How Your Small Business Can Successfully Land a Government Contract

The government contracting sector is on an upward trajectory and many businesses have a desire to enter the space but have no idea where or how to start. On this week’s episode of The Playbook, host Mark Collier, area director for the UGA Small Business Development Center, sits down with Shene Commodore, president of Commodore Consulting based here in Atlanta. Shene is a true subject matter expert in all things government contracting-related, and today we’ll find out what it really takes to land a government contract.

Transcription:

Mark Collier:
Welcome into The Playbook, Shene.

Shene Commodore:
Thank you, Mark. It’s great to be here with you today.

Mark Collier:
All right. Well, thank you. Listen, I said in my lead in, the infrastructure bill that was passed recently has just offered up a resurgent interest in government contracting, so that’s squarely in your space. But before we delve into that, tell me a little bit about your background.

Shene Commodore:
Hi. I’ve been in Atlanta for about 20 years now. But I’m from Ohio, which is where I started in government contracting at Wright-Patt Air Force Base.

Mark Collier:
You’re a Yankee, like me.

Shene Commodore:
Well, yes. I started out in government, auditing with the auditing agency, and then I branched into Department of Defense contracts, a little bit of time with CDC. And also some state and local government here in DeKalb County in Georgia.

Mark Collier:
Fantastic.

Shene Commodore:
And I have my own consulting company, where I work with companies of all sizes to help them strategize and prepare for government contracting business.

Mark Collier:
Excellent. So what was the impetus to start your business?

Shene Commodore:
The impetus was, in government contracting you have different companies known as contractors that win. You also have a period where those that didn’t win can protest.

Mark Collier:
I wasn’t aware of that.

Shene Commodore:
Yes, yes. I was with a company who had a protest on a healthcare contract. They won the protest, but then they decided they didn’t want to be in the government business anymore.

Mark Collier:
Interesting.

Shene Commodore:
It forced me to look for another position and fulfill my lifelong dream of being an entrepreneur. Because I wanted to be able to count on myself to provide financial stability and generational wealth for my children, especially as a single mom.

Mark Collier:
All right. Has entrepreneurship been a smooth road for you? And if not, what were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along your journey?

Shene Commodore:
It hasn’t been a smooth road for me because you’re constantly learning.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
One of the main things, I had to learn to deal with discomfort.

Mark Collier:
Yes, yes.

Shene Commodore:
Even in working with our best or even having good partners to team with, things don’t always go as planned.

Mark Collier:
No, they don’t.

Shene Commodore:
So that was one of the main things I had to learn, was dealing with the unexpected and how to deal with discomfort.

Mark Collier:
Well, that word discomfort, I’ve learned that in discomfort comes growth.

Shene Commodore:
Yes.

Mark Collier:
So there’s a plus side to that.

Shene Commodore:
Yes, definitely a plus side.

Mark Collier:
All right. And what are some of the common mistakes that entrepreneurs make from your perspective, of you’ve been in it, you’ve probably seen other entrepreneurs that you work with. What are some of the common mistakes that you see entrepreneurs make along their journey?

Shene Commodore:
Right. Great question. I think some of the common mistakes is failing to plan.

Mark Collier:
Oh, yeah.

Shene Commodore:
A lot of times early on, business owners, we’re so excited that we win the deal we just dig right in. But you have to allow time to develop your plan and execute it properly.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
A lot of times it’s not that you have a bad plan, it was poor execution. I think there should be more time in planning. Making sure that you understand the customer. It’s one thing to know their need, but it’s also important to understand their priorities.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
Many times the priorities are different and we want to make sure that we’re on the same page. Another common mistake that I realize is underpricing our services or products. Because again, a lot of times we want to win so we go in way too low.
But the best thing is to move to the mindset of value pricing, so that when companies recognize the value that your products or services provide, they’re more likely to believe in the fair and realistic pricing that you offer. And be comfortable with that.

Mark Collier:
No, that makes perfect sense because in my consulting business, I often consult with my clients and tell them, “You don’t want to compete on price. You want to compete on value.”

Shene Commodore:
Right.

Mark Collier:
Because the low price, the race to the bottom, there’s no profitability there.

Shene Commodore:
None.

Mark Collier:
None, none whatsoever. So, that is sage advice that you’re dispensing.

Shene Commodore:
Thank you.

Mark Collier:
All right. What’s the best advice that you would give someone who’s interested in winning government work? Because I understand government work is very different in many respects than private sector work. What are some of your best tips and tricks there on the government work side?

Shene Commodore:
Right. My best tips and tricks there is I cannot stress enough to know the customer.

Mark Collier:
Got it.

