Entering the Federal Market & Drinking from a Fire Hose

By Dave O’Brien, Guest Contributor  

Entering the federal market is not an easy task for a small business, especially if you don’t have a military or government background. You enter a world of strict regulations, special rules and forms, and acronyms for everything.  More than likely, you have never worked on a federal job, or if you have, it was as a subcontractor to a large government contractor that just happened to find you on the internet, through a referral, or in the phone book.

My firm, SurvTech Solutions Inc., performed a small amount of subcontractor federal work at nearby military bases and veterans’ hospitals before I actively started pursuing federal work. This experience gave our team an understanding, albeit limited, of federal project work. But when you start performing work in the federal marketplace, it’s overwhelming. I’ve heard many times it referred to as “drinking from a fire hose.”

Short & Long-Term Goals

As we began our journey into the federal market as a small business, we had five- and 10-year plans for breaking in. Our five-year goal was to substantially increase our subcontracting opportunities by proactively getting on teams, instead of just waiting to be recruited for one. Our 10-year goals included obtaining prime contracts with federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Naval Facilities Engineering Command. You might be thinking: I don’t have that amount of time. But remember, time passes quickly, especially if you’re the owner of a small business.

As business owners we went into the federal market with a long-term view and our eyes wide open. Our plan was to understand the marketplace, build relationships, and grow our company internally to a level that would be adequate to perform federal work.  Improving SurvTech to adequately perform federal contracts was, of course, an internal issue.

However, for the first two approaches, understanding the federal marketplace and building relationships, the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) was the single platform we used to accomplish these goals.

How the Society Helped

When I first joined SAME, I immediately immersed myself in the local Post. I volunteered on the board and did whatever was asked of me. That immediately allowed me to build relationships with other board members and presented opportunities to serve at the monthly meetings, which furthered relationship building with the Post’s general membership.


I continued to attend meetings at the local level as well as national events. As a regional firm serving the southeast, we attended every regional SAME event along with the national Joint Engineer Training Conference and Federal Small Business Conference (SBC).  The regional and national conferences provided SurvTech with another platform to build relationships with SAME members outside of our local area. These events also offered the education into federal contracting that we desperately needed.

By going to conferences in our region in particular, we were able to attend on a low budget. Instead of flying and shipping our exhibitor materials, we drove to the event and brought the materials with us, thereby reducing costs.  We also found that sponsoring or exhibiting these events helped our company make a bigger impact and gain greater exposure. When you’re a small business, you must always look for the biggest return on investment by focusing spending to maximize results. That’s exactly what we did.

Next on the Calendar: SBC

Remember, in a world of small business set-asides, the large business needs small businesses as much as we need them. Large businesses are always looking for contracting vehicles for their services. A quality small business with a government contract can be the very vehicle that a large business needs to work for a new client or continue to work for an existing one. It’s a win/win for both firms because the large business gets contract dollars with that client, and the small business gets a teaming partner with huge resources and expertise to assist them.

It’s a win/win for both firms because the large business gets contract dollars with that client, and the small business gets a teaming partner with huge resources and expertise to assist them.

As I look forward to the next national event on our calendar, I see that the 2018 SBC is rapidly approaching (Oct. 31-Nov. 2, in New Orleans, La). SBC offers a unique opportunity to all small businesses. Besides the venue being hosted in New Orleans at Halloween, it is also co-located with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Veterans Small Business Engagement. To a small business, this is like getting a two-for-one specialtwice the conference at half the cost. Not only will this SBC have the military agencies that have historically brought a large presence, but now it will include a large Veterans Affairs presence, which will attract more prime contractors that are in turn potential teaming partners. There are also a number of other federal agencies that will have a presence this year, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, General Services Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of State, Department of Energy, and National Aeronautics & Space Administration.

The great thing about an SAME conference is that in most cases all the other exhibitors are potential teaming partners. So, even if you don’t meet one attendee that is interested in your services, you can walk around the exhibit hall and talk with other exhibitors and build more relationships. This is easily accomplished while sessions are taking place while the exhibit hall traffic is light, so you limit missed opportunities when leaving your booth. You are also less likely to interrupt other exhibitors talking with potential clients.

Lastly, evening networking events are perfect for building relationships. You don’t have to talk about work, and you can just enjoy meeting new people. If you’re a first-time attendee you may be hesitant to attend these events, but to make the most of the conference you should attend every networking event possible.

To prepare for SBC, I would recommend looking at the attendee list, but more importantly, study the exhibitor list. With large conferences it can be tough to track down an attendee, but if you review the exhibitor layout you will know exactly where that company will be located. You can then visit every exhibitor that may potentially be a client or a new teaming partner.  You should also view the conference agenda and look for sessions that will attract potential clients and teaming partners, and make sure to attend those.

Being an owner of a small business that had less than 10 people when I joined SAME, I had to attend almost every event by myself over the past decade. So I know what it’s like. If you’re a first-time attendee and are by yourself, my advice would be: just show up, forget about business, relax, and have fun! In the end, if you build new relationships, the work will follow, and your firm can have an impact on supporting America’s national security infrastructure-related needs—exactly the mission of SAME.

Look me up at SBC in New Orleans…I’ll be there!

For more information, visit www.samesbc.org. Follow the event using #SAMESBC18 and #MySBJourney.

Dave O’Brien is Co-Founder and President of SurvTech Solutions Inc.