For an uninitiated commercial business, breaking into federal contracting can be confusing, complicated—even labyrinthian. Mississippi Enterprise for Technology (MSET)’s mission is to use their technical knowledge of the federal contracting space to help these types of businesses succeed. MSET’s Affiliate Program provides member businesses the educational resources, networking opportunities, and consulting services they need to bid on federal contracts.
ComSolutions, an all-in-one business technology services provider based in Covington, Louisiana, is a prime example of a commercial business that has taken full advantage of the resources available to them as an MSET Affiliate member. By frequently participating in MSET’s educational programming and networking opportunities, as well as consulting MSET during the bidding process, ComSolutions has significantly grown their federal contracting division.
Louis Schwall, Executive Director of Technology, and Lance Lalanne, Senior Technology Executive from ComSolutions spoke about working with MSET.
Laura Daniels, owner and president of ComSolutions, had interest in the federal contracting space. As a woman-owned small business, ComSolutions is eligible for a number of government certifications that allow them to compete for set-aside government contracts. She worked to certify ComSolutions as an 8(a) small business, Woman-Owned Small Business (WOSB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE).
Louis Schwall and Lance Lalanne were brought on to help ComSolutions build their government contracting division from the ground up. While skilled in commercial B2B, the division had no experience in the federal contracting space.
The Problem With Government Contract Consultants
ComSolutions began their journey as many businesses with contracting ambitions do. They sought assistance from government contracting consultants. And while the consultants that they met with had them do a lot of busy work, none of it led to a single contract.
“We would have consultants come in saying that they’re winners with great tricks and tons of contacts. Every week we would have these work-in-progress meetings, and they would come out with this list of jobs we were trying to bid on,” Louis said. “After educating ourselves, we realized that we never had a chance to win any of those jobs. It’s like telling your kids to go and pick up sticks in the yard. It doesn’t really amount to much, except a few piles of sticks. We realized that we were just being given busy work.”
These consultants only provided ComSolutions with easily found public information, and the consultants didn’t mind wasting their time. Louis added, “The consultants got paid a flat fee, so it didn’t matter to them. The longer they could keep us with them, the more money they would make. They put us through time-wasting events. Our time could have better spent learning.”
ComSolutions decided to remove their consultants and focus on a re-set.
Education and Networking With PTAC
ComSolutions then tried another approach—local networking. Cynthia Carrier, Program Manager of the Louisiana Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) in Lafayette, hosted small business networking and education events such as “How to Write a Government Contract” and “Proper Formatting for Government Contracts” that Louis and Lance would regularly attend.
Louis said, “Lance and I were basically starting from scratch. So, I said let’s go and hit the ground running. We attended every single event that we could.”
Introduction to MSET
Cynthia suggested that ComSolutions acquaint themselves with MSET and meet Program Director, Laurie Jugan. They joined MSET’s mailing list, attended one of its promoted events, and introduced themselves to Laurie. Louis said, “Once I heard the philosophy of MSET and the people in charge, I quickly realized we wanted to team up with MSET. We joined and became an affiliate after attending just a few networking events.”
Then the team met with Davis Pace, MSET’s President and CEO. Louis added, “When Davis came along, he was one of the few leaders of an organization that really impressed me. He took the time to invite us over for coffee to connect and learn about what we do. He also told us about his vision for us and how he could help us grow. That made a huge impact on us and our decision to connect with MSET.”
“It’s not a cold business relationship. They welcome you in. In a lot of government places, you’re just another one of a thousand contractors who want their business. Some people will treat you like you are number 998, and they are going to see another 500 more after they talk to you,” Louis continued. “At MSET, it’s a lot different. You’re always welcome, and you almost feel like you’re a part of their family. I think that helps us feel more comfortable in an overwhelming space.”
“MSET gives you a wealth of knowledge, all rolled into one package, with consultants that you would normally pay hundreds of dollars per hour.”
MSET Benefits for ComSolutions
Events, Classes & Webinars
Frequently, attendees will arrive thinking that MSET events are primarily for networking, but they will also be met with a very educational presentation. Lance said, “MSET is an untapped reserve of resources. It’s amazing what they have available… MSET really taught us how to foster relationships and win contracts just based on our technical experience. Laurie at MSET really accelerated our group’s progress.”
“Once at an MSET event that featured contracting officers as speakers, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to the speakers afterwards,” Louis said. “I gave them my card and told them I’d love the opportunity to meet. From that brief interaction, we developed a professional relationship and were awarded our 8(a) contract.”
