If you're the head of a small business and you want to move from the commercial market to the government, here are some ways to avoid getting voted off the island in the process.
First, stock up. You'll need money to weather the first long buying cycle. Beg from investors, borrow from friends, but have enough in the bank to last you one lean year, consultant Sandy Levine said.
Even when you've signed your first contract, the money won't flow in immediately, said Barbara Waite, president of Windwalker Corp. Expect to wait 90 days or more after billing before the first payment arrives.
Understand the government's needs and figure out how your product can meet them. If it can't, try to tweak it until it can. That should be your new sales pitch, said Jeanne O'Kelley, president and chief executive officer of Blueprint Technologies Inc.
"I think we did a combination of things that worked well," she said. "We rebranded the company. I read the President's Management Agenda and mapped our capabilities back to what the government was looking for. And I changed our story from a commercial story to a government story."
"Everything doesn't translate," Levine said. "The government is largely enterprise oriented. So, the first step needs to be [to ask], 'Are there government organizations that can use my technology?'"
Don't try to serve two masters, O'Kelley and Waite said. Small companies usually lack the resources to meet the needs of commercial and government markets. At one point, Windwalker had a 50/50 balance and, consequently, had almost two separate workforces trying to meet the differing needs.
Be alert for opportunities, said Marsha Malone, vice president for government sales at System Management ARTS Inc. Although still primarily a commercial company, it has seized opportunities in the federal government by being prepared and ready. "When the first opportunity presented itself with the Air Force, they looked at the requirements and said, 'This describes our capabilities perfectly,'" Malone said.
Find some trusted advisers who can demystify the government's complexity, Levine said. "The government is a very complex machine," she said. "It's many different organizations and it's many different levels. It takes time to figure out where to go."