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"Smallworld"

Integrators are most comfortable working with companies they've worked with before, companies whose capabilities they can count on. Today, more small companies than ever are trying to get into the federal market, driven by declining private-sector sales. Breaking in can be tough, but it's possible.

Some companies are lucky enough to be absorbed, such as Base 2 Technologies Inc. in Silver Spring, Md. The small firm was working on a Justice Department contract when Unisys Corp. took it over, said Marlin Newell, Base 2's president. "Because of the timing, they took us on as a subcontractor," he said. "It was convenient for us to stay on the project at the time," and that launched a relationship that led to additional work.

There are options for companies with no government involvement at all, though. Representatives should attend regional networking events. Companies often run mentor/protege programs, and so does the Small Business Administration. A good private-sector track record will help a small firm make its case for federal work.

"Something that really impresses us is when they win awards" from organizations such as SBA, said Edward Weil Reyes, manager of supplier diversity at Unisys. "A company that achieves those awards would get our attention." Unisys began working with a company called SCI Consulting Inc. after it received awards from the Treasury Department and SBA, he said.

"It's really playing the numbers," said Laura Mangoba, founder and chief technology officer at Avatar Systems Development Inc. in Great Falls, Va. "You have to go to the open networking things; you have to get your foot in the door. I hate to say it's who you know, but it really is."

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