "Proceed" without filling in your information. This takes you to the "Report Generation" page.

If you know what company you want information on, you can check item 6 ("Total for All Quarters by Contractor for Fiscal Year") and click "Generate Report." This will take you to a screen that allows you to select a fiscal year. Choose the fiscal year you want and double-click on it. This will give you total dollars for each vendor, but it doesn't break it down by which schedule they made the money on.

If you want to see how much money passed through a specific SIN--and how much each contractor made in that SIN--go back to Step 2, the "Report Generation" page and select item 11. This will take you to a page that allows you to select a fiscal year. (I usually start with the last complete fiscal year, as companies report at different times, so running the current year can be a little misleading.) For this example, choose 2005.

Next, go to the SIN# line, scroll down to "595 13," then click "Proceed to Step 3."

Quickly review your selection criteria as presented on the "Report Information" screen, and if it's correct, click "Proceed to the Final Step." If it's not correct, return to the previous page and correct your selection.

Once you've clicked "Proceed to the Final Step" and a "File Download" box appears on your screen, click "Open." The report results will then come up. Here we see that unlike the Schedule e-Library page, there are 36 vendors listed. Twenty of these vendors made $0, nine made less than $10,000, three made more than $10,000 but less than $100,000, and four vendors made more than $100,000. Only one made more than $1,000,000.

To see what the SIN total was, return to the "Report Generation" screen (in step two of this process) and select item 3. Click through to your fiscal year and run the report.

Our search for SIN 595 13 shows sales by quarter of $321,005, $233,685, $278,333 and $461,036 respectively for fiscal year 2005. You'll find that the last quarter of a federal fiscal year is almost always larger that any of the other previous quarters, because it's the "spend it or lose it" quarter. Since the total for this SIN is $1,294,059, it appears that one company-the one that made more than $1,000,000 in 2005, truly dominates the category. From this information, we have a good idea of the competitive landscape.

Spend enough time hunting around, and you'll see just how vast the GSA Schedule offerings are. On a quarter-by-quarter basis, there are more than 10,400 listings of SINs and more than 2,600 product classifications represented on all GSA schedules. And with that many sales possibilities, there's always room for one more company hungry to do business with Uncle Sam.

Mark Amtower is the founding partner of Amtower & Co. in Highland, Maryland, a government contracting consulting firm. Since 1985, Amtower been helping companies get started and maximize marketshare in the federal market.

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