What do the winners do, BEFORE they bid?


Developing government proposals takes time and money.  It’s always a bit of a gamble, but here are some ways to tilt the odds in your favor.  And yes, they all involve advance planning.


·       “Is this work in our wheelhouse?”  Have we done this type of work before?  A proposal that says, “We’ve never actually done this before, but we could!” will not make the first cut.

·       Do we have the expertise and the people?

Do you have the people on staff TODAY with the required skills, certifications, degrees and years of experience?  If you only have some of these, then fine – be a subcontractor for a portion of the contract.  Avoid trying to bid as a prime contractor based on the notion of hiring critical “key” people after winning;  the government evaluators are leery of the Rent-An-Expert approach.

Could we write a convincing proposal?

Be honest with yourself.  Your competition may possess skills, experience, and past performance that are too much for you to overcome.  Again, subbing to a larger player is an option.  Also bear in mind that evaluators screen out a proposal’s superlatives and hype;  they’re interested in your past performance, your technical approach and numbers that back up your claims.

Do we and the customer know each other? 

If not, do we know people who know the customer?

Government contracting officers are risk-averse.  They’re spending taxpayer money, they have inspectors general peering over their shoulders, and their mistakes sometimes make the front page.  This is why you and the customer need to meet face-to-face;  there must be an element of trust.  If you are a small business, your quickest way into an agency is through their Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU).  Their phone number is on the agency website.  Also, ask your peers at larger companies if you might accompany them on their next agency visit.

“Are we qualified to bid?” 

The government requires that all bidders complete certain registrations.  Among these: 

Would we sub or prime?

See above.  If your confidence is high, go for the gold as a prime.  But know that the bar for evaluation is set higher for primes than for subs.  Also verify whether you’re eligible to bid as a prime;  sometimes, you need to already be a contract-holder to bid on “task orders” off a multi-vendor contract vehicle.


OK, now you know whether you belong in the game.  Now, it’s time to learn all you can about your target customer.  We call this GATHERING AGENCY INTELLIGENCE.

What will the contract type be?  Scope?  Duration?

Keep your eye on the Federal Business Opportunities website (or FedBizOpps, at www.fbo.gov) for advance notices concerning specific opportunities.  You can register there to receive timely updates on any government postings related to an upcoming or active opportunity.  If you’re working far enough in advance, you’ll find agency notices such as “Interested Vendors List,” “Industry Day,” “Draft Solicitation,” and other baby-steps toward release of the full RFP.  (The issuance of the Draft Solicitation, by the way, gives you the opportunity to submit written questions about the procurement directly to the agency’s Contracting Office, and receive written answers.)

Take advantage of ALL of these postings.  In addition, read the trade magazines for the agency scuttlebutt, browse the agency’s website(s), and talk with others in your industry.

Also available – at a price – are commercial/subscription databases that specialize in government procurement intel.  Among the best of these is GovPurchase (https://govpurchase.com/) , which offers free trials.

Now it’s time to focus on COMPETITIVE INTELLIGENCE

·       Is this an incumbent’s re-compete?

Again, FBO.com or a subscription database will give the answer. Most of the time, so will an agency’s own website, under “Current Contracts” or something similar.  But so might an ordinary Google search, provided you know the contract number.  And if your target contract is the present contract holder’s re-compete, it ups the competitive ante.  Incumbents are hard to beat, and don’t listen to anybody who tells you otherwise.

·       Who were the previous contractors?  Who’ll try to take the contract away from the incumbent?

FBO.gov contains archives of older and expired contracts.  Learn the contract numbers for previous iterations of the current contract, and you just might learn who your best teaming partner(s) would be – the previous contract holder(s)!

·       Dive deep into the agency’s website(s).  Then find news and stories about them from the trade press and government-oriented websites and magazines. Contact people you know who might understand the agency’s wants and needs.

OK, you’re ready to bid.  You’ve seen the Draft RFP and sent in questions for clarification.  You’ve attended the opportunity’s Industry Day and met some of the agency’s procurement team.  You’re getting close to a Go or No-Go decision.  But you still have one all-important question to ask: IF WE WIN, WILL WE MAKE MONEY?

Given the contract type, can we price our bid to win?

A “cost-plus-fee” contract means just what it says.  The vendor is reimbursed for allowed expenses, plus an agreed-upon fee on a sliding scale.  The smarter the vendor is with taxpayer money, the more likely the agency will OK a fee near the top of the scale.  A “fixed-price” contract, on the other hand, shifts all the risk to the vendor;  you bid one price for the whole job, and it you exceed it, you’re stuck for the overage..

·       Can we structure our proposed staff to grow without exploding costs?

One of the leading reasons why incumbents lose their contracts is because of cost-creep. Over time, as salaries, rent and other costs rise, so will an incumbent’s rates to the customer.  This is why contractors need to plan for the future so that their rates stay under control.  One method of fighting salary-creep is to offer employees larger bonuses and smaller raises.  Your accountant can help you out with more tips.

·       If contract is an IDIQ, BPA or Task-Order contract, how much task-order business can we expect to receive from the prime?

The teaming agreement you sign with your prime may or may not specify a hard-and-fast share of the work.  Chances are it won’t, because there are too many unknowns going forward.  So your best bet is to NOT bet the company on a windfall from a task-order contract. Instead, perform with excellence on any task that comes your way; do that often enough and your company will become the “go-to-guy” on future tasks.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Finally, there’s the proverbial “$64,000 Question:”  CAN WE WIN?

“Should” we win?  Of course!  We’re smart people and we work hard.

“Might” we win?  Sure.  I never knew a winner who didn’t bet.

“Will” we win?  Not if your competitors have anything to say about it.

But CAN We win?  Yes, you can, provided:

1.     You do your advance work well enough to understand the customer agency’s real problems and needs, and have a plan to address them specifically.

2.     You price your proposal in line with the contract type, duration, risks and complexity.

3.     You understand that government evaluators don’t care about your claims, your bragging or the photo of your CEO hoisting the Chamber of Commerce’s 2006 “Good Sport” Award.  Wordsmithing and a flashy proposal layout don’t win contracts.  The evaluators will make an award based on: 

1) how you propose to do the job,

2) who’s going to do the work,

3) the past performance that proves you can do it, along with the specific numbers that back up your claims to excellence, and

4) your proposal’s full compliance with all of the RFP’s “shalls, wills and musts.”

In short -- Yes, you can do it if you put in the advance work, keep it real, and play it straight. Good luck.