Shene Commodore:
Understand the pricing mechanisms that they have. There’s two different core mindsets with government, which is either you are providing services and products for the Department of Defense, one of those branches, which their mission is to enable and support the war fighter. Or you are providing product and services for the civilian agencies, like CDC, like Social Security, like Wildlife. And they have different missions and objectives.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
So make sure that you really understand the customer. Understand that even though the government is a $4 billion buyer, the largest in the world, you need to focus your efforts on the agencies that buy the most on what you sell, because you can’t be an expert in everything to everyone.
Target three to five agencies that you want to work with, understand their mission, understand their common programs and needs. And then work to understand the priorities and systems that they work with.

Mark Collier:
Right. Again, very sage advice. I often get clients who come to me and say, “I want to do business with the government,” but they make popcorn. I mean, the government has to have a need for the product-

Shene Commodore:
Exactly.

Mark Collier:
… that you make, or else it’s it makes no point to try to sell something that the government’s not buying.

Shene Commodore:
Right. And I’m so glad you said “need,” I’d like to add on that. There does have to be a bonafide need, because you have the appropriation and the approval of the funds. And the important thing about the need is to recognize that …
Let’s stick with your popcorn example. Even if for some reason the government wanted to buy popcorn, say that it was for an event for the troops or something, you have to be able to provide that servicer product within the scope and complexity that the government buys it.

Mark Collier:
That’s right.

Shene Commodore:
For example, if they wanted to be able to provide popcorn to all of the Air Force exchange centers, but you are only able to service popcorn in the Atlanta area. You’re not going to fit the scope and complexity of what it is.

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Shene Commodore:
Make sure that you understand, “Do I provide the project or service? Can I meet the requirements in terms of scope and complexity and logistics? And how will I be able to manage that project?” Because a lot of times people under-price also because they forget to calculate the administrative time.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
So you’re doing the work, but then you’ve got to work all of those things in terms of servicing, communication and reports.

Mark Collier:
Yeah. Back to the fundamental aspect of planning.

Shene Commodore:
Planning.

Mark Collier:
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. One of my favorites.

Shene Commodore:
Yes.

Mark Collier:
All right. Every successful government contract begins with a sales pitch. You’ve got to pitch your product or service to the government. So what are some of the keys to a good sales pitch, from your perspective?

Shene Commodore:
Right. Keys to a good sales pitch is be authentic. I think we can all read through when someone’s not really sincere.

Mark Collier:
Correct.

Shene Commodore:
And a big part of gaining credibility is earning trust.

Mark Collier:
Yes, absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
So be a authentic. Be willing to share information about how … Be able to explain how your company has developed the experiences and the expertise to be able to provide service to the government.

Mark Collier:
Yeah, yeah. Well, you hit on a key term, “trust.”

Shene Commodore:
Yes.

Mark Collier:
People talk about B2B, B2C, but when you boil it down it’s really H2H, human to human.

Shene Commodore:
Yes, it is. I say that.

Mark Collier:
And people do business with people who they know, like, and trust.

Shene Commodore:
Exactly.

Mark Collier:
I mean, that’s the bottom line. So building those relationships is vitally important.

Shene Commodore:
Right. And I also like to add to that, don’t try to dump everything on them in that initial conversation.

Mark Collier:
Sure. Yeah.

Shene Commodore:
It’s an ongoing investigation and discovery process.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
And the more you build trust and credibility, the more conversations that you’ll have to gather more information.

Mark Collier:
All right. A lot of myths out here about doing business with the government. So what are some of the common myths that you would like to dispel about doing business with the government?

Shene Commodore:
I love this question. One of the main myths I like to dispel is that it’s free money. It is not free money.

Mark Collier:
Nothing’s free out here.

Shene Commodore:
If you think of government spending in terms of taxpayer dollars, there’s a high obligation and requirement to safeguard that funding.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely, absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
And be very responsible with it. So contracts and grants are not the same thing-

Mark Collier:
No, they’re not. Very different.

Shene Commodore:
… which is part of dispelling this myth. So you think of a government contract in terms as maybe your typical buy and sell that you might see in the commercial marketplace with additional government regulations. Whereas a grant is funding, but there’s a cost sharing mechanism. So grants are not totally free. Normally when you see a grant that cost-sharing and match, it could be maybe if it’s 100% funding, the government will say, “I’m funding 70% of this project, you need to match the other 30%.”

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Shene Commodore:
So it’s not free. And be very careful about that because there are additional reporting requirements to make sure that the funding is being paid properly, but it’s also being dispersed and you’re using it in accordance with the regulations.

Mark Collier:
Now you [inaudible 00:10:25], I’m glad you made the distinction between grants and contracts. Because first of all, when you’re going after government contracts, you’re dealing with a contracting officer and they have a fiduciary responsibility to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars. So they’re going to be looking at everything surrounding that contract.
And in terms of grants, you’re absolutely right. It’s not free. There are a lot of strings attached with grants. There’s sometimes reporting requirements attached to those grants as well. So people have to understand the entire ecosystem of what it means to win a grant and actually perform on that grant successfully.