ComSolutions began attending networking events in mid-2018. “We were winning a few contracts through 2018-2019—even some within the federal space at the Stennis location,” said Louis. “That was great because we saw MSET’s knowledge in action, and we were able to discuss with them how to handle these contracts, moving us towards continued success.”
ComSolutions has also noticed a cascading effect within the government space by making important networking connections. “Conversations and networking are an important step in our business development. It’s great when someone recognizes you at the business conference and gives you the opportunity to make connections. It may not mean we win a contract, but our work is getting noticed, and we are making important connections for the future,” Louis continued. “Next thing you know, we’re getting phone calls for state and local business.”
Professionals and companies that ComSolutions met at conferences would be astounded with their technical knowledge of federal contracting. Louis added, “They thought we were in this space for years, and that we were this huge corporation. I would have to tell them that we started only last year.”
MSET introduced ComSolutions to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs from the Small Business Administration (SBA). SBIR and STTR comprise a portion of government contracts. MSET introduced ComSolutions to SBIR/STTR expert Vic Johnson, director of the Louisiana Technology Transfer Office at Stennis Space Center. ComSolutions attends weekly webinars on SBIR/STTR to market themselves for these contracts.
Through essential conversations with MSET, ComSolutions learned about bonding, federal requirements, business philosophy, and security requirements in their RFPs and RFQs. MSET taught them that, for federal proposals, words and attention to detail are critical. Bidders who do not follow every instruction are simply not awarded contracts.
“Laurie’s wealth of knowledge and the folks that surround her helped us stay on course. They told us not to worry if we lose a bid, and they encouraged us to request a debrief,” Louis said. That way, ComSolutions could learn the reasons why they were not awarded certain contracts.
MSET also encouraged ComSolutions to attend pre-bid walk-throughs, even if they decided not to bid. Louis said, “Walk-throughs give you valuable experience. It’s sort of like taking a mock test before the actual test. It also gets rid of the jitters, and you become more accustomed to the process.”
MSET helps regional businesses save money by helping them bid locally. Flights to make on-site visits for RFQs and RFIs in Washington, DC, for example, add up. Louis said, “That’s an expensive trip for a smaller company, especially if the percentage winning the bid is 33 percent or less.” By bidding locally, businesses in the Gulf Coast region can travel to numerous government offices on only a quarter tank of gas.
Federal Contracting Etiquette
Federal government entities abide by specific, rigid protocols that commercial businesses do not. Learning this etiquette can be a steep learning curve for businesses hoping to land federal contracts. Thanks to MSET, ComSolutions learned proper B2G etiquette to properly foster these business relationships.
“We learned what to do and what not to do in certain business scenarios. When you’re in a federal space, you don’t go about it the same as you would in a business space,” Louis explains. “I had to understand, even with greetings and salutations, there is a designed protocol. There is a place for you, but stay in your lane if you want to avoid being pushed to the side.”
Bid-Hit Ratio Improvement
MSET encouraged ComSolutions to build their win rate. A business resume needs to show experience and performance in order for large entities to hire you. “We intentionally took a few smaller contracts because we needed to build up a win rate,” Louis said. “They don’t want to see what we almost won—they want to see wins. When you build a good path of performance, they will give you a longer look and a longer discussion each time you come to the table.”
Reputations & Recommendations
ComSolutions learned to build a great reputation. “There are companies out there with the goal to exploit a specific portion of the federal industry. While not illegal, it does take away from true businesses who are competing in that same space,” Louis said. “We focus on building a positive reputation and on having long-lasting relationships with general contracting officers and other federal agencies.”
MSET taught ComSolutions about the importance of recommendations. In government contracting, a warm recommendation goes further than a cold call. Louis continued, “Even if it doesn’t lead to a contract, it’s a foot in the door that gives us the opportunity to say that we appreciate them and are here for the long haul.”
ComSolutions went from 0 percent wins to 20-30 percent within a year and a half of becoming an affiliate member of MSET. They have won and completed federal contracts for NASA, Naval Supply Systems Command, the Department of the Navy, the US Army, and the US Department of Transportation.
As the government begins to re-open post COVID-19, ComSolutions intends to continue to grow their federal contracting division. Louis said, “Even today, there are still things currently out of our grasp, but we’re working towards it with MSET.”
Join MSET’s Affiliate Program
If you are a business looking for federal procurement opportunities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, consider joining MSET’s affiliate program. To learn more about how MSET’s services can help your organization, contact us today.