Subcontracting: Think About Joining a Team

By Tom Ewing

Is subcontracting right for you? That question, and its many possibilities, comes up frequently during even casual research into bidding on government contracts. As noted in previous columns, the US General Services Administration (GSA) and the Small Business Administration offer plenty of links, and encouragement, providing “how to” introductions about pursuing work as a subcontractor.

In a past column I mentioned the Coast Guard’s document “Doing Business With the Coast Guard” as a good reference for initial inquiries about federal contracts. Importantly, that document also contains links about subcontracting opportunities. For example, see page 17, the 3rd item, 4th bullet: “DHS Strategic Sourcing Contract Holder.” That paragraph includes a link to “strategic sourcing” which lists names of prime contract holders, companies that can be contacted regarding subcontracting work.

This can sound somewhat easy, but like any other business effort, success won’t happen just from checking the boxes. Be prepared to do your homework and stay patient. To be honest, I’ve hit more dead ends inquiring about subcontracting than the bigger, more general issue of contracting. That could be because of COVID-19, of course. In the past few months, Agency officials were likely giving more time and attention to business queries than press queries.

A good place to start your subcontracting research is with GSA’s subcontracting website. Note that the site actually covers four basic business-to-business partnerships:

  • Subcontracting – perhaps the most familiar of the B2B arrangements, and the focus of this column. Subcontracting allows businesses to sell to the government by partnering with a business already on a contracting schedule.

The GSA site also references three other B2B partnerships, just briefly noted here because they reference contractual work not likely to be undertaken by novice companies. The partnerships are:

  • A joint venture – when separate businesses pool resources to complete a project.
  • A contractor team arrangement – when two or more approved GSA contractors work together to fulfill a contract; and,
  • The mentor-protégé program.

There are two upfront, important reminders from GSA’s Office of Small Business Utilization (OSBU): (1) The Agency will provide guidance on forming partnerships, but it does not provide direct oversight. If things go wrong, it’s your problem. Be aware of that before committing to a deal with another company. (2) A business looking to work as a subcontractor has to make the outreach to a prime contractor. Also important, the prime (contractor) makes final decisions. GSA cannot require a prime to partner with any particular business.

To find a prime, GSA recommends starting with its Subcontracting Directory. This downloads as an Excel spreadsheet including company names and, importantly, a phone number. Unfortunately, it does not include a contact person and his/her email, but you may be able to find that information from the company’s website.

Another good resource is GSA’s group of Small Business Technical Advisors, which provide assistance to small businesses on how to market their products and services to the primes listed in the Subcontracting Directory. The Advisors provide outreach, training and counseling. They are advocates for small and disadvantaged businesses, including woman-owned, veteran-owned, service disabled veteran-owned and Hubzone firms.

Marketing. Marketing. Marketing. That’s a core instruction from experts advising businesses seeking a subcontracting partnership. A company has to get its name and specific skills in front of the right decision-makers. Note the basic service of the Technical Advisors, above – assistance on how to market products and services to prime contractors.

In March I referenced the work of the federal PTACs – the Procurement Technical Assistance Centers located in all fifty states. A blog post from the PTAC in Iowa, by former staffer Beth White (now with the US Army Corp of Engineers) provides some great ideas for actionable steps regarding subcontracting. White’s column – “Subcontracting Opportunities and How to Find Them” – suggests eight critical tasks that can go a long way to securing a successful subcontracting relationship. Here’s a summary:

1. Identify the major prime contractors currently working for Federal agencies (again, use the Subcontracting Directory mentioned above, or contact PTAC) to help identify where your company can logically fit in. For example, a smaller concrete company may seek out larger construction companies recently awarded a federal contract.

2. Become familiar with a prime’s past work history and its main mission, vision and market.

3. Research its small business and diversity initiatives. Does it actively seek to engage with small or minority businesses? If so, determine how the company’s outreach works and determine how you can best link up.

4. Identify the company’s Small Business Liaison Officer or Diversity Officer, normally the person or office responsible for managing subcontracting plans and, in larger companies, managing diversity/small business plans.

5. Contact the person you identified. Realize that it may take some effort to fully engage them. Use the same marketing tactics you would for a Government customer. More specifically, White advises:

  • Have a targeted capabilities statement ready, identify the areas where you could best assist;
  • Note specific projects that they worked on (based on your research) and discuss where you would be an asset;
  • Ensure you are active in, and that your profile is complete.
  • Don’t lead with your specific small business status, but rather include that as the “icing on the cake”.
  • Ask specific questions about identifying bidding opportunities.

6. Follow up. White comments: “Remember that marketing is an investment, and your return will depend upon what you put into it. Just as with a government agency, there is one of them and thousands of you, so you have to make sure you do what it takes to make them know YOU.”

7. Follow the company on LinkedIn and link with the firm’s employees. This will build your network and increase communication possibilities. Check your contact list for shared contacts.

8. White writes that many large companies actively look to partner with smaller businesses. Her point: Look for databases and networking opportunities offered by federal agencies and large corporations.

Take advantage of open doors and pathways!

Tom Ewing is a freelance writer specializing in energy, environmental and related regulatory issues.

By Pacific Maritime