DHS Small Business Chief Gives Insights into Winning Contracts

By Stew Magnuson
Landing a contract for the first time with the Department of Homeland Security can seem like a daunting challenge, but there are plenty of opportunities to break into the market, the head of the department’s small business office said.

“Newcomers are welcome,” Kevin Boshears, director of the office of small and disadvantaged business utilization, said at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association homeland security conference.

DHS exceeded its small business contract award goals in fiscal year 2014, he said. Thirty-five percent of DHS prime contract awards went to such firms, he said. It also doubled its goal for disabled veteran-owned company contracts by reaching 6 percent for the first time. Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZones) contracts also reached an all-time high of 3.9 percent, he added.

About 13,000 companies had DHS contracts in 2014. Of those, 9,400 were small businesses with prime or non-prime contacts. And of those, almost 1,800 of them earned their first DHS award last year.

One of the key takeaways from these statistics is that: “You don’t have to have DHS past performance to secure a contract,” Boshears said.

“We have prime and subcontracting opportunities for small businesses. It’s not one or the other. It’s both,” he added.

Once a contract comes up, the office has to be convinced that small businesses are capable of serving as a prime contractor. If that is the case, it sets the award aside for them.

When moving on to full and open competitions where it expects to award the contract to larger companies, it facilitates a mentor-protégé program for the small businesses or paves the way for subcontracting opportunities.

For those companies that want to break into the DHS market, Boshears said it was no different than selling to any other agency or customer: they must understand the market and customer and they must put themselves in a position to compete.

As for the latter, he has queried thousands of small businesses to find out what steps they took to grab their first federal contract, and four answers have come up repeatedly.

The first hallmark is that they do their homework. Boshears recalled receiving a phone call recently from a small business owner who was trying to find out about an overdue contract award, which turned out to be from the FBI. He had to explain that the agency was not part of DHS.

“I didn’t see his face but he felt pretty sheepish when I told him,” he said. There is a wealth of information at the DHS small business website, he noted. 

Secondly, successful companies understood the differences between all the contract vehicles, he said. Those include: General Services Administration schedules; open competitions on FedBizOps; and multiple award, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts.

“You have to understand the differences because it helps you position yourself,” he said. If, for example, a company offering a product does its homework and discovers that for the past five years DHS has acquired the same item through the GSA schedule, “that’s an automatic clue,” Boshears said.

The third step successful companies took was participating in various forms of networking. Industry conferences are an obvious example of this, but it can be less formal settings such as email exchanges.

“Some way or another, these firms participate in some kind of network,” he said. “The key is getting information that is of use to you.”

The last element is that they understand all the facets of teaming.

There are many ways to do this. A small business can ask a larger one for backup in case it wins an award. It can subcontract with a prime. Or it can form a joint venture.

In that case, Boshears recommended being very clear in the proposal as to which company intends to perform which tasks.

“When we review them, I can say that we truly are neutral. What we’re looking for is the best offer and the best value to the government that is advantageous to what we’re trying to do,” he said.

“These four things when all taken together leads to positioning yourself to participate,” he said.  
The most common path for small businesses to put their foot in the door at DHS is to first be a subcontractor. “It’s basically finding a niche piece of work that you’re confident you can perform, and proposing what you have to offer to companies that anticipate submitting an offer.”

The small business office also posts on its website a monthly forecast of opportunities, and hosts a monthly outreach program, where companies can sign up for 15 minute pre-arranged meetings at the Homeland Security Acquisition Institute with small business specialists from the department’s 22 agencies, he said.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Homeland Security

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