Fort George G. Meade has long been the source of ample business opportunities for government contractors and is currently poised to significantly increase the volume of contracts.
However, in the midst of that robust contracting environment, businesses face one fundamental challenge: Breaking into the Fort Meade market is a demanding and lengthy process.
So we asked some FMA members who are established Fort Meade contractors, for their insights on best practices to land work with agencies and commands at the garrison.
Network, connect & learn
Relationships are core to doing business in the Fort Meade market, so FMA members unanimously urged newcomers to get involved with the community. Attend a variety of events – meetings by FMA, the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) and the Cybersecurity Association of Maryland as well as information sessions hosted by the small business outreach offices of the National Security Agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency and other Fort Meade tenants. Volunteer to work on industry events or committees, seek out business development luncheons and foster relationships both with agency officials and local businesses.
“Some people will tell you to focus your networking on big system integrators because they offer the most opportunities. Others will say focus on the small companies because they are easiest to get relationships with. My experience is you’ve got to do both,” said Jerry Schepers, Vice President of Praxis Engineering. “And don’t be afraid to say, ‘Can I buy you lunch and ask you a lot of questions?’ I spend a lot of time with a lot of small companies doing just that.”
Hone your offer
One of the most common mistakes that newcomers to the Fort Meade market make is over-promising – for example, proposing to deliver five different specialties through a two-person staff or proposing to deliver services that require staff that isn’t local.
“Have a niche, have a special capability like machine learning or analytics or user experience,” said John McBeth, Co-Founder of Next Century Corporation. “If you start out trying to do everything, you will lose credibility.”
Once you define that niche, discuss it with the people you meet at networking events until you find a prime contractor who needs just that skill and then discuss becoming a subcontractor on their project.
“It’s not really an easy process to get your first subcontract,” said Bill Dunahoo, President of Praxis Engineering. “We have a lot of partners already so there has to be something about your specialty that gets one of our business development or program managers to lift their head up and say, ‘Oh, tell me more about that.’”
The number of contracts tendered by Fort Meade agencies and commands can entice newcomers to chase a lot of different contracts or go after a prime contract. Experienced contractors in the region advise against this.
“You have to take baby steps,” said Diana Gresham, Vice President of Business Development for Bridges Consulting. “If you are a small company looking to prime a contract, you are looking at a proposal engine that is going to take you $500,000 to $1 million to complete. You need some pockets to do that.”
Instead, Gresham recommends new companies pursue subcontracts and, initially, limit the number of subcontracts.
“You will often see small companies that are going after everything and trying to be on every team,” she said. “I think it’s hard to build a foothold in this market when you have one person on a contract over here and another person another person on a contract in a different organization. If you can get a little mass on one project, I think your reputation starts to grow a little quicker and a little broader.”
In addition to competing for contracts, local companies compete fiercely for talent.
“Your employees can look out any window and see companies that would love to have their resume,” Gresham said.
Furthermore, the strong U.S. economy and increasing concerns about cybersecurity are driving up demands for tech workers in other sectors, including finance, healthcare and e-commerce.
“The reality is many companies have figured out if you want to hire cyber people, you come looking around Fort Meade,” Schepers said. Consequently, to attract and retain talent, Fort Meade contractors “have to have world-class benefits, a world-class culture and be a place where people really want to work.”
Be patient, consistent and successful
Learning the Fort Meade market, identifying contracting opportunities and landing work on a project is a long process that can take many months or more.
Antoine Roseman, Founder of Racstol Corp., pursued Fort Meade work for two years before landing his first contract. “I learned that you have to be consistent — keep meeting with people, learning what the customer’s challenges are and start bringing solutions to the table. Eventually, you will land in the right person’s inbox. Once you get that first contract, that opens the doors to more opportunities.”
The payoff for patience and persistence is that “once you are supporting the agency, you have credibility with the agency,” McBeth said. “That makes it easier to learn about things that are going on in other parts of the organization, meet with people and get more insights on the needs of the customer.”
Most companies can leverage that knowledge into additional contracts. And Fort Meade market watchers say those contracts will be especially plentiful in the next few years due to a backlog created by the budget sequester and the NSA 21 reorganization.