Spend ten minutes reading this guide and make fewer mistakes when actively bidding. We cover the following topics in order:
What to Expect
What do Public, Quasi-Public, and Private (Invite-Only) Entities Actually Want?
Contract Values and Project Purpose
Submission and Post-Submission
“But we’re brand new to the bidding process and will be starting from virtually nothing. Do we still have a chance of winning, especially without a relationship with the purchaser?”
“We would need a prior relationship with that purchaser… wouldn’t we?”
Fortunately, and rather consistently, newcomers to government contracting win. Sometimes, they even surprise themselves by investing in a proposal, spending a few thousand dollars, and come out the other end with a state-wide or multi-million-dollar contract. The likelier scenario is one where surprise isn’t particularly in the equation. By knowing as much as you can about the process, and about the buyer or group of buyers on the other side of the evaluating table, the more informed (and better positioned) you’ll be next time. And there is always a next time.
Bidding isn’t just a singular event. One could instead say that it's the sustained and often grueling application of tools/strategies/knowledge with some luck mixed in.
Bidding isn’t just a person’s job, but a generational investment. Like growing a tree, or insert any child-raising metaphor here.
“We want to submit one bid and see what happens…”
“We’ll just partner with a nonprofit and be an automatic shoo-in.”
If you were to poll business owners, founders, and other contractors after one year of their contracting journey, what would they say to expect? How about 10 years? The average of their statements would boil down to this:
Expect GovCon to change.
Expect close, second place finishes and race-to-the-bottom mentalities.
Expect inconsistent purchaser styles, communication frequencies, and preferences.
Expect 60-90 days to go by without receiving your first invoice after the NOA (Notice of Award).
One thing that is pervasive is the amount of noise in the contracting space. White noise is everywhere, and comes from every consultant corner, SaaS, and LinkedIn group. Being able to filter out the noise and avoid jumping around (or paying whatever service promises the best returns) will prove immensely valuable later on. The best starting strategy does not involve 50 steps, but sometimes just one. Go after no-brainer RFPs with reasonable contract values and stay focused; that’s the secret.
Oh, there’s more? Yes.
“Just hired a writer so we’ll be set for the next few months.”
“We’re on the GSA schedule….now what?”
Everyone goes into the first steps section thinking, “I know what the first steps to contracting are. I’ve done the research on SBA.gov and SAM.gov…”
Before getting started, we recommend the following:
Avoid the urge to immediately hire a writer.
Ask yourself: “Am I going to still be here after 10-20-30-40 or 50 losses?,” “Can my company survive with zero wins after 6 months?,” What do I ultimately want?”
Make sure you have five strong references from the last three years.
Make sure you understand the competition, what their proposals look like, and how they’re pricing similar services.
Read up on the foundations of capture management.
Determine how many submissions your company will make every week (at least an average). Commit to a number of weekly submissions, not to an end date, win ratio, or any other variable. This ensures momentum and healthy pipeline movement; it trains you and your team to say No Bid more often, flushing out unnecessary distractions.
Speak to a few public purchasers on the phone (this is a nice segue into our next section).
“We’re shocked that you can just change a project scope like that...we didn’t know they took alternative suggestions so easily.”
99% of active projects with an RFP began from a pain somewhere, either from resident taxpayers, or internally, within the purchasing entity. They want the pain to disappear. This is different from grant funding and allocations.
The RFP is a paraphrasing of “their pain” (the project scope) and spells out how to fix this. It’s more efficient than your company attending dozens of council meetings, meeting with aggrieved stakeholders, etc. Learning to read RFPs, and to synthesize purchaser pain points by examining the Scope of Work is critical to developing a compelling proposal response.
Address the RFP first. Primarily, this is what these entities want. Make sure that you’re compliant, and that you’ve met all of the minimum requirements set forth by the purchaser. That’s your foothold when evaluation time rolls around. Then, once everything is checked off administratively, go through the higher-level purpose and suggest some creative options to fixing what may exist beyond the scope of the RFP. “Option A and Option B” pricing is one example of this. Adding an “Added Value” section is another example. Try to address genuine solutions to the problem that the purchaser may not have considered, and make them part of your overall value.
What they don’t want:
A pre-RFP proposal with fully fleshed out approaches, methodologies, pricing, etc.
Vague promises, boilerplate commitments, and a “nationwide capacity” when a lower overhead or smaller local team would suffice.
