Homeland Security Insider

My Buddy and Me

THE Department of Homeland Security is a tempting and intimidating target for entrepreneurs looking to drum up new business. To get your foot in the door, consider the department's Mentor-Protégé program. It pairs large contractors with small companies to help the smaller firms qualify for government contract. When the relationship works, it's a win all the way around -- protégées get access, mentors get special credits, and DHS gets an expanded pool of small companies to do business with. So far, DHS has approved more than 125 Mentor-Protégé partnerships. A complete list is available on the DHS Web site at www.dhs.gov.

Doing business with DHS or any other government agency requires a commitment. Government wheels often turn very slowly, and anyone looking for a quick hit will be sorely disappointed. Winning the big contract-- and then satisfying its terms -- always requires a major investment of time and money. If you can't or won't commit to the necessary resources, it is best not to start. The reward is obvious, as the government remains the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. But, do not underestimate the cost of entry. One way of reducing the cost of getting into this market is through the Mentor-Protégé program. Another is the General Services Administration federal supply schedule.

The Mentor-Protégé program encourages large business prime contractor firms to provide developmental assistance to small businesses. The underlying rationale is clear: Experience has shown that entrepreneurs are most likely to develop the solutions to help critical infrastructure and national assets withstand and recover from disaster. Big firms are better at integrating technologies, but small firms develop them.

The Mentor-Protégé program's goal is to improve the performance of contracts and subcontracts; foster the establishment of long-term business relationships between large prime contractors and small businesses; and improve small business subcontracting opportunities. In return for their mentoring efforts, large businesses receive additional evaluation points toward contract awards during competitive bid evaluations, which can mean the difference between winning and losing a major contract. Additionally, subcontracting plan credit is available by recognizing costs incurred by a mentor firm in providing assistance to a protégé firm and using this credit for purposes of determining whether the mentor firm attains a subcontracting plan participation goal applicable to the mentor firm under a DHS contract.

Protégés receive technical, managerial, organizational, financial or any other mutually agreed upon benefit from mentors, including work that flows from a government or commercial contract through subcontracting or teaming arrangements. The assistance could result in significant small-business development.

DHS does not play matchmaker between mentor and protégé. The process is one of self-selection, as DHS relies on mentor firms to select their protégés. Like most business development everywhere, active networking and marketing are musts for would-be protégés. Mentor and protégés submit a joint proposal to the Homeland Security Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization for review and approval. This agreement must demonstrate the mutually beneficial relationship of the two parties that spells out the developmental assistance and subcontracting work the protégé can expect to receive over 36 months.

Steps for Getting Started on a GSA Schedule

  1. Do your homework. Attend one of GSA's "How to Obtain a GSA Schedule Contract" workshops. Learn about the schedules program by reading GSA's Multiple Award Schedules Program owners manual. Register for workshops and download the publications on the GSA Web site at www.gsa.gov.
  2. Visit GSA's electronic commerce site at www.gsaadvantage.gov to see if your competitors have schedule contracts, what they are selling and for how much.
  3. Decide which schedule best represents the products/services you want to sell. For a listing of GSA schedule contracts, visit
  4. www.gsaelibrary.gsa.gov.
  5. Download the selected solicitation from www.fedbizopps.gov.
  6. Commit the resources to put together a quality offer. The process of getting one of these potentially lucrative contracts is very time consuming. If you don't have qualified and experienced internal resources to commit to this project, then it may be wise to consider outsourcing the effort.
  7. Develop a pricing strategy based on your commercial discounting policies or practices. GSA's objective is to negotiate prices that are better than or equal to your best customer under similar terms and conditions. Most professional service companies do not have published commercial price lists and essentially have ad hoc discounting practices. Constructing an effective and supportable pricing strategy in this environment can be tricky.
  8. Recognize that the solicitation doesn't tell the whole story about what GSA needs to effectively evaluate your offer. Not knowing or abiding by the unwritten rules can cause significant delays and result in lost profits. Don't throw volumes of data at them -- it can end up costing you in the negotiations.

To participate, both mentor and protégé firms must be in good standing in the federal marketplace. The program excludes firms that are on the Federal List of Debarred or Suspended Contractors. The mentor firm can be any large business that demonstrates the commitment and capability to assist in the development of a small business protégé. The protégé firm is required to meet the definition of a small business based on its primary NAICS code. This includes small businesses, veteran-owned small businesses, service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses, HUB Zone small businesses, small, disadvantaged businesses and women-owned, small-business concerns.

Unlike most government applications, the DHS Mentor-Protégé application is a short three pages long and the review process is quick. Review is often completed and approval granted in less than 10 days. If initially disapproved, applications can be resubmitted and the review completed in less than 30 days.

The Mentor-Protégé program is not a substitute, but a supplement to traditional methods of small-firm government business development, such as the GSA federal supply schedules. Through the GSA program, small and midsize businesses can apply to join a pool of companies that are pre-approved for contracts from all federal agencies with a cap of about $1 million. It's a nontrivial event to go through the GSA contract process, but if you do, it becomes easier for a federal agency to purchase your goods and services without having to go through the complete competitive bid process. The GSA schedule application process can easily take nine months or more, but can be well worth both the expense and time.

Getting a GSA schedule is only part of the process. To be successful, you must create a marketing plan geared toward the idiosyncrasies of the federal government. Doing business with the government can be very lucrative, but breaking in requires a dedicated effort and patience. Don't consider the government as a single entity, but rather many entities.

The Mentor-Protégé program and GSA schedule are means to an end -- government contracts. Both require dedicated resources to develop the relationships, and both require a high degree of performance once a contract is awarded. What are you waiting for?

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