Success with the 8a Program: Plan Ahead

jay-newkirk-business-consulting-government-contractingThe Small Business Administration (SBA) has in place a number of small disadvantaged business categories that were designated by the Small Business Act of July 30, 1953. The SBA has developed programs to support these companies so they can succeed and grow in the highly competitive government contracting environment. The categories include: Woman Owned Small Business, Economically Disadvantaged Woman Owned Small Business, Veteran Owned Small Business, Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business, HUBZone, and 8(a) Program Minority Owned Small Business.

While I will be discussing successfully graduating from the 8a program in this blog, the SBA provides information on graduation from the other designated programs at their SBA website. So, now let’s discuss successfully graduating from the 8a Program.

Defining the SBA’s 8a Program

The 8(a) Program takes its name from one of the sections of the Small Business Act discussed above that authorizes it. A company holding the SBA’s 8a Certification is one being sponsored by the SBA with an agreement to provide a nine-year business development program that offers training, counseling, marketing, and technical assistance. The goal of the program is to have the 8a firm grow successfully then graduate and go on and thrive in an open competitive business environment. The 8a certification is intended for organizations that are owned and controlled at least 51% by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, and Native Americans who are socially and economically disadvantaged.

My Personal 8(a) Graduation Experience

In earlier blogs, I’ve discussed my jointly forming Computer Systems Technology, Inc. (CST) with a close friend, Bobby Bradley, who is an African American woman. Two years after launching CST we applied and were certified as an SBA 8a company.

We had already set a goal to build a competitive and fast-growing enterprise, and the 8a certification supported that goal and objective. So, we entered the program and responded to the government’s SBA program setting aside small business opportunities for 8a companies. We had success in our responses and after only six years in the program we had grown to over 600 people with annual revenues exceeding $60M which resulted in us reaching the maximum revenue level that would allow us to remain in the program so we were granted an SBA early 8a graduation.

Successfully Graduating from the 8a Program

During CST’s time in the program, statistics showed that some 8a companies had become dependent on the program which resulted in their companies failing following their requirement to graduate from the 8a program after nine years. Since CST had successfully grown and graduated from the program in six years, the SBA 8a Program leadership had designated us as basically their  poster child company and asked us to share our experience with ongoing 8a companies, which we’ve done over the years.

So, what did we do that led to that successful outcome? We first paid attention and actively participated in the training, counseling, marketing, and technical assistance that was made available to us by the SBA. Also, our leadership team and all our contract program managers (PMs) participated in the SBA’s 8a supportive activities.

Since several of our contracts’ PMs were leading efforts that had been won under the 8a program, we had to prepare to win the recompete contracts outside of the program. So, we saw it coming and started preparing for it early. One of the most important accomplishments in that preparation was to search for and find a non-8a government competitive contract vehicle we could get in place before graduating. We found several and selected one which we began pursuing early to position ourselves competitively. The contract was an SBA full and open Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract with a $100M dollar funding celling.

The strategic approach we took to position ourselves to compete for this contract represents important activities that you need to follow today in positioning yourself for successfully winning a competitive government contract in general.

We first learned who the key SBA decision makers were and where they were located. We learned that they were the SBA’s Southeast Regional Directorate located in Atlanta, Georgia, and that the director happened to be a woman. Bobby went there for a visit and established a positive relationship with the director which resulted in her encouraging us to bid on her contract.

We were able to locate a copy of the then-current ongoing contract and identified who the active incumbents were. That enabled us to study their organizational structure, find out who their PMs were, and to learn something about their performance on the contract. When the Request for Proposal (RFP) was released it came to Bobby directly from the director who shared that, in the past, they had not opened the bidding to small contractors. And she again encouraged Bobby to submit a bid.

Long story short, we submitted a proposal and the outcome was that GSA awarded us a contract to support three out of their nine regional states in IT support for five years. Being one of the winners of that IDIQ contract gave us a vehicle we could offer all our current 8a won contracts’ decision makers as a way to get to us as their contracts came up for re-bid. In addition, we responded to almost every task order that came out of the IDIQ contract and won many of them, including the ones on which we were the incumbent. That IDIQ contract win was one of the keys to our successful 8a graduation as well as helping us achieve a successful liquidity event.

This CST success anecdote is not intended to be self-serving about our accomplishment. Instead, my goal for sharing it is to help you learn about the value of planning ahead relative to business development and success approaches in general—that is, plan ahead and position yourself competitively early, meet with potential contracts and technical points of contact, and research your competition, all of which are prerequisites to government contracting success.

What has been your experience in successfully pursuing and winning contracts? What do you believe led to your wins? What has been your experience with the 8a Program? Feel free to comment below.