Five different phone numbers when one contact would make communication more expedient during the pre-contract phase.
Hundreds of pages of marketing materials, brochures, and other filler content. Make every piece of communication essential.
“We didn’t know you could find contract values or budgets...”
It’s tempting to leap towards the million-dollar projects with five year terms, options, adjustments built in, travel expenses covered, etc. However, they are venus fly traps for your bidding team.
Estimated contract values should be used (as one data point) to create a goal post for your capture phase. For example, a web development company with zero knowledge of government contracting, but with five years of experience and 10+ people on the team, should be going after smaller contracts first. They should construct the goal posts around ~$100K and ~$350K to remain competitive. Going beyond this will mean competing with larger enterprises and SMBs with more experience. Saturation and a lower chance of shortlisting awaits you if you step over your company’s contact value fence.
Project purpose is another overlooked variable. When reading an RFP, we recommend an extremely scrutinizing read (or multiple readings) of the purpose. This section is sometimes kept concise, but you can read between the lines. A close reading will tell you if the purchaser prioritizes this procurement, when to expect the NOA, if you can request a deposit (like in certain creative industries), and more. Every piece of information gleaned from this section is a data point that your competition is probably overlooking.
We also recommend prioritizing purchaser flexibility, and a commitment to collaboration, over contract values. We’ve seen newcomers in the GovCon space bid on projects with high contract values, only to win and find out that the risk, oversight, and lack of flexibility on the purchaser’s side makes the contract more trouble than it’s worth.
“What’s capture management?”
“How do you find this stuff?”
Scouting for bids and scanning through them to gauge viability can take several hours each day. We’ve seen business owners completely exhausted by this necessary task. The cumulative and massive opportunity cost of refusing to outsource the capture phase is one of the leading reasons why businesses do not succeed in this space.
Outsourcing the capture process will save you time and energy. Instead of reading through dozens, even hundreds, of document pages to only find a handful opportunities which you aren't even sure about, working with an analyst who understands the world of GovCon will help guide you to the opportunities that would best fit your organization.
Capture Management is more than just allowing an analyst to tell you when the deadline is and listing the Scope of Work in bullet points, however.
A true capture management expert will become the bridge in communication between you and the purchaser, and help you gather data points that allow you to make quick bidding decisions with the whole picture in view.
They are the first to lean on the power of questioning. Questions and the Q&A phase are extremely underrated across all industries. You may have an interesting new take or solution not originally intended for the procurement, but may be unsure about its acceptability (so ask!). If the purchaser agrees, you have a viable bid to pursue. It's not unheard of for contract scopes to be augmented, and even deadlines extended, simply because someone asked.
If you feel ready to explore capture alternatives, we have a questionnaire for you.
“Our company sent out 10+ proposals last year and didn’t hear back on a single one. What did we do wrong?”
Merely “writing a proposal” does not encapsulate everything in the development phase. There are considerations to be made both before and after submission.
Considerations before submission of the quote/proposal:
Are you addressing the full scope or part of the scope of work? Purchasers are usually flexible around receiving partial scope solutions, but you should also check first.
Does the purchaser have a realistic expectation concerning the performance of the contract? Does the project schedule seem reasonable?
Did you review addendums and adjust your response to any relevant information the purchaser released?
Is your response aesthetically pleasing to the eye? You don’t need a graphic designer, but something as simple as printing your price sheet and having the numbers line up can go a long way and avoid any misunderstandings.
Look at the insurance mandates prior to giving an opportunity a ‘Go’, not once you’ve secured the win.
An early submission is always encouraged, if possible. Early submissions sometimes receive early feedback and chances to course correct.
Considerations after submission of the quote/proposal:
Try to gain an understanding of the evaluation timeline, NOA expected date, etc. “Under evaluation” could mean several things; always ask for clarification.
Second place in pricing and best value could easily be a win if the lowest bidder fails to pass the subsequent evaluation rounds.
You want to understand why you were chosen or not chosen as the recommended vendor (awardee). Better to ask for a narrative of non-pricing related reasons than merely ask the why question.
Always submit a pre-FOIA request prior to the official or formal request. This makes it easier on the public purchaser working behind the scenes. You might also get all of the electronic versions of the bid documents quicker than otherwise.
Keep a loss/win in your pipeline for future reference. You never know when this may turn into something in six months time.