How Small Businesses Use Innovation to Thrive in Federal Contracting
I recently read an article in USA Today about how federal agencies are coming to realize that small businesses are innovation hubs whose creativity allowed them to deliver better solutions more cheaply. The article discusses how NASA used a small, 40-person firm, Honeybee Robotics, to develop a robotic lab assistant for the Mars Curiosity Rover. Some very important lessons can be learned and applied to small businesses seeking federal contracts in other industries.
NASA’s large, go-to contractors are very expensive, slow, and overly bureaucratic. Because of those drawbacks, NASA increasingly turns to small business innovators. In fact, it exceeded it small business goals by 28% last year and has increased its Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR, adding higher rewards for small businesses developing space technology.
Some businesses believe, and rightly so in far too many cases, that the deck is stacked against them, often feeling that they have to meet a higher standard than large businesses to score contracts. Perhaps change has finally come as agencies realize they need more creative, less-expensive solutions to solve their problems.
The strategic win theme for many small businesses seeking federal contracts must be along the lines of:
- a little bit faster,
- a little bit better, and
- a little bit more creative
Of course, relationship building has and always will be the key to federal business development success, and small technology businesses can take advantage of SBIR opportunities to build relationships. Obtaining those grants can also help build a firm’s know-how, capabilities, and establish a beach head for expansion into the agency.
But what about other fields that don’t have SBIR opportunities. The same principles apply. Firms can stress that they are more nimble than their larger competitors, probably a bit cheaper, and certainly more innovative and creative in defining a solution to agency problems. Let’s take a look at some recent efforts by government and how small business could have creatively solved the problem better.
Examples of How Small Business Contractors Might Have done Better
All of you are familiar with the recent flawed launch of the sam.gov website. Now I understand it is a complex system, involving the integration of many legacy systems like CCR and ORCA, as well as many back office systems that contractors do not even know about. But aside from the well-known launch problems, I have yet to talk to a contractor who was not frustrated by SAM’s horrible user interface. They are confused by the migration process and how to find simple information such as small business size. Perhaps this is the least user friendly web-based system in recent times. If only there were an example of, say, some web 2.0 systems that are programmed by small businesses and have tremendous user interfaces. Small businesses are very familiar with such web-based tools; we all use them every day. These tools are typically designed by very small IT shops with good designers and web 2.0 programmers. User interface is beautiful and easy to use. No one can tell me that countless small businesses could not have done a better job designing an intuitive system with a sound user interface than the large prime contractor did on the SAM system.
And what about public outreach. Many agencies have turned to social media to communicate with citizens and stakeholders. While the content on these sights may be good, some of these are downright dreadful. Take GSA’s Interact system. The user interface is hideous, the deign requires multiple registrations to access different communities, and frankly, the ugly presentation could really stand some upgrading by a small business marketing firms. Most of the web 2.0 social media sites out there today are what agencies should try to mimic and they all have been designed by small businesses, operate as well as or better than other systems, and actually generate user enthusiasm.
Stress Creativity in your Federal Marketing
Regardless of your field, I am sure you can find examples of where your small firm could have delivered a more creative solution to an agency. Well, it’s time that you did. Offer constructive criticism to these agencies. Get a meeting to discuss how you could do it better and more creatively and hold the agency accountable for stepping up its game. It’s 2012, agency budgets are tighter than ever, and agencies must be more creative in developing solutions, and small business is the solution.