Shene Commodore:
Exactly.

Mark Collier:
All right. All right, negotiations? That’s the next part, I know sometimes there’s some back and forth in negotiations with these contracts. So negotiating is a very key element of government contracting. So any tips on how to negotiate successful government contracts?

Shene Commodore:
Right. Any negotiation, successful negotiation, you must go in understanding that you always negotiate price last.

Mark Collier:
Yeah, I like that.

Shene Commodore:
Contracts are, a lot of people say it’s a bunch of legalese, it’s for the lawyers, but it’s for the business and insurance and finance people too.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
Contracts are risk-sharing mechanisms. Most of the terms are related to finance and business. So if you think in that sense, whenever you negotiate something, whether it’s a change in shipping, or a change in quantity, or a change in services or schedule, that all affects price.

Mark Collier:
Got it.

Shene Commodore:
So if you don’t negotiate all of those things first before finalizing a price, you could really under-price yourself and hurt yourself in the long-run.
Another thing to remember is get it all in writing.

Mark Collier:
Oh yeah. Yeah.

Shene Commodore:
So when you have these negotiation discussions and you agree to make changes or alterations, make sure that you get it in writing because it needs to be approved in writing.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely.

Shene Commodore:
Everything is about what does the contract say whenever there’s a dispute.

Mark Collier:
Oh yeah.

Shene Commodore:
So you want to make sure to have that in your contract.

Mark Collier:
No, absolutely. I mean, written contracts, as you said, if there’s any dispute whatsoever, they’re going to go back to what are the terms and conditions that you signed off on.

Shene Commodore:
Right.

Mark Collier:
And that’s where they’re going to adjudicate that process.

Shene Commodore:
Right. And it’s important that they’re in writing because going to the disputes part, because with government, you are allowed to dispute. The judge, the courts will say, “Okay, this is what the contract says, but what was the behavior of the parties?”

Mark Collier:
Makes sense.

Shene Commodore:
And they take all of that into consideration. And if there is a dispute or some ambiguity, they err that on the side of the person who actually wrote that. So it’s really important that both parties understand what that means.

Mark Collier:
All right. Another one of my favorite mantras, what cannot be measured, cannot be improved.

Shene Commodore:
Exactly.

Mark Collier:
How do you measure whether you’re successful in the government contracting arena?

Shene Commodore:
Right. When it comes to measurement I like the term smart. specific measurable-

Mark Collier:
Attainable.

Shene Commodore:
… attainable.

Mark Collier:
Relevant and time sensitive.

Shene Commodore:
Right. I know that like the back of my hand.
Very good. And communicating.

Mark Collier:
Sure.

Shene Commodore:
The first one is, did you complete the task that were required in the contract? Were you timely in completing those tasks? Did you complete the task within the agreed upon timeline and schedule? And did you meet the requirements, the measurements, the evaluation criteria, that are within that contract.
A simple way of saying that is comparing actuals to projections.

Mark Collier:
Got it.

Shene Commodore:
What actually happened.

Mark Collier:
Got it, got it.

Shene Commodore:
And what overall benefit does it provide to the contract you have, but to the organization that you were serving as well?

Mark Collier:
Yeah. I mean, that serves as a gap analysis, projections versus actual. Because at the end of the day, these businesses, they don’t run charities, they run businesses. So they’re in business to make a profit.

Shene Commodore:
Right.

Mark Collier:
All right. Hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it?

Shene Commodore:
Yes, it is.

Mark Collier:
All right. So what’s the one thing you wish you knew earlier in your business journey, advice you would give to your younger self?

Shene Commodore:
The advice that I would give to my younger self would be not to be afraid of admitting what I need. I’ve worked with some really good mentors. And one of the most significant experiences that I’ve had was when I was in a meeting and they said, “You’re meeting with your mentor and they’re sharing things and they …” She looks at me and says, “So what do you need? How can I help you?” I’m like, “Oh my.”
So a lot of times, especially as leaders or new business owners, we don’t want to admit that we don’t know anything or that we need something, but that’s actually a strength. Okay. It’s not that we have all the answers, both that we know how to seek those resources and build those relationships so that we can provide a complete, valuable solution. I definitely wish that early on I was more comfortable in admitting what my need was.

Mark Collier:
Very good. Shene Commodore, President of Commodore Consulting based here in Atlanta. I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy day. We’re going to scroll your website down at the bottom. So any businesses who want to get in touch with you, they can certainly do so. But I want to thank you for coming in and demystifying what it takes to be successful in the government contracting space.

Shene Commodore:
Well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Mark Collier:
All right.


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